Thoughts on Air Superiority

There are a few things Soldiers desire in combat. Hot chow, quality leadership, and looking up to the sky with confidence that the aircraft above are friendly. Indeed, not since the Korean War has an enemy aircraft launched a successful attack on American ground forces. Brigidear General Alex “Grynch” Grynkewich published a series describing the fight for air superiority in 2030, and the capabilities the Air Force requires to ensure the United States can achieve air superiority when and where it’s needed.

In terms of joint force contributions to air superiority. The Army will have a role to support the Air Force in the air superiority mission. Capabilities and platforms such as the next generation of Patriots and THAAD are essential to the defense of air bases that the Air Force launches from. As enemies and adversaries acquire longer-range fires, the ability to protect airfields from distanced adversaries will be necessary. Moreover, although air defense missile capabilities have a history of shooting down enemy missiles, they are still effective at destroying enemy aircraft.  

In addition to air defense platforms, the army can provide a combination of ISR through the use of special operations forces. Indeed, Special Forces cannot only identify enemy air defense targets for destruction; they can provide the Joint Force Air Component Command (JFACC) with accurate battle damage assessments. Moreover, Special Forces working with local populations and indigenous forces can influence a wide range of enemy platforms prior to the introduction of friendly aircraft into a Joint Operations Area (JOA).  The use of Special Forces does not occur in a bubble, they must accompany a wide range of options to defeat enemy and adversary A2AD threats.

Complementing the use of Special Forces are joint force information operations capabilities. These capabilities range from Military Information Support Operations (MISO) to public affairs to key leader engagements and can be critical for the suppression of enemy air defense systems. For example, in terms of MISO, the ability to message enemy ADA platform operators or enemy pilots prior to takeoff can reduce the risk to U.S. platforms. Should enemy pilots understand that take-off in their respective aircraft will translate to death; they tend to think twice before engaging. Indeed, examples are plentiful in both Iraq Wars of Iraqi Pilots flying aircraft to adjacent nations to avoid destruction by the U.S. and other coalition air forces. MISO, however is not the only Information Operations related capability that the joint force can leverage to attain air superiority.

A successful key leader engagement plan executed prior to and throughout a conflict is paramount to overcoming anti-access efforts by adversaries. While U.S. diplomats engage political leaders for access to other nation’s air bases and support facilities, Joint leaders must engage their counterparts to ensure a rapid execution. The ability to seamlessly flow aircraft into a newly opened airfield that is set for operations allows the joint force to gain and maintain the initiative in the air. Unnecessary delays

General Grynkewich effectively communicates the necessity of cyberspace. Each service provides capabilities to ensure success in the cyberspace domain. However, although the Air Force will certainly focus its efforts on the Air Superiority mission, both the Army and Air Force will be well served to develop multi-service  or joint concepts on how cyberspace operations will contribute to Air Superiority. Indeed, each service has a stake in the attainment of air superiority, and should contribute to the mission in the shared domains of space and cyberspace.

Where I think General Grynkewich’s analysis could use more development is in the development of human capital. His discussion on innovation in “how the Air Force has traditionally developed and fielded systems” can certainly apply to the entirety of the joint force. However, this consideration must move beyond material solutions in the DOTMLPF paradigm. Indeed, General Grynkewich’s articles describe the platforms necessary to attain air superiority and do mention the need to adjust tactics and training. However, all services must consider how we develop the people who will operate these platforms. These include pilots, programmers working in the cyberspace domain, analysts evaluating intelligence, and Special Forces operators, to name just a few. As enemies and adversaries continue to advance and disseminate near-peer technology, America’s asymmetric advantage and ability to achieve air superiority will be in the form of human capital.  

In addition to human capital, it is germane to discuss other joint force contributions to air superiority in the future. Further, attaining air superiority requires the investment of time and effort of non-military entities, specifically diplomacy to ensure friendly airplanes fly over the heads of America’s ground forces. General Grynkewich takes careful time to discuss third-offset material capabilities; however, when the joint force considers how to attain air superiority in contingencies, interaction with civilians in the department of state is paramount. Since the end of World War II, the United States has developed a global presence with land, air, and maritime capabilities spread across the globe. Should conflict occur, use of these bases to launch aircraft (strike, ISR, Air to Air Refueling) is paramount. Indeed, Air Superiority will depend on the whole of government to overcome the anti-access fight through sustained engagement in peacetime, and in the build-up to conflicts.

Successful diplomacy to achieve air superiority is also necessary in the battle for legitimacy of U.S. operations. Enemies and adversaries will take their arguments to organizations such as the United Nations to delay or prevent the deployment and employment of U.S. power (to include air, maritime, and land forces). These delays can allow enemies to achieve a marked advantage by reducing the U.S. militaries initiative. Further, successful action through international organizations can prevent the U.S. from using select basing options necessary to attain air superiority.

The "D" in Elements of National Power

The "D" in Elements of National Power

Air superiority is not America’s birthright. Enemies and adversaries will continue to seek symmetric and asymmetric advantages to overcome American power projection. Near peer adversaries will continue to develop aircraft and ADA platforms that can engage America’s latest generation of fighter aircraft. Moreover, nations will move in parallel on diplomatic fronts to ensure the United States cannot attain access to friendly or partner nation facilities during times of conflict. The Department of Defense and all services must look at their respective capabilities and determine how they will contribute to the air superiority mission.