by Austin Bay
July 1, 2014
Sometime during the spring of 1944, Allied commanders concluded that their air forces had secured air superiority over an area stretching from Great Britain to central France as well as parts of Belgium and Holland.
Driving the German Luftwaffe from western European skies was a costly process paid for with the blood of Allied airmen. Though there was no definitive "air superiority" moment, Allied intelligence confirmed pilot reports. Over France, the Luftwaffe had little stomach for a dogfight.
With a few teeth-clenching exceptions (the Korean War's MiG Alley battles), since 1944, American land, sea and air forces have enjoyed the military and diplomatic benefits of U.S. air superiority. Unfortunately, in 2014 there are strong indications that America's air advantage is diminishing.
Military analysts generally recognize three levels of air control within a combat zone. Air Supremacy means complete domination of the skies. Obtain Air Superiority and you can basically conduct air, land and sea operations at will. Enemy planes lurk but cannot "prohibitively" interfere. Air Parity means combatants control the airspace above their respective ground forces.
Air superiority and supremacy provide the military, which obtains these conditions, with operational flexibility. Air dominance also gives commanders strategic confidence; with dominating air power they can quickly respond to inevitable setbacks, including surprise enemy counter-attacks.
France 1944 illustrates this point. With good reason, Allied commanders demanded air superiority over the entire operational battle zone. Without air superiority over the French coast, D-Day would probably fail. The Luftwaffe would sink transport ships and slaughter troops on confined beachheads.
Allied dominant air forces also targeted communications systems, transportation routes and panzer divisions in reserve positions. Their attacks disrupted German western front command and control and delayed armor reinforcements. Close air support provided by stout planes such as the P-47 Thunderbolt, blunted Germany's heavy tank advantage. Panthers and Tigers would shred U.S. Sherman tanks. P-47s turned the tables and hammered the German giants. The U.S. A-10 Thunderbolt II is the P-47's offspring. Facing budget reductions, the USAF intends to retire the A-10.
Though airpower alone does not win wars, the ability to obtain air dominance over the forces or territory of a current or potential adversary translates into extraordinary diplomatic and political leverage.
The ability to provide an ally with air support is a major U.S. diplomatic tool and plays a role in war deterrence. Attack Japan or South Korea or the Philippines and you will face B-52s flying from Guam. So far, the U.S. has denied Iraq air support in its battle with Islamist extremists. Now Russia has stepped forward and sold Iraq a squadron of SU-25 ground attack planes complete with mercenary pilots. The SU-25 is Russia's A-10. At the moment I see this as another deft Vladimir Putin stunt, not a fatal American error. However, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey may give American reluctance to provide an ally with air support a different interpretation.
American air superiority faces threats beyond budget cuts. New technology is challenging America's aeronautical engineering and "pilot training" advantages. Unmanned aircrafts are cheaper and potentially more agile and faster than manned planes. It takes years to train competent combat pilots. If a software program could emulate an air ace's skills, in theory any nation with the money to buy drones could field an air force capable of fighting for the skies.
Pentagon budget cutters argue that strategic debt is an American enemy; the USAF cannot buy everything. Smart munitions means aircraft like the F-16 can perform close air support as well as the A-10. USAF seers are quite aware that the software for robotic aircraft is improving; America has its own advanced drone programs. However, autopilots fail. Satellites directing drones can be blinded. American air warriors believe a "mix" of piloted aircraft, like the F-22, operating with a "package" of drones and flying smart munitions, may be the way to retain the air advantage won in 1944.