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2. Offense or Defense -- the Chess Game

Air superiority, even when not an end in itself, accomplishes two things: It permits offensive air operations against any enemy target at a reasonable cost, and it denies that same opportunity to the enemy. We will start our examination of how to win air superiority with the Case I situation in which both sides are equally vulnerable at the start of the war or phase of operations.

Whichever side first wins air superiority will reap significant and perhaps overwhelming advantages.

Emphasize Defense, or Concentrate on Offense

In very broad terms, two theoretical approaches to winning air superiority exist, starting from a mutually vulnerable position. The first is to put the emphasis on defending against enemy air, and the second is to concentrate on offensive operations that will reduce the enemy's air capability directly and force him to devote more of his resources to defense.

Naturally, some combination of these two extremes can be available; unfortunately, when they are combined, the availability of forces and time for both necessarily decrease. In fairly close encounters, as Case I wars are likely to be, any decrease in effort, any failure to concentrate, may be quite dangerous.

The first theoretical possibility is defense, but defense has associated with it many problems difficult to overcome. First, more than one aircraft normally is necessary to destroy one enemy in aerial battle.28 Second, from an air commander's standpoint, defense tends to pass the initiative to the enemy. This passing of the initiative tends to make defensive concentration difficult, unless bases are positioned for mutual support and the warning of impending enemy attack is sufficiently long to allow massing of defensive fighters. Finally, aircraft awaiting enemy attack are not accomplishing anything -- they are putting no pressure on the enemy.

Despite problems associated with defense, a proposal to de-emphasize defense in favor of a strong offense may be seen as risky and difficult to sell to political leaders, who are not trained to understand that the effects of offensive operations might produce good defense faster than purely defensive operations. This difficulty happened in World War II, when the Germans began using their night fighters to attack British bombers as the bombers were taking off and assembling for night raids on Germany. The program was showing some results (although not significant, because resources allocated to the mission were too small), but Hitler ordered the program abandoned because the British bombers shot down over England made no impression on the German people.29

The most serious drawback to defense, however, is that it is a negative concept -- by itself it can lead at best to a draw, never to a positive result.30

The second theoretical possibility is an all-out offense to gain air superiority. Here, every aircraft capable of crossing the lines is sent out on missions designed to crush the enemy's offensive capability. (Suppression of air and ground-based defenses may be necessary before attacking systems supporting offensive air.)

An offensive approach has many advantages. It keeps the initiative and forces the enemy to react. It carries the war to the enemy. It makes maximum use of aircraft and keeps great pressure on the enemy. Finally, assuming the offensive operations are against an appropriate center of gravity, collateral damage probably will be inflicted on facilities that would be attacked in the next phase of operations.

Whenever possible, the offensive course should be selected -- if for no other reason than that it is a positive measure that will lead to positive results.

The power of the offense notwithstanding, a variety of reasons exists why adopting the defense may be sound, despite its inherent limitations. Under some circumstances, a successful defense will lead the enemy to conclude that further offensive operations are too costly. Some chance even exists that he will decide to abandon the whole war effort. Before depending on such an outcome, however, one needs to be very sure that the enemy's military and political will has been correctly read, and that one has the strength needed to take a sufficient toll from the enemy before the enemy does too much damage. Outcomes of this kind have been common in land war, but so far only a few examples exist of the same thing in air war.

Two Examples of Air Defense

The first instance of a successful air defense was the British parry of the German air offensive against Britain in the summer and fall of 1940. The British succeeded in exacting a great enough price from the Germans that the Germans abandoned the air offensive and the planned follow-up cross-Channel invasion.

The second example, and one less clear, is the defense the North Vietnamese put up against the American air offensive. The North Vietnamese managed to hold on long enough to exhaust the political will of the American people, even though the American air force had proved its ability to lay waste the country in the 1972 air offensives. This example demonstrates the necessity to read the enemy will correctly. Had the North Vietnamese misread American will, they would have paid a terrible price: The Americans had the capability to do whatever they chose to do from the air.

