ACHIEVING AIR SUPERIORITY
Airpower is key to virtually every type of military operation. Ground, naval and
amphibious campaigns usually require some kind of air complement. To ensure
success in these operations, commanders strive to control the air so that he/she can
make air attacks against the enemy without significant opposition. Conversely, the
commander seeks to control the air sufficiently to prohibit enemy air attacks on
his/her own assets. This condition is known as air superiority. In its most extreme
form; air supremacy. The commander of the respected Israeli Air Force, Maj. Gen.
Avihu Ben-Nun claims that to focus on the surface-to-surface missile threat is "a
mistake" because these weapons are a secondary threat to Israel. "First we have
to gain air superiority."(1) The US Joint Chiefs of Staff define air superiority as "that
degree of dominance in the air battle of one force over another which permits the
conduct of operations by the former and its related land, sea and air forces at a
given time and place without prohibitive interference by the opposing force." (2) This
chapter will show that offensive counter air operations are the most effective way
of achieving air superiority, and thus the prelude to most crises.
Achieving air superiority in modern warfare is crucial. Trying to justify spending
almost $100 billion dollars on a next generation air superiority aircraft during a
severe economic recession on top of a seriously reduced threat, Secretary of the Air
force Donald Rice claimed "American ground forces have not had to fight without
air superiority since 1942 and we plan to keep it that way."(3) Dominance in the air
is crucial, Rice said, because "no major conflict since the advent of airpower has
been won without control of the air."(4) There is historical foundation to Rice's
statements. Since the German Luftwaffe attacked Poland in 1939, no country has
won a war in the face of enemy air superiority. Operation Desert Storm is the
most recent, in a long list of examples, of the level of damage an unopposed air
force can impose, and the effectiveness of ground operations unimpeded by enemy
aircraft. When the German's won air superiority in a matter of days (Poland and
France), for example, their ground forces were quickly victorious. But, when the
British and Americans began air strikes versus German territory, that was the
beginning of the end of World War II. Some strong air power advocates go further
than Secretary Rice, and assert that the advantages incurred by achieving air
superiority are so great that no state has lost a war while it maintained air
There are two broad conceptual approaches to achieving air superiority. One can
pursue air superiority offensively or defensively. When considering the battle for
air superiority, one usually conjures images of pilots, silk scarves flying, twisting
and turning in a life or death dog-fight in sleek air-to-air fighters. Experience has
shown, however, that the most effective way to get the upper hand in the air, is
to start on the ground. In fact, there are distinct disadvantages in trying to
achieve air superiority by defensive means (ie. intercepting attacking aircraft with
In any kind of encounter, a commander seeks exchange ratios that are in his/her
favor. The higher the ratio the better. If, for example, on average, a fighter
squadron destroyed 10 enemy fighters before one friendly aircraft was destroyed,
the exchange ratio would be very favorable. All other things being equal, the
squadron would be very successful. In air-to-air operations, however, more than
one aircraft is normally required to shoot down one enemy aircraft in aerial battle.
This is not a very favorable exchange. In fact, while the rare pilot may destroy
more than one opponent in a single mission, the majority of fighter pilots will never
down an enemy.(6) Air-to-air combat is often characterized as so complex that the
majority of kills are executed by only a small percentage of skilled pilots.(7)
Upon analysis, the reasons for this unfavorable exchange ratio is logical. In the
air, an aircraft is in its element. It can use its speed, maneuverability and
armaments to greatest effect. Trying to destroy an aircraft in the air is attacking
the enemy at his strongest point.
The second drawback with defensive operations is that the attacker gains the
initiative and creates the battle environment. The attacker chooses the time, place,
size, concentration and formation of the encounter. Trying to shoot the enemy's
aircraft out of the sky under these circumstances compounds the inherent
A third weakness of trying to gain air superiority through defensive means is that
while waiting for an enemy attack, aircraft accomplish nothing. Waiting on the
ground, aircraft are targets. While flying patrols, aircraft burn-up fuel. By waiting
for an attack, the defender does nothing to harass or put pressure on the enemy.
