The Future of Air Superiority, Part I: The Imperative

January 3, 2017

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While the American ability to control the air is often taken for granted, the United States risks losing this advantage over the next decade and a half.  Budget pressures have delayed key investments, while others continue to develop advanced technologies that will surpass U.S. capabilities if we fail to move forward.  Sensing this challenge, from mid-2015 to mid-2016, the Air Force afforded me the privilege of leading a team of experts studying how the Air Force would provide air superiority for the U.S. military in 2030 and beyond. Air superiority, often thought of as a mission, is more correctly conceived of as a condition. At its most basic, that condition is achieved when a force possesses the degree of control of the air required for joint operations succeed. Air superiority not only allows the joint force to exploit the air domain, but also grants it freedom from attack on the surface. Without air superiority, results can be devastating — witness the rout of the Republican Guard as it tried to escape from Kuwait along the “Highway of Death,” or the devastating losses suffered by the Taliban in 2001 on the Shomali plain. With this in mind, the team I led — composed of air, space, cyber, logistics, and support experts— challenged every assumption and conducted an exhaustive review of options to gain and maintain continued control of the air.

As I briefed the results of this study to various groups, some challenged our most basic assertion that air superiority matters. Some even went so far as to say they didn’t think the United States would need air superiority in 2030. In such cases, I always asked how they predicted conflict would unfold in the future. Often they’d reply that hybrid warfare would dominate, with irregular and regular forces operating in the gray zone between war and peace. In this kind of warfare, attribution and intent are challenging if not impossible for friendly forces to ascertain. Because of this, some argue that ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), tactical lift, and on-call strike assets are the most valuable airpower capabilities in these conflicts.

I agree that hybrid and gray zone conflict are likely attributes of future warfare; we’ve already seen trends in this direction, such as the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. I also agree that the airpower missions of ISR, lift, and persistent strike remain essential in many conflicts, including those in the gray zone.  Where I take issue is when someone takes these first two points and then concludes that they don’t need air superiority. Indeed, if ISR, lift and strike missions are essential in gray zone conflicts, air superiority is doubly so.  Simply put, you cannot fly ISR, lift, or strike missions — or ensure the adversary doesn’t fly them — without it. Ukraine again provides an instructive example, where a lack of air superiority resulted in multiple losses of Ukrainian Air Force Su-25 ground attack aircraft.

We in the U.S. military — particularly the U.S. Air Force — are victims of our own success. Many can no longer conceive of a world in which U.S. air superiority is not a given, where we must fight for it. Many also view air superiority only as a theater-wide condition, reminiscent of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s dramatic declarations during the First Gulf War.

Unfortunately, the world has changed. Middle powers possess the resources, technology, and know-how to challenge control of the air, and by 2030, many of those capabilities will have proliferated around the globe. As a result, although theater-wide air superiority provides important strategic, operational, and tactical advantages, it may be extremely difficult to obtain. We may no longer be able to prevent adversaries from operating within their own integrated air defenses. Instead, we will control their airspace for a discrete time and over a limited area, as defined by the needs of the joint force team. Control of the air is not an end in and of itself — we set the air superiority condition only so we may then exploit the air domain to maximum effect and preclude an adversary from doing the same.

Attaining air superiority when and where we need it in 2030 will not be easy. The Air Force must develop capabilities that not only target and engage air and missile threats, as doctrine has long suggested, but also counter threats to the space assets we depend on in the air battle. Likewise, adversary use of cyberspace to deliver effects against our air, space, and logistics assets could prevent joint forces from controlling air and space. Air superiority in 2030 must account for a multi-domain battlespace where air, space, and cyberspace converge. We must ensure we give weight not just to necessary advances in raw combat power across those domains, but also to equally critical basing and logistics, ISR, and command and control capabilities. We must exploit third offset technologies to provide an information, knowledge, and decision advantage, and then use that advantage to gain control of the air at the time and place of our choosing.

Achieving air superiority in 2030 will require an integrated and networked family of both penetrating and standoff capabilities. Some argue that this is unobtainable and charge that the Air Force always talks about fielding a “family of systems,” but then reverts to developing single platforms. Not true. We always field a family of capabilities —we go to combat today with fighters, bombers, unmanned aircraft, and command and control platforms like AWACS all integrated in the battlespace. Sometimes this family works well together, and sometimes there is friction, as different datalinks, communication nodes, and capabilities are cobbled together into a force package. We can minimize the friction and cost of the 2030 family of capabilities if we start thinking today about how it fits together.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll share some of the background behind our Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan at War on the Rocks. In the next installment, I’ll discuss how our team defined the air superiority problem and how that led us to our Flight Plan recommendations. Then I’ll discuss how Air Superiority 2030 counters the A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) strategy of our adversaries, including how it exploits third offset technologies and ideas. Finally, I will discuss some of the key attributes of the actual Air Superiority family of systems, as well as the need to change acquisition paradigms in order to develop these attributes.

