The wreckage of a Ukrainian fighter jet in a field in Kherson in January.
Pierre Crom/Getty Images
Advanced sensors and long-range weapons are making air superiority harder to achieve.
The US and Chinese air forces are both thinking about how they’d try to control the air in a war.
Experts on both sides see achieving permanent control of the air as increasingly unlikely.
The classic definition of air superiority comes down a simple proposition: Your air force can conduct its assigned missions while keeping an enemy air force from doing the same.
Yet the US and China are grappling with the realization that control of the skies doesn’t mean what it used to. Strategists on both sides are wondering whether it’s even possible to achieve aerial dominance for more than brief periods against near-peer adversaries.
“You’re going to have to think about it temporally,” Clinton Hinote, who retired from the US Air Force as a lieutenant general earlier this year, said during a recent Aviation Week podcast. “You can organize your force to create superiority so that you can do something and then you’ll retreat back or try to regroup.”
“It will be a struggle back and forth for air superiority,” added Hinote, whose last position was as the Air Force’s chief futurist.
A US Air Force KC-135 refuels F-22s over the Atlantic in April 2018.
US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Carlin Leslie
There are different degrees of aerial dominance. The most comprehensive is air supremacy, which the US Air Force defines as when “the opposing force is incapable of effective interference within the operational area using air and missile threats.” It describes the sort of environment enjoyed by American airpower in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The next level is air superiority, which the Air Force defines as “control of the air by one force that permits the conduct of its operations at a given time and place without prohibitive interference from air and missile threats.” Think of the invasion of Normandy in 1944, where the Luftwaffe was more of a nuisance than threat, or of Vietnam, where the massive US bombing campaign was impeded but never halted by North Vietnamese MiGs and anti-aircraft weapons.
These concepts date to the 1920s and the Italian airpower theorist Giulio Douhet, who argued that air forces should be independent rather than part of armies, as was common at the time.
Douhet also believed that strategic bombing alone could win wars by destroying enemy cities, which would paralyze the economy and collapse civilian morale. Doing that required preventing the enemy from using its airpower in the same way. “The one effective method of defending one’s own territory from an offensive by air is to destroy the enemy’s air power with the greatest possible speed,” Douhet wrote.
US Army Air Force B-17s bomb an aircraft factory in eastern Germany during World War II.
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Douhet’s theories on strategic bombardment proved wrong — neither Germany, Japan, nor North Vietnam sued for peace because of bombing — but his notion of control of the air lived on.
US bomber raids over Germany in 1944 were designed to lure the Luftwaffe’s fighter force into the air, where they could be destroyed by American fighters. The spectacular Israeli victory in 1967 was preceded by a surprise aerial assault that destroyed the Arab air forces on the ground, enabling Israeli ground troops to receive constant air support without interference.
But what is remarkable about the ongoing war in Ukraine is the limited impact of airpower. Despite the presence of advanced jets, especially on the Russian side, both air forces are flying cautiously in the face of surface-to-air missiles such as the Soviet-designed S-300 or newer Western-made air defenses. Drones have more freedom to operate, but even those face high losses to physical and electronic countermeasures.
China’s military is also wondering whether it’s even feasible to control the skies permanently during a conflict between forces with comparable numbers of long-range weapons.
A Chinese J-10 fighter jet at the Zhuhai Air Show Center in November 2022.
Zhou Guoqiang/VCG via Getty Images
Given the ability of such forces to deny each other control of the air, the goal should shift from control at “all times over all areas” to pursuing “air superiority for key tasks at key times and over key areas,” three authors affiliated with the China’s Air Force Command College wrote in the Chinese military’s official newspaper this spring.
Other Chinese critics point out that a variety of new systems, including drones and cyberwarfare, will vastly complicate any quest for aerial dominance.
“The PLA is clearly refuting the feasibility and the necessity of achieving command of the air as Douhet originally conceived it,” Derek Solen, a researcher for the US Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute, wrote in a July article for the Jamestown Foundation think tank.
“This conceptual change has two implications,” Solen wrote. “First, it is unlikely that the PLA will seek absolute control of the air in future campaigns such as an invasion of Taiwan. Second, the PLA will likely reduce its spatial and temporal requirements for control of the air as its capabilities to conduct multi-domain operations improve.”
Chinese J-20 stealth fighter jets train in Guangdong in November 2022.
Yu Hongchun/Xinhua via Getty Images
Indeed, both the US and China are moving away from a single-minded focus on air combat and emphasizing multi-domain warfare, a loosely defined concept that includes land, air, sea, space, cyberwarfare, electromagnetic spectrum, and information operations.
The ability to operate across those domains “allows you to not think of the symmetric fight in the air where you just have fighter airplanes” that are “going after it” against other fighters, Hinote said. “It’s still important that we can do that, but if you can use other domains to establish air superiority and to attack the adversary’s use of the air, that’s good.”
US ground troops haven’t faced attacks from enemy aircraft since the Korean War. A future where that kind of air dominance can’t be achieved would seem to be a major threat to the way America wages war.
Interestingly, however, Hinote believes a lack of air supremacy might not be so terrible when fending off an attack — such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
“I’m of the opinion that as we think about this idea of denial, even a state of mutual denial of air superiority, that’s part of air superiority, and it generally favors the defender,” Hinote said. “And we’re generally on the sides of the defender.”
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.