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4. Defensive Operations

For the air commander, Case II, where the enemy's bases are open to attack but one's own are not, is the ideal situation. Conversely, the worst situation (Case III) is where the enemy can operate against one's bases while his are immune. Not only is the Case III air superiority battle the toughest to win, but the consequences of losing it are the most severe, as loss of the entire war becomes quite likely.

The Case III situation can develop in a number of ways. Equipment, such as long-range aircraft, may not be available to carry the war to the enemy. A lack of will may prevent carrying out strikes against the enemy.

Doctrine May Influence the Situation

The lack of will could stem from fear on the part of flyers, or political dreams that restraint may keep the enemy from doing something even worse than what he is already doing. Doctrine may influence or control the situation. Just as theorists in the 1930s were sure that the unescorted bomber would always get through, some think that current air defense systems will suffice and that offensive operations are futile.

Even if doctrine provides for offensive operations, quite possibly they have not been practiced in peacetime, and the force consequently is unprepared to take on such a complex and sophisticated operation.

Finally, a variety of circumstances may prohibit an offense. One possibility is that the initial enemy onslaught was so violent that it destroyed the systems or personnel needed to support an attack. In any event, Case III clearly can happen -- as indeed it happened to Poland, France, Great Britain, North Korea, the Arab states in 1967 and 1973, and to North Vietnam.

The defense, in classical land warfare, may well be stronger than the offense, as Clausewitz postulated. In air war, however, the opposite seems to be the case. Several reasons explain this apparent contradiction.

Historically, being on the pure defense in air matters clearly is fraught with danger. The danger may be greater or lesser, depending on the nature of what has to be defended. Easiest to defend is a reasonably tight complex where defenders can meet challengers any place on the periphery, and where the defenders can provide each other mutual support. Most difficult to defend is a long narrow area where distances preclude mutual support and where the attacker can choose a variety of targets for his thrusts at any particular time. Two points need clarification.

First, we are speaking here of theater-size operations, not about defense of a single airfield, factory, or even city. Second, we are making the assumption that for, the foreseeable future, the only really effective counter to an aircraft is another aircraft. As we have said before, this argument is not to suggest that ground-based defenses can be ignored or that they are not dangerous. In fact, they are dangerous enough that one must assume that no one will commence an offensive air campaign unless he is relatively sure that he will be able to neutralize them by one means or another.

Mass Must be Available for Attacker

The relations of mass, or numbers, between the attacker and the defender make geography, or, more specifically, the disposition of airfields, of prime importance for the air defender. For the attacker, mass must be available to do a reasonable amount of damage -- again, on a theater basis. True, a single aircraft with a guided weapon can take out a point target, such as a bridge. (Assuming, of course, that a single aircraft can penetrate the defenses.) On the other hand, a single aircraft cannot put an airfield, marshaling yard, or other significant military target out of commission; only a mass of aircraft can do that. Not all air forces have learned this basic principle; thus, some might try to conduct a campaign with small numbers. Should this event happen, the defender can count himself fortunate. It is not wise, though, to plan on the enemy's stupidity. One must expect that any serious enemy will attack with strong forces. Strong forces must be met with equally strong forces.

The history of air war, as short as it is, has shown clearly that masses in the air can only be opposed by counter masses. Attempts to defend with inferior numbers (in a particular battle, as opposed to inferiority in the theater), or, conversely, to attack with inferior numbers (on a particular engagement) have been notably unsuccessful.76

We already have discussed illustrations of this principle from the war in Europe, as well as the war in the Pacific. We will see more.

If mass is important in defense, the problem becomes one of producing mass at the appropriate time. We must adjust our perspective and think in terms of air battles. Mass is only important insofar as it can be brought to bear against an enemy attack. Thus, aircraft that cannot take part in an air battle are irrelevant.

How does one not lose a Case III air superiority campaign?

The question is deliberately phrased in the negative, because the fact that one is on the defense means that the best possible outcome is not to lose. Nothing positive can be achieved from defense -- although a successful defense may prepare the way for a subsequent offense.

Fortunately, at least one small -- very small -- advantage exists to being on the defensive. Simply, the enemy's motivation for offense, and thus his willingness to accept punishment, may be less than that of the defender. The attacker is hardly likely to throw his entire air force into the fray and lose it all before deciding to give up the attack. Conversely, the defender might not find it illogical to expend his entire force in an attempt to protect himself. This fact gives the defender a slight psychological edge that can -- and must be -- exploited.

