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1. Air Superiority -- The Concept

Air superiority is a necessity. Since the German attack on Poland in 1939, no country has won a war in the face of enemy air superiority, no major offensive has succeeded against an opponent who controlled the air, and no defense has sustained itself against an enemy who had air superiority. Conversely, no state has lost a war while it maintained air superiority, and attainment of air superiority consistently has been a prelude to military victory. It is vital that national and theater commanders, their air component commanders, and their surface component commanders be aware of these historical facts, and plan accordingly.6

To be superior in the air, to have air superiority, means having sufficient control of the air to make air attacks on the enemy without serious opposition and, on the other hand, to be free from the danger of serious enemy air incursions. Of course, variations exist within the category of air superiority.

Air Supremacy Allows Operations Anywhere

For example, air supremacy means the ability to operate air forces anywhere without opposition. Local air superiority gives basic air freedom of movement over a limited area for a finite period of time. Theater air superiority, or supremacy, means that friendly air can operate any place within the entire combat theater. Air neutrality suggests that neither side has won sufficient control of the air to operate without great danger. We also have a condition we might call defensive air superiority -- in which enemy air cannot operate over some part of one's territory, and where one's own air force (if one exists) is equally unable to operate against the enemy.

This situation could arise if a state were able to create a sufficiently strong ground-based air defense system. To date, no ground system has given this degree of protection, but it is theoretically possible.

The contention that air superiority is a necessity to ensure victory or avoid defeat is based on theory and on an analysis of the last half century of warfare. Theory alone would suggest that surface warfare cannot possibly succeed if the surface forces and their support are under constant attack by enemy aircraft. And, indeed, the theory is supported by copious historical examples, a few of which should suffice to make the point.

Germany destroyed Poland's air force in the first days of the campaign. From then on, the Germans were able to use their air forces to interdict, to attack ground troops, and to soften positions for subsequent movement on the ground.7
Nine months later, Germany did the same thing in France, when the Luftwaffe won air superiority in two days.8
The attack on Russia in June 1941 was a classic example of seizing air superiority with massive, violent attacks. The Germans capitalized on their air superiority by moving ground forces unprecedented distances up to the late fall, when weather and failure to follow up on the initial air victories helped bring the great offensive to a halt.9

The attack on Russia had followed, and was a function of, Germany's failure to win the Battle of Britain and thereby establish the air superiority which was a prerequisite for invasion.10 The invasion of Russia was the last instance when Germany was able to establish air superiority over an opponent. It was the last strategic offensive Germany was to make before her own homeland lay devastated and occupied.

On the other side in World War II, the Western Allies achieved air superiority before German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's last offensive at Alam Halfa. Rommel observed that "anyone who has to fight, even with the most modern weapons, against an enemy in complete control of the air, fights like a savage against a modern European army."11

Rommel subsequently made a similar comment about the situation in Sicily and in Italy. "Strength on the ground was not unfavorable to us," Rommel said. "It's simply that their superiority in the air and in ammunition is overwhelming, the same as it was in Africa."12

The value of air superiority was even clearer in the Normandy invasion. Von Rundstedt, the German commander in France during the invasion, reported, "The Allied Air Force paralyzed all movement by day, and made it very difficult even by night."13

In the summer of 1944, the Allies gained control over the skies above Germany. By the end of the war, the situation was so bad, because of the incessant bombing permitted by having control of the air, that the Germans had no fuel for their airplanes and only enough gas to give a tank enough for it to make one attack.14

Lest it be argued that World War II is ancient history and thus no longer applicable, consider a few cases from wars since then.

In Korea, Lieutenant General Nam Il, the chief representative of the North Koreans at the armistice talks, remarked in a moment of candor, "It is owing to your strategic air effort of indiscriminate bombing of our area, rather than to your tactical air effort of direct support to the front lines, that your ground forces are able to maintain barely and temporarily their present position."15

The "indiscriminate bombing" to which General Nam Il referred was a direct consequence of air superiority all the way to the Yalu River.

