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5. Limited Options

So far, we have discussed air superiority cases when the commander was involved in a life or death struggle -- either to defeat the enemy or keep the enemy from overwhelming the commander. As explained in chapter 1, however, situations exist in which the air battle is largely confined to the area over the front, or where airpower plays no significant role.

Both of these cases require a different perspective.

When the rear areas of both sides are relatively safe, either because of political restraints or because of physical inability to reach appropriate targets, the overall campaign plan is easier to devise -- although it may be harder to execute. In this case, air superiority is unlikely to be an end in itself; rather, it is needed to prevent enemy air interference with ground operations over or near the front, while permitting friendly air operations over corresponding parts of enemy territory.

When the enemy rear cannot be reached, options are very limited. To achieve air superiority, little can be done beyond the elimination of enemy aircraft in the air and the suppression of enemy ground-based systems. Under these circumstances, the commander must decide whether the ground-based system constitutes a sufficient threat so that it must be attacked first, or whether it can be suppressed by electronic means while enemy aircraft are defeated in the air.

We discussed neutralization of ground-based defenses in Chapter 2. Let us now look at the air battle.

Options Depend on the Enemy

If enemy air forces cannot be attacked on their bases, they must be attacked in the air. Options depend on the enemy's strength and doctrine. If the enemy considers himself comparatively weak, he will attempt to avoid aerial combat, while concentrating efforts against aircraft that may be harassing his ground troops or sup-ply lines close to the front. One could even imagine a situation in which great waves of fighters are sent over the lines to engage enemy air, but always return without destroying any enemy aircraft, because the enemy chose not to fight. Should this situation occur, air superiority is won by default and the next phase in the campaign can begin. If the enemy air force is not quiescent, however, it must be met and destroyed by fighter forces.

Several general methods are available to run the fighter campaign when the enemy rear cannot be attacked. The first method is a fighter screen between enemy bases and the front. The Americans used this technique successfully in Korea after the Chinese entered the war. The difficulty in such an operation is that it relinquishes the initiative to the enemy. The enemy may or may not choose to challenge the screen, he may hold his attack until he judges the screen is nearly out of fuel, or he may succeed in putting superior mass against the screen. The proper choice depends largely on numbers.

If the enemy is notably inferior in numbers, the air commander may possibly maintain screens on station of sufficient size to cope with any possible enemy attack. Although specific ratios are difficult to prescribe, a minimum of 1-to-1 is the least that prudence demands. Obviously, a permanent fighter screen is a very expensive operation.

If the enemy is equal or superior in numbers, maintaining a fighter screen becomes exceedingly difficult, because the enemy can overwhelm it at a time and place of his choosing. The key here, as always, is to fight superior and win. On anything but a theater basis, talk of fighting outnumbered and winning is dangerous. If a single lesson can be learned in military history, it is that the key to winning battles is to have greater forces at the key location than does the enemy. The trick is to outwit the enemy and thus out-concentrate him at the right time.

Mobility Can Win the Battle

One of the major attributes of airpower is its mobility. If that mobility can be used to provide concentration, it can win the battle. In this instance, a screen may be possible to create as the enemy assembles to attack if bases are close enough to the front, if detection systems are good enough to give sufficient advanced warning of enemy movement, and if large enough forces can be launched quickly from enough fields to give numerical superiority when the battle is joined. To follow this course requires superb detection systems, superb command coordination, and bases close enough, in time or distance, to the battle area. If it can be done, this course can regain some of the initiative as the enemy cannot know whether or how he will be engaged.

A fighter screen, or the mobile version of it just discussed, may not be needed if the enemy is using his air defensively. Under this circumstance, escort of close air support or interdicting aircraft may be sufficient. As previously noted, if attacks against enemy ground forces are being carried out, enemy air either must answer or de facto relinquish air superiority. Assuming he will accept air battle, the question becomes how to conduct the escort operations. Two basic approaches are available; sweep, and close escort.

In the sweep option, the fighters precede the bombers and engage enemy air found enroute or on the flanks. In the close escort option, fighters stay very close to the bombers and attempt to drive off the enemy when he attacks. The latter has a long history of failure: the Luftwaffe against Britain in 1940;86 the US Army Air Forces against Germany in 1944;87 and the US Air Force against the Chinese in Korea and against the North Vietnamese in Indochina.88 Some future war, however, may reveal that close escort will be the proper approach.

The preceding discussion of sweep and close escort represents an excursion into the world of the tactician, as opposed to that of the operational commander.

The operational commander normally should stay away from tactical problems. Some tactical decisions, however, have enormous impact on the whole war. The sweep versus close escort decision is one. The tactical decision area also is one of those areas where commanders from different branches -- even within the same Service -- may have radically different ideas about what is proper and what is not. In the escort area, for example, bomber commanders historically have felt unprotected when they could not physically see their escorting fighters. When this sort of rift develops, the operational commander must step in to make a tactical decision.

The distinguishing feature of Case IV is the base area sanctuary enjoyed by both sides. Given this sanctuary, the campaign is likely to turn into a long slugging match, in which either side has difficulty doing anything more than wear the other down. This development is especially evident when both sides have roughly equal numbers and supporting production of weapons and personnel. If one side is notably inferior to the other, in terms of either pilots or aircraft and missiles, that side can only play a very careful game and look for opportunities to do damage to the opponent without suffering large losses to itself. As long as it takes this course, it can stay in the war for a long time. This observation is not to say that its ground forces are not going to suffer horribly in the process -- as did those of North Vietnam after the United States entered the war.

Candid Advice Needed

The case we have just discussed is one of the easiest to solve from the operational level, because so few options are available. It is apt to be maddening for all concerned, and significant differences may arise with the political leadership if restraints on attacking enemy rear bases are politically motivated or militarily unsound. Should this case happen, the operational commander must give his candid advice as to likely costs with and without the constraints. Although Case IV presents few options to the commander, Case V -- in which air power is not significant -- presents even fewer options. Even in this case, however, the commander must still think about airpower.

A war without combat aircraft is most likely to occur when two relatively primitive or poor forces clash. Less likely, but still possible, might be a phase in a war that takes place after both sides lose the use of their air forces, either because of combat attrition or because of maintenance problems. Regardless of how it comes about, air superiority will not be a problem for either side. We mention this scenario only because the situation could change quickly if one side acquires air power or if a supporting power decides to introduce it.

Situations do change, and the operational commander should run an air planning exercise concurrently with his real ground or sea war planning and execution. The planning should focus on how and where air should be used offensively if it becomes available, and on what targets to defend should the enemy acquire it exclusively. Thinking and planning should follow the patterns proposed for the other four cases.

This discussion of Cases IV and V brings us to the end of our examination of air superiority. We have looked at it from a variety of angles, to grasp as much of it as possible. Each case presents its own special problems, but obvious in every case is the clear mandate to concentrate forces. No simpler -- nor more often ignored -- principle exists than this one. The commander who concentrates his forces either wins or staves off defeat. The commander who doesn't, loses or wins by accident.

We will see the same principle at play in the next chapters on interdiction and close air support.