The final strike against defense is that it is a negative concept. Theoretically,
defense never accomplishes anything positive, nothing is ever "won" or "gained."
A successful defense ends in a draw.
When vying for air superiority, the best defense is definitely a good offense. The
best offense is one that pits the attacker's strong point versus the defenders weak
point. When trying to achieve air superiority, counter air operations typifies a good
When attacking the enemy's airfields, the attacker's aircraft are in their element,
the defender's are not. The attacker has taken the initiative, forced the defender
to engage on his terms. The attacker's aircraft are optimized; the defender's are
either at their weakest point (on the ground) or trying to adapt to the situation.
The attacker is making maximum use of his aircraft. The defender is not. When
conducting counter air operations, a commander is maximizing his/her chances for
a favorable aircraft to aircraft exchange ratio. As the historical case studies in the
subsequent section will illustrate, effective counter air operations have resulted in
huge losses for the defenders and minimal losses for the attackers.
While the defender can only try to shoot the enemy aircraft out of the sky, the
attacker can negate enemy aircraft in a plethora of ways. If the enemy aircraft are
hidden or protected by hardened shelters, the air base's runway, or control tower
can be destroyed. If the air base is unknown or well defended, the attacker can
target the next level of aircraft requirements and destroy the enemy's aircraft
manufacturing aircraft manufacturing capability, transportation requirements, fuel
storage facilities or armaments depots.
Thus, from the attacker's point of view, the enemy's aircraft capability should look
like a spider web. Theoretically, destroying any ring of the strands will degrade
the enemy's ability to field aircraft. Those assets described in the above paragraph,
all represent strands in the aircraft web. Destroying some strands will impact
immediately while destroying others will have delayed or cumulative effects. While
the defender can only attack the center of the web (the aircraft) the attacker can
choose the weakest strand in the enemy's capability. Since they require long hours
of training, for example, flight crews are difficult to replace, and thus represent a
particularly precious strand in the airpower web. Aircraft can be grounded by
directly or indirectly attacking key training facilities and thus limiting the number
of pilots and support personnel. Insufficiently trained pilots can seriously degrade
an air force's effectiveness. At the end of World War II the Japanese were unable
to mount serious opposition to US forces because of a dearth of pilots and
When planning to attack the weakest rung on the enemy's aircraft web, the
commander, using the flexibility bestowed upon the attacker, may occasionally opt
for non-aerial means of attack. In World War II, both the Germans -- attacking
France -- and the Americans -- in the Pacific -- used ground forces to gain territory
that would allow them to build air bases and deny the enemy the same capability.
In the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict, Israeli gunboats attacked Egyptian SAMs to
facilitate aerial counter air operations against Egypt.
Counter air operations are rarely conducted in a vacuum, but rather in the context
of a larger conflict. Thus, a very important advantage of using offensive operations
rather than defensive operations to achieve air superiority is the synergistic affect
generated by attack. When using defensive operations to achieve air superiority,
one only eliminates one segment of personnel (the pilot) and the center of the web
(the aircraft). Offense, however, usually has a much wider impact.
The enemy's aircraft operations are only one facet of his/her overall war-waging
capability. The counter air operations case studies in the next section, for example,
illustrate that when fighting a war it is unlikely that one would attack the enemy's
aircraft web and sit back to view the results. At some point in the conflict,
probably immediately following attack of the aircraft web, one will desire to attack
other enemy targets.
Thus, the command, control and communications assets, the transportation
networks, the aircraft manufacturing capabilities, the fuel storage depots and
personnel training facilities that one may elect to destroy to keep the enemy's
aircraft on the ground will impact positively on the attacker's broader war waging
objectives. When prosecuting another facet of the campaign, the attacker may not
need to divert assets to destroy a particular target because that target was already
destroyed as part of the counter air operation effort. Counter air operations are the
leading edge of a modern integrated military strategy.