One also might adopt the defensive because of some anticipated change in the near future. Perhaps a new ally will sign on if the initial defense is successful. Perhaps equipment in significantly greater quantities will be available to permit a better defense or an offense. Perhaps a defense will allow time to build a reserve for an offensive or counteroffensive operation. Of course, in thinking about this possibility, it is imperative to keep in mind that the key word is "perhaps." If "perhaps" does not materialize, then the situation may be beyond recovery.

In other words, the commander who adopts the defense for these reasons is betting heavily on a future that might not happen as he thinks it will. If no choice exists whatsoever, then the commander must do the best he can. At the same time, however, he must make contingency plans for what he will do if the new ally does not join the cause, if the new aircraft does not arrive, or if the reserve is destroyed by enemy action or by higher military or political authority in his own country.

The latter happened to the Luftwaffe on at least two occasions during World War II. Adolph Galland, then General of the German Fighter Forces, received a commitment from Hitler to hold back new production of fighters and training of pilots to mount one mighty counterstroke against American daylight bombers. Hitler, however, reneged twice on the promise -- once for a futile riposte against the Normandy invasion, and again, equally futile, in support of the 1944 Ardennes offensive.31

This subject will be covered later from a different perspective in the chapter on reserves, chapter 8.

Phasing Important to Defense

The last reason that may support a defense is phasing. The commander may have reason to believe that he can do enough damage to the enemy through defensive operations to make an offensive more likely to succeed. No examples stand out to illustrate this approach in air war, although it has been done on some occasions, with great success, in land war.

One of the most notable examples was the German decision to go on the defensive in the east in 1914, allow the Russians to penetrate into East Russia, and then go on an offensive which culminated in the annihilation of the Russians at Tannenberg. The fact that it has not been done in air war does not mean that it can't be done. In theory, the idea of pulling quantities of the enemy into a position where he can be badly hurt has great appeal. On the negative side is the possibility that the enemy will do more damage than expected with his offensive and thereby make the counteroffensive less likely to work.

While acknowledging the possible utility of the defensive, the operational commander should want to go on the offensive at the earliest opportunity for reasons already stated. He must plan a specific course of action. Some of what he does will be a function of his own strength and that of the enemy and of relative geography. Let us see how General Douglas MacArthur and General George Kenney converted a dangerous situation in the Pacific into a decisive victory by emphasizing the offensive and air superiority.

MacArthur had suffered grievously after the Japanese won air superiority in the Philippines. Conversely, he saw what had happened to the Japanese when they tried three offensive operations without first establishing land-based air superiority.

Finally, MacArthur concluded that the Japanese had been able to fight so effectively on Guadalcanal only because the US Navy had been tardy in completing Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. Had the field been completed early in the campaign (as it could have been), aircraft operating from it would have presented the Japanese with a much more difficult problem.32

MacArthur Sought Air Superiority

Following his early New Guinea experiences, MacArthur gradually came to the conclusion that his operations had to have as their primary goal the attainment of air superiority.33 This conclusion is not meant to say that MacArthur thought that air superiority in and of itself would win the war -- he was convinced that only an army assault on Japan would do that. He did, however, believe that winning air superiority was the key to positioning himself for that assault.

After deciding that air superiority was the objective of his intermediate campaigns,

MacArthur, aided by his air component commander, General Kenney (who had played a key role in leading MacArthur to this conclusion), inverted the established order of things, and used his ground forces as an adjunct to air in his quest for air superiority over the Japanese. From 1943 to the eve of the invasion of Japan, and with only one exception, MacArthur used his ground forces primarily to seize bases from which air forces could extend the bomb line.
How did Kenney and MacArthur prosecute their air campaign?

American pilots and aircraft had started the war against Japan interior to the enemy. But by the middle of 1942 they were on at least a par with the Japanese. Therefore, the possibility existed of an aerial war of attrition. Although air battles were important to the final outcome, Kenney worked on the thesis that the best and cheapest place to destroy the enemy was on the ground. He switched from the defensive strategy of his predecessor, Lt Gen George H. Brett, to a highly offensive campaign within three days of arrival in theater.34
General Kenney's goal was to find and destroy enemy aircraft on the ground. Supporting this main objective were aerial combat missions and attacks on the logistic system that provided fuel, food, medicine, and spare parts to the enemy. The key was the availability of ground forces to seize and hold air bases, from which deeper operations could be conducted. His main principles were concentration and persistence. Kenney believed in mounting the largest possible raids against enemy positions and in attacking persistently until they were reduced to impotence.35

He also was a master of surprise and deceit. The campaign against Wewak illustrates his genius.

