Air supremacy is a position in war where a side holds complete control of air warfare and air power over opposing forces. It is defined by NATO and the United States Department of Defense as the "degree of air superiority wherein the opposing air force is incapable of effective interference."
There are three levels of control of the air:
The degree of a force's air control is a zero-sum game with its opponent's; increasing control by one corresponds to decreasing control by the other. Air forces unable to contest for air superiority or air parity can strive for air denial, where they maintain an operations level conceding air superiority to the other side, but preventing it from achieving air supremacy.
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Air power has increasingly become a powerful element of military campaigns; military planners view having an environment of at least air superiority as a necessity. Air supremacy allows increased bombing efforts, tactical air support for ground forces, paratroop assaults, airdrops and simple cargo plane transfers, which can move ground forces and supplies. Air power is a function of the degree of air superiority and numbers or types of aircraft, but it represents a situation that defies black-and-white characterization. NATO forces in air superiority over Kosovo have lost a stealth strike aircraft to an "obsolete" Serbian air defense system, and primitive An-2 biplanes (less visible to radar than metal planes) were considered for some time a serious capability of the Korean People's Air Force in North Korea.
During the First World War, air superiority on the Western Front changed hands between the Germans and the Allies several times. Periods of German air superiority included the Fokker Scourge of late 1915 to early 1916, and Bloody April (April 1917).
The Italian Corpo Aeronautico Militare established air superiority over the Austro-Hungarian Imperial and Royal Aviation Troops at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto (late October 1918). The defeat suffered by Austria-Hungary in the battle caused the dissolution of the empire.
In 1921, Italian aerial warfare theorist Giulio Douhet published The Command of the Air, a book positing that future wars would be decided in the skies. At the time, mainstream military theory did not see air power as a war-winning tactic. Douhet's idea that air power could be a decisive force and be used to avoid the long and costly War of Attrition was influential although later events proved him wrong in many details. In The War of 19, Douhet theorized that a future war between Germany and France would be settled in a matter of days, as the winner would be the one to gain air supremacy and destroy a few enemy cities with aerial bombs. (The targets would be announced ahead of time and all the population evacuated.) That would terrorize citizens into pressuring their government into immediate surrender. At the beginning of World War II, Douhet's ideas were dismissed by some, but it became apparent that his theories on the importance of aircraft were supported by events as the war continued.
In 1925, the Royal Air Force (RAF) tested the ability of air supremacy in isolation from other warfare forms during their first independent action in Waziristan. The operation, that later came to be known as Pink's War after Wing Commander Richard Pink in charge, used only air warfare in a combination of air attack and air blockade over 54 days to force militant tribes to surrender. The campaign was successful in defeating the tribes with two deaths for the RAF, but contemporary critics were not entirely convinced of its use in isolation; Commander-in-Chief, India General Sir Claud Jacob stated that "satisfactory ... the results of these operations have been, I am of [the] opinion that a combination of land and air action would have brought about the desired result in a shorter space of time, and next time action has to be taken, I trust that it will be possible to employ the two forces in combination."
American general Billy Mitchell was another influential air power theorist of the inter-war period. After World War I, then-Assistant Chief of Air Service in the United States Army Air Service, Mitchell arranged live fire exercises that proved that aircraft could sink battleships (the largest and most heavily armed class of warships). The first of these was Project B in 1921, in which the captured German World War I battleship, SMS Ostfriesland, was sunk by a flight of bombers in 22 minutes.
Mitchell's ideas were not popular, with his outspoken opposition to Army and Navy resistance resulting in a court-martial that precipitated his resignation, but he would prove prescient; his 1924 inspection tour of Hawaii and Asia culminated in a report (published in 1925 as the book Winged Defense) that predicted future war with Japan, including the attack on Pearl Harbor. He would also go on to influence air power advocates such as Russian-American Alexander P. de Seversky, whose 1942 New York Times bestselling book, Victory Through Air Power, was made into a 1943 Walt Disney animated film that opened with a quote from Mitchell; the film is reported to have been influentially shown by Winston Churchill to Franklin D. Roosevelt in support of long-range bombing.