THE HISTORY OF DUELING AIRFIELDS
While central to modern military strategy, destroying the enemy's airfields before
he destroyed yours is anything but new. Counter air operations are as old as
military aircraft. While military balloons were first used to drop bombs on enemy
positions in 1911(9), they themselves were usually attacked in the air. This was
probably due to their conspicuous vulnerability in this medium and the lack of a
large supporting infrastructure on the ground. During this dawn of airpower,
furthermore, pilots often refused to drop bombs on those below, finding it
distasteful. During World War I, however, airships made bombing an aerial event.
Counter air operations truly began with the advent of military heavier-than air
power. While bombers were used to gain the maximum effect on the ground battle,
planners realized immediately that the maximum effect would be accomplished by
destroying targets behind enemy lines. Thus, interdiction, bombing railway
junctions, industry, air fields and the like began in the early 1900s. The World
War I target set for "Battlefield Bombing" included "airfields, railway stations, and
cantonments and artillery parks."(10) The French designed special ordnance
specifically for destroying enemy aircraft on the ground, and attacked Zeppelin
hangers in Germany within the first two weeks of the war,(11) recognizing the
advantages of attacking over defending. Indeed, the following case studies will
illustrate that in the air age, the advantages gained by attacking first were
recognized early, and have been reinforced over time.
Counter air operations were widely practiced in World War II.
German attacks against allied airfields on New Years Day 1945 was a particularly
successful example.(12) Since World War II, destruction of enemy airfields has been
a major focus in most conflicts, with notable successes being achieved by the United
States in Korea in 1950 and 1953, by France and Britain against Egypt in 1956,
by Israel in 1967 and to a lesser extent in 1973, by Turkey during the 1974
invasion of Cyprus, by Britain during the 1982 Falklands conflict, and by France
in action in 1986 against Libya in Chad.(13) Unsuccessful counter-airfield campaigns
are less common, notably Pakistan's strike against India in 1971 and Iraqi strikes
While the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor is usually associated with the
destruction of the heart of the US Pacific Fleet, Japanese counter air operations
were an integral part of the attack. The Japanese struck first at the US
retaliatory capability, its airfields, before it attacked "Battle Ship Row." The first
flight of approximately 180 Japanese aircraft destroyed prone US aircraft at
Hickam, Ewa, Bellows and Wheeler airfields, in addition to those at Ford Island
and Kaneohe Bay Naval air stations. Following this initial attack, the Japanese
attacked the warships docked at Pearl Harbor. The second wave of approximately
170 Japanese aircraft followed up with attacks on both airfields and naval assets.
In addition to the 18 warships either severely damaged or sunk, US aircraft were
destroyed.(15) Thanks to their tactical surprise and superior numbers, Japan suffered
The Japanese goal was to emasculate the American fleet. Demoralized and
impotent, the Americans would negotiate peace with the Japanese rather than try
to fight a long war with a shell of a navy. Thus, less than overwhelming
destruction would be a failure for the Japanese, since destroying a few US warships
would anger the United States and catalyze them into retaliation. Japanese
commanders correctly realized that controlling the air was critical to achieving their
objective. American fighter pilots desperately counter-attacking could shoot down
Japanese bombers, siphon off air assets from the immediate attack to defend
against them, or attack the Japanese carriers. Any of these actions would limit the
effectiveness of the Japanese attack by attriting Japanese assets and/or giving the
US fleet time to disperse. Thus, the first hostile Japanese action at Pearl Harbor
was counter air operations.
The pre-emptive 5 June 1967 Israeli attack on Egypt, Jordan and Syria could be
described as the "classic" counter air operation. While the Israeli air force was
outnumbered four-to-one, the claimed to have destroyed 300 Arab aircraft and
damaged 25 different air bases, seriously reducing the Arab's air capability. In his
description of the attack, Chaim Herzog claims definitively that the "Israeli aircraft
destroyed the Egyptian Air Force. Later it was to deal with the air forces of
Jordan and Syria and to destroy aircraft of the Iraqi Air Force, mostly on the
The Israelis achieved their success with surprise, concentration and persistence.