The Israelis have well illustrated the power of air superiority.

In 1967, the Israelis destroyed the Egyptian and Syrian air forces on 5 June and then proceeded to lay waste the Egyptian army in the Sinai, where Israeli command of the air had made life intolerable for the Egyptian soldier.16
Six years later, the victors of 1967 paid a terrible price for not gaining air superiority in the first phase of the war. Only after recognizing the need to suppress enemy missile systems -- their primary barrier to air superiority -- were they able to turn the tide of battle and go on to win the war.17

Finally, the North Vietnamese were unable to conduct a successful conventional offensive as long as American air power was stationed in Indochina. Only after the Americans had left was the North able to mount a decisive ground offensive into South Vietnam. In this case, South Vietnamese air attempted little and was easily repulsed by North Vietnamese mobile ground-based air defense systems.18

As air played no significant role in the invasion for either side, the ensuing action was essentially as it would have been before the era of the aircraft.

Air Superiority Crucial to Success

In affairs such as war that are only roughly subject to scientific analysis, and where so much depends on the human element, a hypothesis is virtually impossible to prove. However, if one argues that air superiority is crucial to success (as the weight of historical evidence overwhelmingly suggests), then explaining how the operational commander goes about achieving it becomes necessary.

If air superiority is accepted as the first goal, then clearly all operations must be subordinated -- to the extent required -- to its attainment. This observation is not meant to suggest that no operation be undertaken until air superiority is won. It does, however, mean that no other operation should be commenced if it is going to jeopardize the primary mission, or is going to use forces that should be used to attain air superiority. As with most things, exceptions abound, although when it seems most obvious that the rule should be disobeyed, it is most likely that it should not be.

One may be in such dire straits, brought about perhaps by a surprise attack, that no choice is available but to throw everything into the breach in a desperate gamble to buy some time, or to save some strategically important entity.

The Israelis were faced with this kind of problem in 1973, when they were surprised by both the Syrian and Egyptian attacks.

The Egyptian attack was not immediately threatening, but the Israelis judged the Syrian attack as very dangerous. The Israeli high command committed aircraft against the Syrian ground forces, even though the enemy had defacto defensive air superiority over his own lines by virtue of his surface-to-air missile systems. As desperate as the ground situation was, the Israelis quickly realized that they could not continue to use their air force against the Syrian tanks in the absence of air superiority. Consequently, they made the missile fields the primary target, won back air superiority, and then brought the full brunt of their air force against all elements of the Syrian offensive.19
We will examine further the theory of the emergency situation in chapter 11, on planning an air campaign.

While exceptions may exist, they should not be made the basis of planning. In normal circumstances, air superiority is the first and most compelling task. One normally thinks of attaining air superiority through a combination of aircraft and surface-to-air missiles or guns. Indeed, these two elements normally will play a key role -- but by no means the only role. Army ground forces and naval surface forces can and have made major contributions to the air superiority mission. Their contribution can be even greater if they are consciously integrated into the air superiority campaign. This subject will receive expanded treatment in chapter 10, on planning, but for now a few examples will help elucidate the idea.

Hitler, in his Directive #6 For the Conduct of the War, dated 6 October 1939, noted that the Luftwaffe could not attack England from Germany because of range and fuel costs. On the other hand, Hitler noted, if Germany [occupied] the Low Countries, "in no doubt, Great Britain could be struck a mortal blow [by the Luftwaffe]." He further saw destruction of the British and French ground forces as "the main objective, the attainment of which will offer suitable conditions for the later and successful employment of the Luftwaffe [against Great Britain]."

Thus, the seizure of territory to support (and deny) air bases became a ground objective and influenced the planning that went into the attack on France.20

On a much smaller scale, the British launched a commando raid on a small German bomber unit on the island of Crete that had destroyed an inordinate amount of shipping.21

Naval forces have reversed traditional roles on more than one occasion.