Damage is Key to Not Losing

The key to not losing is to inflict enough damage on the enemy that he becomes unable or unwilling to pay the price. Is this such a truism that it doesn't need stating? While it may be a truism, it is not easily put into action. One necessarily must think exactly what must be done to lead the enemy to give up his offense.

On the defense, the only way to hurt the enemy is to knock down his aircraft and capture or kill his flyers. The numbers of aircraft knocked down are important, but more important is the timing of their destruction. The enemy certainly will accept some level of losses, and probably has determined that level in advance. One percent is an attrition level that most air forces could sustain without making drastic changes in their campaign plans.

For illustrative purposes, assume an air force of 1,000 aircraft suffers a 1 percent loss each day for 10 days. Total losses would amount to just under 100 planes. If results had been good for that 10-day period, the commander probably would continue operations. But now, let us take the same total loss and inflict it on a single day. Almost every commander, under these circumstances, would seriously reconsider his plans. First, he clearly can't accept losses of that magnitude more than once or twice. Second, losses of that size almost are certain to have hurt some units so badly that they would have to be withdrawn. Third, his flyers suffer a blow to their morale and to their feeling of invincibility.

In short, a difference is felt between losing a little each day and losing a lot on a particular day. The defense must inflict as many bad days on the offense as possible, even if that amount of action necessitates reduced activity on some days.

In the foregoing example, we suggested that 1 percent was a sustainable attrition rate, whereas 10 percent in a single day was not. The true figures may vary somewhat, but these percentages have historical support.

In World War II, American air forces generally felt that 10 percent was the greatest attrition they could accept without changing something. Indeed, in October 1943, the Luftwaffe had its best month of the war and succeeded in imposing a 12-16 percent loss rate on the Americans. That rate was so unacceptable that the commander of the 8th Air Force stopped further deep, clear-weather raids into Germany for almost four months.77
Thirty years later, the Israelis lost 40 fighters over the Golan Heights in a single day. This loss rate, more than 10 percent, forced them to stop operations until they could figure out a better way to do the job -- despite the fact that the Syrian breakthrough the air force was trying to stop would do great damage if it succeeded.78
The goal, then, is to impose very heavy losses on the enemy in the shortest time possible. How can that goal be accomplished? Two general principles must be followed.

Loss Ratios a Function of Force Ratios

Another phenomenon is important for the air commander to understand: Loss rates vary disproportionately with the ratio of forces involved. Two forces equal in numbers (and reasonably close in equipment and flying capability) will tend to have equal losses when they meet. Keeping the same equipment and personnel, as the force ratios go against one side, that side will have greater loss rates than the changed ratio would suggest. Conversely, for the side for which the force ratios become more favorable, loss rates will fall more than the ratios would indicate. The change in loss rates, either positive or negative, is not linear; it is exponential. Furthermore, no point of diminishing returns for the larger force seems to exist. That is, the larger the force gets, the fewer losses it suffers, and the greater losses it imposes on its opponent.79

Unfortunately, no good rule of thumb exists for how much superiority the defender should have over the attacker. A few examples, however, may give some ideas.

The Japanese attacked Midway with 108 bombers and fighters. Midway's Marine squadron of 26 fighters suffered almost 100 percent losses.80
On 11 January 1944, the American air force attacked a target deep in Germany with a force of 238 bombers and 49 escorting fighters. The Germans opposed it with 207 fighters. Losses were 34 bombers. Just over a month later, on 19 February, a force of 941 bombers escorted by 700 fighters met German opposition of about 250 fighters. In this encounter, the Americans lost just 21 bombers -- a lower absolute number and a lower percentage.
In June 1982, an Israeli defending force of 90 fighters met a Syrian force of 60 fighters. The Israelis had no losses, while the Syrians lost 23 of their aircraft.81
Modern weapons might arguably have invalidated the experience of World War II and Korea, and the Israeli battle last cited possibly was an anomaly. While certainly possible, this argument seems unlikely. Lots of aircraft targeting fewer aircraft are bound to get better results than the other way around. This conclusion has nothing to do with the quantity verses quality debate. Better airplanes are going to perform better than inferior ones -- a fact noted by the great German ace Manfred Von Richthofen in 1918, when he commented, "Besides better quality aircraft they [the British] have quantity. Our fighter pilots, though quite good, are consequently lost."82

We said earlier that no fixed ratio exists that the air commander can use as a rule of thumb. We have seen, however, that the greater the ratio of defender to attacker, the more likely is the defense to succeed. The defending commander must ensure that the ratio is in his favor.