By flying low over the Mediterranean Sea, for example, The Israeli Air Force
avoided detection by Egyptian radars. The Israeli's timed the attack so that it
would find most of the Egyptian Air Force personnel in their automobiles en route
to their air bases.(17) After the initial attack, Israel followed with eight more attacks
on the first day. Although Israel only had 155 air to surface capable aircraft in
inventory, it put 320 aircraft on Egyptian airfields in 80 minutes by maximizing
its assets through intense efforts. Israel refueled, rearmed and repaired aircraft
within 15 minutes of returning to base so that could return to targets within an
hour of the previous attack. Egyptian bombers capable of retaliating against Israel
and MiG-21s -- Egypt's most capable air superiority fighter -- were the primary
The Arab responses to Israel's attack are classic examples of how not to achieve air
superiority. Their air attacks were sporadic and lacked mass. Iraq, for example,
sent a lone bomber and Lebanon sent two aircraft into Israeli air space hours apart
from each other. The Israelis shot down two thirds of the aircraft, and the damage
to Israel was militarily inconsequential. While the Syrians had the sense to attack
Israel with at least 12 tactical aircraft, their effectiveness was dampened by
attacking a dummy airfield.(18)
By the second day, Israel had achieved enough freedom of movement in the air to
shift assets to providing air support to its ground forces. The Arab ground forces,
needless to say, did not enjoy such support. Israel continued to attack enemy
airfields to maintain air superiority. The initial attacks against Arab airfields had
a synergistic affect, destroying several vehicles and assets that degraded the Arab's
defense against Israel's ground offensive. Thus, Israel's surprise and skill enabled
them to overcome the Arabs numerical superiority. The importance of counterair
operations in this conflict cannot be over-emphasized. 393 Arab aircraft were
destroyed on the ground and only 58 in air-to-air dog-fights.(19) This attack was so
successful that it catalyzed other nations to take dramatic steps to defend against
One nation that fell behind the "power curve" when defending against counter air
operations is Iraq. According to the DoD's interim report to Congress on the
conduct of Operation Desert Storm, the US-led coalition had five priorities that
guided its military operations during Desert Storm. The first, was to destroy the
Iraqi leadership and C3 network. This priority can be roughly translated into a
"get Saddam", attempt at politico-military decapitation. The second priority was
to ground the Iraqi air force.(21) These priorities were to be carried out in four air
campaign phases designed to take 40 days. While the second phase, air superiority,
was to follow the strategic phase, in reality, they were achieved in conjunction.(22)
The first bomb of the conflict was dropped on an air defense control center by a F-117 Stealth fighter. During their first 20 sorties, F-117s attacked -- in addition to
Saddam's palace -- regional defense and early warning radar, and air defense
airfields, as part of the initial counter air operations against Iraq's air defense
At the beginning of the conflict, Iraq's military appeared daunting. It had the most
powerful military force in the Persian Gulf, and 10 years of experience fighting the
Iranians. The Iraqi air defense was sophisticated and redundant. The C3 system
was multi-layered. The interceptor system was comprised of more than 700 non-shoulder launched SAMs, approximately 6,000 anti-aircraft artillery and 550 combat
The apparent Iraqi air strategy is classic of how not to achieve air superiority.
When the Coalition attacked, the Iraqis flew about 30 sorties to meet the attacking
aircraft, then returned to their hardened shelters in an attempt to ride out the
storm. Unchallenged, the Coalition attacked 80 percent of Iraqi runways by the
fifth day and destroyed several shelters. Desperate, the Iraqis flew about 139
aircraft to Iran and dispersed others on roads, and near mosques and historic sites
to discourage attacks and preclude destruction. The Iraqis were unable to
coordinate their air defenses due to the loss of AWACS aircraft and destruction of
their C3 assets. Air defense operations virtually ended by the second week of the
conflict, and air supremacy was declared by the Coalition on the tenth day.(25)
An important aspect of the Desert Storm counter air experience was the coalition's
ability to destroy the Iraqi air force in hardened shelters. Coalition aircraft are
estimated to have destroyed 300 hardened aircraft shelters. While the Iraqi
shelters would have provided protection against the Israeli attack of 1967, they
were vulnerable to the penetrating precision guided weapons of 1991. Counter air
operations in previous conflicts had focussed on runway busting to deny the enemy
access to the air, as destroying hardened shelters required multiple passes and
caused high losses for attackers.(26) By being able to destroy hardened shelters and
destroy runways, the Coalition enjoyed flexibility and redundancy provided in its
counter air operations.