In the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Israeli gunboats attacked Egyptian surface-to-air missile systems on the Egyptian left flank, to pave the way for Israeli air force movements through the opened corridor.22
Thinking that air superiority must be obtained by air means alone seriously limits commanders in their quest for victory. Attaining air superiority is not simple in either concept or execution.

To begin the process, one must necessarily know that a variety of circumstances can be available under which the air battle is joined, and one must understand one's own position before engaging. Otherwise, one possibly can fight a battle well planned for the wrong circumstances. And fighting in the wrong way at the wrong time could well be disastrous.

The following three factors can basically affect an air superiority campaign: materiel, personnel, and position.

All these factors taken together determine the framework of the battle and the options available to fight it.

The three factors can combine in such an infinite variety of permutations as to make analysis futile -- unless they are deliberately simplified and put in terms understandable by the commander or staff who must do something with them.

The Five Cases of War

To simplify analysis of the air situation, and to establish a framework for planning, we can divide most wars into one of five cases that are defined by the relationship between the opposing air forces.

In the first case, Case I, both sides have the capability and will to strike at each other's bases. This case was the situation in the Pacific in the first part of World War II, when both Japanese and Allied forces could and did strike bases behind each other's lines.

The second case, Case II, occurs when one side is able to strike its enemy anyplace, while the enemy can do little more than reach the front. Case II is typified by the Grand Alliance of the United States and Great Britain-against Germany after 1943. From that point on, the Allied air forces were able to attack Germany without fear of militarily significant ripostes by the Germans. Case II also suggests that war involves phases. A war that starts out with a particular air situation may not end with the same situation prevailing. Phasing will be discussed in subsequent chapters.

Case III is the reverse of Case II and is a dangerous situation. Here, one side is vulnerable to attack but is unable to reach the enemy. It is the situation in which Britain found herself during the Battle of Britain. She did not feel she had the capability to strike the Luftwaffe fields in France; thus, for practical purposes, German bases were safe during the two months of the battle.23

The fourth case, Case IV, describes the situation in which neither side can operate against the rear areas and air bases of the enemy, and in which air action therefore is confined to the front. Case IV is best illustrated by the Korean War, where the United States imposed on itself political constraints which prohibited operations against Chinese fields and infrastructure north of the Yalu River. The Communists, on the other hand, were unable to attack American fields effectively.

The last case, Case V, could come about through mutually agreed political constraints or because neither side had any air power. For example, proxies of two great powers might meet in a place where neither power chose to provide combat aircraft. Clearly, either side could change the rules; thus, it would be useful for participants to anticipate that possibility. Similarly, a war between two poor countries might not involve any significant air activity. Again, though, commanders on both sides would be prudent to think about what would happen if air forces did arrive.

Table 1 summarizes the five cases just discussed. Subsequent chapters will deal with each one in detail.

Table 1
Air Superiority Cases
Case     Blue Air Fields     Battle Lines **     Red Air Fields
         and Rear Areas *                        and Rear Areas

I Vulnerable Reachable Vulnerable II Safe *** Reachable **** Vulnerable III Vulnerable Reachable Safe IV Safe Reachable Safe V Safe Unreachable Safe
* Blue and Red fields encompass supporting infrastructure such as power, fuel, and command and control facilities. ** Normally the ground front, but could be a border. *** Safe means that fields are not likely to be hit either because the enemy is unable to hit them, or chooses not to do so, or they are protected by political constraints. **** When Case II progresses to its logical conclusion, Red will probably be unable to reach the battle lines.

The five cases discussed here provide an overview of the situation prevailing at the start of a campaign or phase. The commander or planner needs such an overview. However, within its context, the commander or planner must realize that variations in numbers of personnel and materiel support will affect planning significantly. Table 2 provides a simple matrix of some of the possible relationships between materiel and skilled personnel.