At the beginning of World War II, the main sides took different views on the importance of air power. Adolf Hitler saw it as a helpful tool to support the German Army, in an approach dubbed "flying artillery". The Allies saw it, specifically long-range strategic bombing, as being a more important part of warfare which they believed capable of crippling Germany's industrial centers.
After the Battle of France, the German air force (Luftwaffe) achieved air supremacy over Western Europe. The Battle of Britain represented a concerted attempt by Germany to establish air superiority over Britain, which it never achieved. Through home-territory advantage and Germany's failure to push home its strategy of targeting Britain's air defenses, Britain was able to establish air superiority over the territory – superiority that it never lost. It denied the German military air superiority over the English Channel, making a seaborne invasion (planned as Operation Sea Lion) impossible in the face of Britain's naval power. Strategically, the overall situation at home and abroad at the end of the battle might be considered air parity between Britain and Germany. After the air battle, known as the Battle of Britain, the Germans switched to a strategy of night bombing raids, which Britain echoed with raids over Germany.
During Operation Barbarossa, the Luftwaffe initially achieved air supremacy over the Soviet Union. As the war dragged on, the United States joined the fight and the combined Allied air forces gained air superiority and eventually supremacy in the West. (For example, the Luftwaffe mustered 391 aircraft to oppose over 9,000 allied aircraft on D-day.) Russia did the same on the Eastern Front, meaning the Luftwaffe could not effectively interfere with Allied land operations. Achieving allowed the Allies to carry out ever-greater strategic bombing raids on Germany's industrial and civilian centers (including the Ruhr and Dresden), and to prosecute the land war successfully on both the Eastern and Western fronts. Following the Big Week attacks in late February 1944, the new 8th Air Force commander Jimmy Doolittle permitted P-51 Mustangs to fly far ahead of the bomber formations instead of closely escorting them starting in March 1944. This commenced in March 1944 and was part of a massive "fighter sweep" tactic to clear German skies of Luftwaffe fighters. Allied planes went after the German fighters wherever they could be found, and substantially lowered bomber losses for their side for the rest of the war over Western Europe.
The element of air superiority has been the driving force behind the development of aircraft carriers, which allow aircraft to operate in the absence of designated air bases. For example, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was carried out by aircraft operating from carriers thousands of miles away from the nearest Japanese air base.
Some fighter aircraft specialized in combating other fighters, while interceptors were originally designed to counter bombers. Germany's most important air superiority fighters were the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Focke-Wulf Fw 190, while the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane were the primary ones on the British side. Performance and range made the P-51 Mustang the outstanding escort fighter which permitted American bombers to operate over Germany during daylight hours. They shot down 5,954 aircraft, more than any other American fighter in Europe. In the Pacific Theater, the A6M Zero gave Japan air superiority for much of the early part of the war, but suffered against newer naval fighters such as the F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair which exceeded the Zero in performance and durability. The Hellcat shot down 5,168 enemy aircraft (the second highest number), while the land-based Lockheed P-38 was third, shooting down 3,785 in all theaters.
The Israeli Air Force formed in 1948 with the formation of the modern State of Israel. Israel was involved in the 1948 Arab–Israeli War immediately after the end of the British administration and occupation. The air force initially consisted of mainly donated civil aircraft, a variety of obsolete and surplus ex-World War II combat-aircraft were quickly sourced by various means to supplement this fleet. Creativity and resourcefulness were the early foundations of Israeli military success in the air, rather than technology which, at the inception of the IAF, was generally inferior to that used by Israel's adversaries. In light of the complete Arab theater air supremacy, and the bombing and shelling of existing airbases, the first Israeli military-grade fighters operated from a hastily constructed makeshift airbase around the current Herzliya Airport, with fighters dispersed between the trees of an orange orchard. As the war progressed, more and more Czech, US, and British surplus WW-II aircraft were procured, leading to a shift in the balance of power.