While Operation Desert Storm reinforces the historical lessons learned about the
importance and effects of counter air operations, the conflict's implications for air
power in general are radical, and require further analysis.
CONSEQUENCES OF COUNTER AIR OPERATIONS
Although missile proliferation does not appear to raise concerns about crisis
instability, attack aircraft do. Combat aircraft and their airfields create incentives
to military preemption, similar to those created by superpower silo-based missiles,
which generally do not seem to be engendered by missile proliferation.(27)
The mutual vulnerability of silo-based nuclear forces to preemptive attack has been
a central concern of Soviet and American military planners and arms control
negotiators for the past generation. The potential for a disarming first strike has
long been regarded as having a disturbing potential for inadvertently escalating a
super-power political crisis into a military clash.
The simple mathematics of missiles with multiple warheads in silos creates this
crisis instability, since the warheads of a single missile can destroy several
opposing missiles in their silos, if launched first. Such instabilities do not appear
to be created by the proliferation of current missile systems, which have single
conventional warheads, are inaccurate, and are typically based on mobile launchers.
All these characteristics render such missiles largely unsuited for preemptive
attacks on symmetrical systems.
But the problem of the mutual vulnerability of nuclear forces antedates the missile
era, with concerns about the threat of Soviet bomber attacks on American airfields
being voiced in the mid-1950s. The case studies examined above clearly show that
the greatest counter air operations successes -- the Seven Days War and In
Operation Desert Storm, for example -- have been when the attacker gained tactical
surprise over the defender. Experience has clearly illustrated that pre-emption
and surprise attack can confer devastating damage to the defender and significant
rewards to the attacker. The Iraqis, for instance, thought they could endure the
coalition attack against their air force with modern active and passive defensive
measures. Instead, the sorry remains of Baghdad's MiGs and Mirages acquired air
superiority by fleeing to Iran within days of the initial attack.
The sheer scale of the Coalition's victory in the Gulf, arguably the most lopsided
battle since English peasants slaughtered French aristocrats at Crecy in 1346,
makes it difficult to imagine any other outcome. If one's imagination was fertile
enough to envision the Iraqis preempting Desert Storm with a successful counter
air operation of their own, however, the battle might have been less complete.
Deprived of convenient airfields and/or infrastructure, the entire air battle, and
thus the ground battle as well, would have been negatively affected. While it is
probably beyond even the most wild imaginations to suggest that this preemptive
counter air operation would have won the war for Iraq, its ramifications can't be
poo-pooed. A drawn-out battle or significant casualties may have split the
Coalition, or persuaded political leaders to negotiate a peace with Iraq. Before
Desert Storm, Saudi Arabia had been much more inclined to buy-off rather than
fight its enemies. Iraqi bombing of Riyadh may have convinced the Saudis that
returning to paying-off hoodlums was the wisest course. Since Operation Desert
Storm's devastating victory over Iraq's military left Saddam Hussein in power with
one of the largest militaries in the region one must wonder what the politico-military situation in the Gulf would be today, if Iraq recognized the pivotal
advantages airpower bestows upon the attacker.