In the early phase of the Allied campaign to take Japanese positions on the Huon Peninsula (Lae, Finschafen, and Salamuau), the Japanese moved a large number of aircraft to their big base at Wewak, some 400 miles west of the Huon Peninsula and out of range of Kenney's fighters.36 If air superiority were to be maintained and extended, Kenney thought that reduction of Wewak was necessary. He couldn't do it, however, with unescorted bombers. His plan to solve the problem was brilliant.

Using special overland troops and paratroops, General Kenney started construction of two fake airfields relatively close to the Japanese positions on the Huon Peninsula. At these fields, he deliberately created clouds of dust so that the Japanese would see the construction activity. They responded appropriately by periodically bombing the fields and apparently preventing occupation by American air units.
Simultaneously, at Tsilli Tsilli, some 50 miles further inland, Kenney started construction of the real airfield. He managed to move fighters into it before the Japanese discovered its existence. He then quickly mounted a mass attack on Wewak with his bombers that could now be escorted by the fighters flying out of Tsilli Tsilli. He took the Japanese by surprise, because they were sure that Wewak was beyond range of American fighters and therefore could not be attacked in strength. In two days of mass raids with nearly 200 aircraft in each attack, he won the decisive air battle of the southwest Pacific by destroying more than 200 Japanese aircraft.37
Of even greater importance, Kenney started the process that would shortly break the back of the Japanese Army Air Force. His forces killed so many pilots and technicians that the enemy became unable to mount serious opposition, even though he had plenty of aircraft -- but aircraft that could not be flown or maintained.38

Kenny Exploited Japanese Doctrine

While operations against Wewak were taking place, the American air forces also were conducting, in conjunction with the Navy, intensive attacks against Japanese shipping. These attacks greatly exacerbated the problems the Japanese had with supply and maintenance.39

The Japanese could have done to Kenney what he did to them. Why didn't they? Part of the reason lay with their doctrine -- something Kenney exploited to the hilt. The Japanese seemed committed to piecemeal reinforcement. At Wewak, at Rabaul, and at Truk they habitually committed small numbers of arriving aircraft in such a way that they could do little to influence the battle. As Kenney put it, the Japanese "did not know how to handle large masses of aircraft. He made piecemeal attacks and didn't follow them up."40

The Japanese reinforced failure, while the Americans concentrated on success. The lesson learned from the futile commitment in small numbers of aircraft newly arrived in the theater may be one of the most important in the war. It will be addressed in greater detail in chapter 8, which is devoted to reserves. The Japanese seemed unable to learn from their errors. They were taken by surprise at Wewak because they thought it was out of range. Less than a year later, they suffered the same fate for the same reason at Hollandia.41

Early in the war, the United States made the mistake of committing forces before they were sufficiently trained or numerous. A strategic bombing survey of the Pacific air campaign reported that American air commanders frequently "failed to saturate enemy air defensive capabilities, resulting in a high loss rate and a bombing effort ineffective both in accuracy and in weight of effort."42

Unlike the Japanese, however, the Americans learned the lesson and emphasized concentration and mass. The American air attacks became more successful. Additionally, the large raids so saturated enemy defenses that American loss rates were typically quite low. As an example, in the 17 August 1943 attack on Wewak, in which the Japanese lost 150 aircraft on the ground alone, the Americans suffered no combat losses. Mass and concentration pay!

Ground-based defenses were not significant in the Pacific war. They were significant (in the sense that they could not be ignored), however, in the Arab-Israeli battles of the seventies and eighties and in the American war against North Vietnam. They also undoubtedly will exist in great numbers in any future wars between well equipped opponents. The air commander must determine how much a threat to offensive operations they present, whether they must be given priority attention and be physically attacked, or whether they can be suppressed electronically while the air offensive continues.

Like many things in war, the answer to these questions may not be obvious.