In 1956 Israel, France, and the UK invaded the Sinai after Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships in the Suez Crisis. Israel's new French-made Dassault Mystere IV jet fighters provided air cover for the paratroop transport aircraft. The Egyptian tactic was to use their new Soviet-made MiG-15 jets as fighter escorts, while their older jets conducted strikes against Israeli troops and vehicles. In air combat, Israeli aircraft shot down between seven and nine Egyptian jets with the loss of one plane, but Egyptian strikes against the ground forces continued through to 1 November. With the attack by the British and French air forces, President Nasser ordered his pilots to disengage to bases in Southern Egypt. The Israeli Air Force was then free to strike Egyptian ground forces at will.
In 1967 the Straits of Tiran were again closed and international peacekeepers were ejected by Egypt. Israel then initiated Operation Focus. Israel sent nearly every capable combat aircraft out, holding only a handful for protection. Egyptian airfields were destroyed with anti-runway penetration bombs and the aircraft were mostly destroyed on the ground; Syria and Jordan also had their air forces destroyed when they entered the conflict. This is one of the preeminent examples of air supremacy where Israel had complete control of the skies above the conflict area.
Following the Six-Day War, from 1967 to 1970, there were small scale incursions into the Israeli-held Sinai desert as Egypt rearmed. This evolved into large-scale artillery and air incursions in 1969, with Soviet pilots and SAM crews arriving to assist in January 1970. The strategy was to engage Israeli aircraft in surprise fighter encounters near the Suez Canal where Egyptian SAMs could be used to assist fighters. Syria and Cuban pilots assisting also suffered losses in this period. In August 1970 a cease fire was agreed on.
The first few days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War saw major Arab ground breakthroughs, surprising Israel who, after its lopsided 1967 victory, considered its air supremacy sufficient to blunt or dissuade any conventional attack. Despite Egypt and Syria having rebuilt their air forces since 1967, Israel continued to deny them the airspace over the battle area; however, these Arab forces were able to control losses and shoot down Israeli air support aircraft by employing mobile surface to air weaponry which travelled along with invading units. Most of Israel's air power in the first few days was directed to reinforce the badly mismatched garrison overlooking the besieged Golan Heights which was under attack by Syria. After weakening the Arab SAM cover with airstrikes, commando raids, and armored cavalry, the Arab armored units outran their mobile SAM cover and Israeli aircraft began to take greater control of Egyptian skies, permitting Israeli landings and establishing a beachhead on the west bank of the Suez canal. When Egyptian fighter aircraft were sent into the area of the Israeli bridgehead, SAM sites were offlined which allowed Israeli air power to more safely engage and destroy many Egyptian fighters though taking some losses.
The 1978 South Lebanon conflict was an invasion of Lebanon up to the Litani River, carried out by the Israel Defense Forces in 1978 in response to the Coastal Road massacre. Israel had complete air supremacy.
In the 1982 Lebanon War where Israel invaded up to Beirut, Syria intervened on the side of Lebanon and the PLO forces residing there. Israeli jets shot down between 82 and 86 Syrian aircraft in aerial combat, without losses. A single Israeli A-4 Skyhawk and two helicopters were shot down by anti-aircraft fire and SAM missiles. This was the largest aerial combat battle of the jet age with over 150 fighters from both sides engaged. Syrian claims of aerial victories were met with skepticism even from their Soviet allies. The Soviets were so shaken by the staggering losses sustained by their allies that they dispatched the deputy head of their air defense force to Syria to examine how the Israelis had been so dominant.
The Israelis have upheld substantial air superiority for most of this time with Israel able to operate almost unopposed; Israel enjoyes near air supremacy against targets anywhere within range in the Middle East and North Africa until today. Regarding aircraft procurement, Israel started with British and French designs, then transitioning to indigenous production and then also design before moving again to purchasing to American designs. The Arabs directly participating in these battles against Israel except for Jordan and to some extent Iraq have commonly used Soviet designs.
Israel has upheld air superiority through the Syrian Civil War. However, the deployment of a Russian S-400 missile battery into Syria has brought Israeli dominance into question. During the February 2018 Israel–Syria incident, despite the loss of an aircraft, Israel has demonstrated their capability to operate without effective interference within the Syrian theater.