Table 2
Air Superiority Variables
         Skilled Personnel *     Materiel **

A Limited *** Limited B Limited Unlimited C Unlimited Limited D Unlimited **** Unlimited ****
* Skilled personnel include those whose training is long and arduous and who cannot be replaced quickly when lost. (Pilots, other aircrew, and technicians.) ** Materiel includes aircraft, missiles, manufacturing facilities, and supporting infrastructure. *** Limited and unlimited are relative to the combatants. **** Must be evaluated over time. That is, both personnel and materiel may be in short supply at the start of hostilities, but may become unlimited either through mobilization, inter-theater transfers, or outside assistance.

Air superiority variables will be addressed throughout this book. But like the air superiority cases, a brief review of historical examples should help to make the importance of these variables clear.

Illustrating the situation where both sides have had limited personnel and materiel are the Arab-Israeli wars, where the presence or absence of outside supply has affected the strategy of both sides, and in some ways has accentuated the importance of mutual limitations.

The British during the Battle of Britain offer a good example of the second situation. British aircraft production rates outstripped German production by a wide margin and also comfortably exceeded loss rates.24 However, the Royal Air Force was below establishment in pilots at the start of the conflict, and the training of new pilots failed to keep up with losses at the height of the battle.25

The situation might have been untenable had not the battle taken place over Britain, where pilots who bailed out of stricken fighters frequently were able to fly again -- in some cases even on the same day.

The United States in the 1980s typifies the third situation, of unlimited pilots and limited aircraft. Whereas the United States has huge reservoirs of pilots who saw service in Vietnam and who could be retrained quickly, it has a very fixed number of aircraft and no way to make fast, militarily significant increases in production.

The situation in which one side has comparatively unlimited materiel is illustrated by the Russian position in World War II -- although the Germans certainly didn't believe it or know it until they had been at war with the Russians for two years. The Russians lost nearly 2,000 aircraft on the first day of the war -- nearly a third of their total air force and about the same number as the Germans had on the entire eastern front.26 The Russian loss rate continued on an unprecedented scale until bad weather arrived in October. By mid-1944, however, the Russians had a 6-to-1 advantage over the Germans and seemed to have no problem manning their large armada.27

Attaining air superiority means eliminating by one means or another enemy forces that can interfere with air operations. As previously noted, air, sea, or land forces can be used to attain air superiority. In very general terms, two categories of systems can interfere with air operations -- that is, block the attainment of air superiority. These systems are aircraft, and ground-based weapons. In support of these weapon systems are detecting systems (such as radar) and electronic countermeasure systems that interfere with or fool opposing electronic systems.

These systems are directly related to combat.

Infrastructure Essential

Not directly related to combat, but nevertheless essential to it, is the infrastructure that supports these combat systems. The infrastructure ranges from bullets and fuel for the aircraft, to petroleum refineries and the laboratories where scientists work out countermeasures against the newest electronic threats. Depending on the situation, winning air superiority may be possible by eliminating one small part of the enemy infrastructure. In other cases, launching an all-out assault on virtually every part may be necessary.

Regardless of what may be needed to attain air superiority, various ways of going about it are available. For example, one might conclude that elimination of enemy aircraft is the key, but this conclusion does not necessarily mean that enemy aircraft should be targeted directly. The enemy may rarely fly across his own lines, and his side of the lines may be protected by a missile screen. To fly rashly at the enemy airfields and aircraft without first destroying, suppressing. or circumventing the missile defenses might turn out to be costly at best, and catastrophic at worst.

Simply, in war the shortest distance to a goal may not be a direct line.

The central point of this chapter has been the overwhelming importance of air superiority. For the last half century, air superiority inevitably has spelled the difference between victory and defeat. Commanders and their staffs must consider air superiority in their planning and execution. The framework for analysis suggested in this chapter should make it easier to conceptualize the problem and develop an appropriate scheme for achieving dominance in the air.