Therefore, the proliferation of attack aircraft should engender serious concern. Not
only are more nations acquiring significant destructive capability, but through that
acquisition, creating a powerful incentive to use that capability. While a
chicken/egg debate has raged for some time over whether arms build-ups cause
political problems or political problems cause arms build-ups, the answer in the
case of aircraft proliferation is clear. Whatever the original motivation for
procuring the weapon, once Country A owns the weapon, he wants to use it before
Country B uses his. As a potential conflict escalates, a country frequently tries to
resolve the matter short of military means.(28) If this hesitation allows the other
combatant to execute a powerful strike against ones own primary means of defense,
pursuing peaceful initiatives becomes unattractive.
1. "A Potent Deterrent," Flight International, 19 November 1991, p.24.
2. Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Department of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Washington, DC 1 January 1986, p.21.
3. Bond, David, "Risk, Cost Sway Airframe, Engine Choices for ATF," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 29 April 1991, p.20.
4. Canan, James, "The Future is Stealth," Air Force Magazine, January 1991, p.12.
5. John Warden, The Air Campaign, Pergamon-Brassey's Pub., Washington, DC, 1989, p.10.
6. John Warden, The Air Campaign, Pergamon-Brassey's Pub., Washington, DC, 1989, p.22.
7. Hitchens, Ralph, "The Red Baron and Plane Truths," The Washington Post, 4 December 1991.
8. John Warden, The Air Campaign, Pergamon-Brassey's Pub., Washington, DC, 1989, p.28.
9. Lee Kennett, The First Air War 1914-1918, The Free Press, New York, 1991, p.18.
10. Lee Kennett, The First Air War 1914-1918, The Free Press, New York, 1991, p.54.
11. Lee Kennett, The First Air War 1914-1918, The Free Press, New York, 1991, p.54.
12. Mason, R.A. Air Power: An Overview of Roles, in Brassey's Air Power: Aircraft, Weapons Systems and Technology Series, Volume 1, 1987, London, p.47.
13. DiLullo, Joe, "Keeping the Air War on the Ground," US Naval Institute Proceedings, January 1989, page 113.
14. Navias, Martin, "Ballistic Missile Proliferation in the Third World," Adelphi Papers, #252, Summer 1990.
15. Galliard, Ralph Jr., "The Japanese Attack," The Washington Post, 7 December 1991, p.A14.
16. Chaim Herzog, The Arab-Israeli Wars: War and Peace in the Middle East, Vintage Books, New York, p.151.
17. Chaim Herzog, The Arab-Israeli Wars: War and Peace in the Middle East, Vintage Books, New York, p.152.
18. Lon Nordeen, Jr., Air Warfare In The Missile Age, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC, 1985, p.118.
19. Chaim Herzog, The Arab-Israeli Wars: War and Peace in the Middle East, Vintage Books, New York, p.153.
20. Mason, R.A. Air Power: An Overview of Roles, in Brassey's Air Power: Aircraft, Weapons Systems and Technology Series, Volume 1, 1987, London, p.47.
21. "The Secret History of the War," Newsweek, 18 March 1991, pp,28-39.
22. Conduct of the Persian Gulf Conflict: An Interim Report to Congress, United States Department of Defense, Washington, DC July 1991, p.4-4.
23. "Tapes Show Bombs Blasting Iraqi Targets," Oceanside Blade-Citizen, 19 January 1991, p.A8.
"Stealth Pilots Describe Intense Attacks," Oceanside Blade-Citizen,
19 January 1991, p.A8.
"Stealth Fighters' High-Tech Precision Led the Way," San Diego Tribune, 18 January 1991, p.A3.
24. The Military Balance 1991-1992, International Institute for Strategic Studies, London, p.??????
25. Conduct of the Persian Gulf Conflict: An Interim Report to Congress, United States Department of Defense, Washington, DC July 1991, p.4-5.
26. Mason, R.A., Air Power: An Overview of Roles, Brassey's Defence Publishers, London, 1986, p.48.
27. Navias, Martin, "Ballistic Missile Proliferation in the Third World," Adelphi Papers, #252, Summer 1990.
28. President Bush, for example, was often quoted as saying the
United States tried all avenues of resolving the invasion of Kuwait
peacefully before falling back on war.