This does not mean air superiority in 2030 will be cheap or easy. Indeed, we are already far overdue in several key investment areas across platforms, weapons, and sensors — such are the devastating effects of sequestration at home and rapid technological advances by others abroad. But with sustained commitment, discipline in requirements, and an acquisition game plan that takes full advantage of experimentation and prototyping, we can still recover.

And recover we must. Air superiority is not an optional capability. Without it, you lose.


Alex Grynkewich is a Brigadier General in the U.S. Air Force and an F-16 and F-22 fighter pilot.  He most recently served as the Chief of Strategic Planning Integration at Headquarters Air Force and as the Air Superiority 2030 Enterprise Capabilities Collaboration Team lead. The opinions expressed above of those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Air Force.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dennis Hoffman

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15 thoughts on “The Future of Air Superiority, Part I: The Imperative

  1. No conflict can be won without air superiority. That has been evident for a long time. Not even well executed asynchronous warfare. The question I always ask is when will an air platform appear that will challenge the F-22? Or even an integrated A2/AD exclusion zone. The S-500 missile battery can detect an aircraft with a 1m^2 RCS at under 200 miles. The F-22 has a RCS of 0.0001m^2. Can the F-22 even be targeted by the most advanced Russian radars at 10 miles? Probably not. Now imagine an F-22 in five years screaming in at 50 feet of altitude dumping HARM missiles on every EM emitter in the area. From 10 miles.

    The same is true to a lesser degree of the F-35. Except that there will be an order of magnitude more F-35s than F-22s. The US will certainly not lose the battle for air superiority within the next generation.

    1. So I thought a bit about this, and I am no expert, so take all this with a ton of salt. I think what these guys are worried about is that the numbers you quote are for specific wavelengths, restricted angles of illumination, and pristine coatings. With a really deep radar array at multiple wavelengths or nicely shaped pulses, you could see them coming generally , get a missile up that has image recognition, IR, and a powerful radar system. Get all of this close enough, with enough on board intelligence to pick targets out of the clutter, and then there is a dead f-22. And because f-22 are so expensive, you can loft alot of semi-crappy missiles.

    2. It’s a bit more complex than squaring off between fighters, or fighter to SAM battery, especially when you’re talking about distances such as found in the Pacific (but not unique to there). An F-22 or F-35 may be invisible to a long-range SAM battery or a fighter…but the tanker that fighter requires to reach the target may not. The C2 and ISR architecture our precision capabilities rely on have their own vulnerabilities. Our near-peer competitors learned the hard way to layer their air defenses — the inner layers are increasingly employ multi-sensor suites to intercept not only aircraft, but air-launched weapons, making the air defense system or airfield infrastructure tougher to neutralize. Conceptually, none of this is new — the same issues existed at the height of the Cold War. Air superiority will be hard-earned.

    3. “The question I always ask is when will an air platform appear that will challenge the F-22? “
      Russia- Sukhoi PAK FA, China J-20, J-31 none of them are IOC yet but they are all 5th generation stealth fighters

      “Or even an integrated A2/AD exclusion zone. The S-500 missile battery can detect an aircraft with a 1m^2 RCS at under 200 miles. The F-22 has a RCS of 0.0001m^2. Can the F-22 even be targeted by the most advanced Russian radars at 10 miles? Probably not.”
      S-500 isn’t even IOC yet, they were just ordered last year, I don’t believe any have been deployed and they target date for them to even enter service was 2020
      S-300 and S-400 are still capable systems and the Russians still use layered defense

      “Now imagine an F-22 in five years screaming in at 50 feet of altitude dumping HARM missiles on every EM emitter in the area. From 10 miles.”
      50ft and 10 miles are I hope those are typos
      The AGM-88 HARM isn’t currently an option for the F-22 only JDAM, GBU-39 SDB, AMRAAM and Sidewinder and I don’t think you’ll ever find a F-22 at 50ft AGL even in the Nellis Range Complex during Red Flag let alone in an active theater of engagement. Why would they need to be within 10 miles of the target? That’s a suicide mission. The whole point of a 5th generation stealth aircraft would be for them to engage the target from 100s of miles away before they are even detected.