All this emphasis on numbers may seem to suggest that the outcome of the Case III air superiority campaign could be judged on the basis of relative prewar strengths -- perhaps tempered by production rates after the war started. This emphasis on numbers also might suggest that the defending commander is doomed if he has fewer aircraft than the offense. Neither suggestion is true. Static balances are of interest, but they don't have much to do with how the war is likely to end, unless the numbers are absolutely overwhelming. What counts is the numbers when two forces meet in actual battle.

The smaller defending air force can win if its aircraft are properly employed, and if they are concentrated in such a way as to outnumber the attacker in any given engagement. Concentrating to achieve numerical superiority is imperative, even if doing so leads to some attacks escaping without interception. Far more important and effective is imposing heavy losses in one battle or on one day, than getting a constant 1 or 2 percent a day.

Also important is that the defending commander, especially the commander of a force that is overall inferior in numbers to the enemy, recognize that his losses will be lower when he outnumbers the enemy in an engagement. And again, big enemy losses on a single day or on one raid do wonders for morale -- on both sides.

Having prescribed concentration and numerical superiority, how is this superiority attained? It will be difficult to attain in war, if it is not practiced in peace. Galland, after concluding that he needed numerical superiority -- and desirably 3 or 4-to-1 even in the days before American bombers were escorted -- found that his pilots had great trouble operating in formations larger than a flight, because they had not flown them for the three years since the Battle of Britain.83

Practice is a necessity. So is creating the mind set of "fight superior and win." The fighter pilot has a tendency to plunge bravely into any fray, but such action can be wrong. Audacity may lead to defeat. The air force inferior in numbers to its enemy must fight better and smarter to win.

The More Warning, the Better

The defending air force must devise ways to get many aircraft off the ground quickly. This practice is especially significant if air bases are not well distributed. None of the foregoing will help, however, if a good, survivable warning and control system is not available. Obviously, the more warning, the better, although the commander must be sensitive to enemy feints designed to draw the defenders into the air and then to strike when they run out of fuel. The enemy is especially likely to resort to subterfuge if the defense has successfully concentrated several times and taken a heavy toll as a consequence.

The strategy and tactics of the enemy will either complicate or simplify the job of concentration.

In the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe initially targeted fighter bases and aircraft production facilities. Since these bases and facilities were scattered over the southeast corner of Great Britain, the British had difficulty knowing exactly where a raid might be headed, when it was first detected on radar. The Germans were concentrating their offensive forces. The more they did so, the better their success. For a variety of reasons, the Germans in early September switched their efforts to London, removing doubt as to where raids were headed, and making the job of concentrating the defense that much easier. Also, the end of Luftwaffe attacks on British fighter bases made operations from the bases simpler.
Finally, at a time when the Germans thought that their enemy was losing the battle, the British, with the help of the "Ultra"* code breakers, were able to concentrate all their forces, including those that normally would not have been committed to the London area, for a mighty attack on the Germans on 15 September. The Germans took such heavy losses, and were so surprised to find that the British seemed stronger than ever (although in actuality they weren't), that they gave up the serious air assault on the island kingdom.
In retrospect, the Germans apparently would have won the air war had they not given the air bases a respite and had they not shifted their efforts to London, where the British could concentrate against them.84

One other approach used by the British is worth mentioning, although it will receive more treatment in a later chapter.

The British maintained reserves.85 They frequently rotated units out of the hot spots, allowing them to recuperate. These units were available when the battle reached a decisive phase. While the British were rotating units and thus maintaining a reserve, the Germans were using everything and everybody they had. When the time came for the decisive punch, nothing was left for them to add.
The Case III air superiority fight can be won if the air commander employs his forces well. If he concentrates, if he accepts some penetrations in order to maul others, and if he develops and uses a good warning and control system, he can beat a larger air force. Conversely, if he tries to defend everywhere, if he commits his forces piecemeal, if he fails to concentrate, he will lose -- and may even lose against a much smaller air force if the attacker outsmarts him.

Air warfare, especially in the defense, is extraordinarily complex and demanding. Careful thought and cool execution are necessities.

From the pure defense, we move now to those anomalous situations in which air power is not a factor for any of a variety of reasons, or where both sides are forced to fight over the front without attacking each other's rear areas. The commander may be greatly frustrated in both, but the general rules we have discussed so far still apply.