In 1973, the Israelis reacted on the Syrian and Sinai fronts much as they had in the 1967 war. That is, they assumed that they would easily overcome the enemy antiaircraft missiles and fly with acceptable loss rates directly against attacking ground forces.43
How did a country widely admired for the efficiency of its intelligence service make such a grievous error?

Misplaced Contempt Can Lead to Errors

The key factor that led to this error was the contempt the Israelis felt for their opponents because of the 1967 and War of Attrition victories. Misplaced contempt for the enemy is not uncommon: The Germans greatly underestimated the British and the Russians in World War II, the United States prior to Pearl Harbor thought the Japanese incompetent, and the US Navy discounted the air defense capabilities of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the ill-fated retaliatory raids in Lebanon in 1983.

Such errors are easy to make, but they are not forgivable. How can they be avoided?

The first step in assessing an enemy is a very careful review of intelligence information, followed by dispassionate war gaming, followed by more intelligence collection and analysis, followed by more war gaming, until the answer is relatively certain or the time has come to act on best available information. This cycle -- and the necessity for dispassionate consideration of enemy capabilities -- applies universally.

If the commander decides that ground-based defenses are so significant that operations above or around them are impossible or too costly, he must neutralize them. Neutralization can be accomplished through destruction of key parts of the system, through electronic suppression of key parts, through adequate disruption of the system's command and control, or through isolating the system from its source of supply. Of course, a number of these approaches can be combined. Operations against an air defense system are very complex; however, as in other aspects of war, some general procedures have wide application.

In broad terms, a ground-based air defense system has certain characteristics. It is finite and normally has flanks. It has some directional orientation, based on expected routes of enemy attack. It is rarely equally strong throughout its width and depth, and some areas may be very heavily defended while other areas are only lightly covered. And finally, it is not mobile in theater terms: Although it may be tactically mobile, to the extent that a battery that was one place yesterday may be a few miles away tomorrow, moving large numbers of systems significant distances in short periods of time to fill gaps blasted in some other part of the line generally is not possible. These characteristics suggest campaigns against the system based on flank attacks, penetration and exploitation, or systematic reduction from front to rear.

The Israelis used a combination of flank and penetration attacks very successfully in the 1973 war. Their missile boats hit the north end of the Egyptian missile line at about the same time that General Sharon crossed the canal and destroyed several batteries by ground attack. The Egyptian line was breached and flanked, and the Israelis then were able to isolate and destroy individual batteries with relative impunity.44
By knocking a hole in the middle, and by taking out a flank, the batteries no longer were mutually supporting. They were engaged and defeated in detail.

On the northern front,

The Israelis conducted operations designed to stop the flow of missiles to the Golan battle area and force the Syrians to disperse their defenses well behind the lines. To accomplish the former, the Israeli air forces went around the flank of the Syrian lines to strike at missile storage areas and transportation nets. For the latter, they attacked economic and political targets in Syria.
These targets had little military value in a short war, but attack on them produced the expected reaction -- the Syrians panicked and devoted missiles and aircraft to their protection, when the missiles and aircraft should have been used at the front.45

Indirect Feint Can be Effective

This feint is another example of the indirect approach being the most effective.

A ground-based defense system must be commanded and controlled. If the command and control centers can be identified and destroyed, the whole system becomes much easier to defeat in detail. Unfortunately, these centers normally are well behind the lines and well protected -- although it should not automatically be assumed that their physical protection is significant. The Germans, for example, failed to make concerted attacks against the British sector control stations, because they thought them to be underground. In fact, they were above ground in flimsy buildings.46 If the command and control centers cannot be reached directly, a worthwhile approach may be to attack their sensors. We will examine command and control in more detail in the next chapter.

In this chapter, we discussed the choice between an offense and a defense. We have seen how two forces could confront each other, with each able to strike the other's base areas. In the Pacific war, we saw one side make the radical decision to fight a whole offensive campaign for air superiority. One side was innovative and determined in concentrating mass on an objective; the other made piecemeal attacks and reinforced piecemeal. The way the Americans won the air war in the Pacific (and the way the Japanese lost it) offer valuable lessons to the air commander responsible for fighting the next war.

Having examined the concepts of defense and offense, when the commander has a choice, we now can explore in detail the pure offense and defense. We will start with the offense.