      1. The RCS of the F-22 stated above is incorrect although the actual value is irrelevant because it’s only effective in one part of the EM spectrum. An F-22 is the same size as a B747 on the Adversaries EW scope. If you warfighting geniuses would only reflect back to ASCS academics in Art of War class you would realize that knowing your enemy trumps superior technology, weapons systems and firepower. Never have we or anyone been accurate in predicting how the next war will be fought. The force with the most Flexibility and adaptability will win the future conflict. No one mentioned the need to dominate the EM spectrum with Electronic Warfare so I will paraphrase a famous Russian Admiral, “he who owns the EM spectrum will own the battlefield.” The EA-18G Growler is the only dedicated stand in tactical jamming platform in anyone’s inventory. No U.S. stealth jet goes into a high threat environment without them. The EA-18G is getting the Next Gen Jammer, an electronic attack game changer, replaces the currently old but effective ALQ-99 jammer. If you have Growlers with NGJ then you can ball walk down maintstreet with nothing more stealthy than a B-52H!

    4. “No conflict can be won without air superiority. That has been evident for a long time”.

      So, uh, who won the Vietnam war? Who was winning the insurgency of OIF until we increased GROUND troops with the surge?

      Air superiority is a very useful tool, but your comment is demonstrably false.

  2. I thought USAF doctrine demanded air supremacy. The author seems to question the ability to achieve local air superiority for limited periods of time.
    When did our enemies’ capabilities change our outlook so significantly?

  3. Seems that anyone questioning the need for air superiority (or integrated ground/sea/space/cyber superiority) ought to be allowed to sit at the back of the room with their conical hat on and facing the corner. On the other hand what strikes me most about the article is that air superiority seems platform driven in most cases – but is (just perhaps) now becoming more a matter of bringing everything to bear that you can as a coherent weapons system – and that is a CONOPs engagement – not a tech drive per se – to which I say Bravo – about damn time!! 3rd Off-Set strategy should not be about tech as an end-all which it seems to be more of than anything else at this point. It should be about thinking across the complete power range that can be brought to bear and the timelines within which the different capabilities must be applied to be effective. There is more in the orchestration and syncopation than we have ever understood or properly mined – much less applied to maximum effect and/or benefit. looking forward to the rest of this series.

    1. air superiority is a very useful tool.

      but it does not guarantee victory.

      The winner of the Vietnam war never had air superiority.

      When the US was losing the insurgency in Iraq (prior to the surge), the guys who were winning didn’t even have any air power.

      1. I agree with your comment. In my view, air superiority is necessary, but that absolutely doesn’t mean it is all that you need to win. If you are able to control the air, you still need to utilize your other capabilities correctly across all domains based on the situation at hand.

  4. Why does the loss of air superiority always lead immediately to the Highway of Death? A poorly-equipped and poorly-trained army retreating in disarray through indefensible terrain is going to be savaged by anything that comes their way. Would a better-equipped force fighting in good order suffer a similar fate?

    I realize that air superiority is an imperative in the current American style of warfare. That is not something to be proud of. It is also not a secret: every enemy we have knows how reliant we are on airpower and is putting heavy effort into denying us the air. If we fight a nation with a serious air defense network, either Air Force pilots will die providing the necessary support to the ground forces, or ground troops will die because you couldn’t get through.

    I’ve heard more than a few senior leaders argue that program/plan X will work because it has to work. That sadly common “logic” is terribly flawed: something can be both essential and impossible, in which case we’d better make it less essential or less impossible, otherwise we’re going to lose.

    Since our enemies have significant control over how difficult air superiority is to gain, perhaps we should focus on making it less of an automatic defeat if we have trouble getting it.

    1. maybe we should re-look the ADA capabilities of ground forces, which have been neglected for 20 or 30 years, except for anti-missile capabilities.

      The US has mostly abandoned mobile, shoot-on-the move SHORAD.

  5. VN Navy A-7 attack pilot and some bias of course, BUT why does every post on airpower address ONLY the AF?
    Of course each service must research and determine their needs and then fight for them in the budgetary process, but sorry general, without due consideration of the way Navy and Marine air play in the A2AD environment. you’re kidding yourself on “solving” the problem.
    When the SecDef Gates directed study on A2AD from CSBA came out, the authors identified Navy and AF integration as key. (In the study and OBTW, in personal conversation) For awhile COSAF and CNO seemed to be in lock step. Now only writing is about how AF airpower solves. I don’t care what color blue you wear, BUT that dog ain’t hunting. Just using one example from the general’s post: Who’s gonna protect all those tankers and support a/c for the stand-off piece? Marine F-35’s off of amphibs and FA-18’s and F-35’s off of CV’s, no?

    1. Ed–you are right. We always go to war as a joint force. This series focused on the Air Force pieces–but that doesn’t mean what the other services bring to the fight isn’t important. You will be glad to know that we did have sister service participation throughout our study. We covered a lot of ground from ADA with the Army to F/A-XX with the Navy, along with a host of enablers. We also briefed leadership from all the services and took their inputs.