In the Korean War, the swept-wing jet-powered MiG-15 quickly outclassed initial superiority of United Nations forces. The United States introduced its own swept-wing F-86 Sabre, which claimed kill ratios as high as 10 to 1 against the MiGs.
In the 1950s, the United States Navy tasked the F-8 Crusader as their close-in air superiority fighter. This role would be taken over by the F-4 Phantom, which was designed as an interceptor. The USAF had developed the F-100 and F-104 as air superiority fighters, and also later adopted the F-4.
In the 1960s, the limited agility of American fighters in dogfights over Vietnam led to a revival of dedicated air superiority fighters, which led the development of the "Teen Series" F-14, F-15, F-16 and F/A-18. All of them made close-combat maneuverability a top priority, and were equipped with guns absent from early Phantoms. The heavy F-14 and F-15 were assigned the primary air superiority mission, because of their longer range radars and capability to carry more missiles of longer range than lightweight fighters.
In Indo-Pakistani wars and conflicts, although Pakistan often managed to maintain air parity, India still enjoyed a considerable advantage in the skies due to better logistics and number of aircraft. Pakistan has flown a variety of American, British and Chinese frames, but India has generally used Soviet and Western designs. During the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, the Indian Air Force achieved complete air superiority over East Pakistan and West Pakistan within a few days of the start of the conflict, helping the Indian Army defeat the Pakistan Army and force them to surrender.
In the 1980s the United States opted for a newer fighter capable of gaining air superiority without being detected by an opposing force. The US government approved the Advanced Tactical Fighter program, resulting in the United States Air Force receiving new aircraft to replace their aging F-15 fleet. The YF-23 and the YF-22 were chosen as the finalists in the competition. The F-22, the subsequent result of the program, became operational in 2005, and has been dubbed the "fifth generation" of fighter aircraft.
In the Falklands War (2 April–20 June 1982), the British deployed Harrier jets as air superiority fighters against Argentina's Mach-capable Dassault Mirage IIIEA fighters and subsonic Douglas A-4 Skyhawk jets.
The Iraqi Air Force suffered almost complete obliteration in the opening stages of the Persian Gulf War (2 August 1990 – 28 February 1991). It lost most of its aircraft, as well as command-and-control capability, to precise Coalition strikes or when Iraqi personnel flew their aircraft to Iran. The Iraqis shot down relatively small numbers of opposing Coalition aircraft.
Although the destruction of enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat is the most glamorous aspect of air superiority, it is not the only method of obtaining air superiority. Historically, the most effective method of gaining air superiority is the destruction of enemy aircraft on the ground and the destruction of the means and infrastructure by which an opponent may mount air operations (such as destroying fuel supplies, cratering runways with anti-runway penetration bombs and the sowing of air-fields with area denial weapons). A historical example of this is Operation Focus in which the outnumbered Israeli Air Force dealt a crippling blow to the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian Air Forces and airfields at the start of the Six-Day War, achieving Israeli air supremacy.
Disruption can be carried out through ground and air attack. On 6 December 1944, the Imperial Japanese Raiding Group Teishin Shudan destroyed B-29 aircraft on Leyte. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union claimed it could achieve air superiority despite the inferiority of its fighters, by over-running NATO airfields and parking their tanks on the runways, similar to what they have done during Tatsinskaya Raid during the Battle of Stalingrad (note the Germans used parts of their autobahn motorways as airfields during the last war). The Soviet Union planned to use its Spetsnaz special forces in attacks on NATO airfields in the event of conflict.
Attack by special forces is seen by some commanders as a way to level the playing field when faced by superior numbers or technology; attacking German aircraft and airfields was the main role which the British Special Air Service was formed for. Given the disparity in effectiveness between their own and South Korean and US fighters, North Korea maintains a large force of infiltration troops. In the event of a war, they would be tasked, amongst other missions, with attacking coalition air fields with mortar, machine gun and sniper fire, possibly after insertion by some 300 An-2 low radar-observable biplanes. Even in today's era of asymmetrical warfare, 15 fedayeen destroyed or severely damaged 8 Marine Harrier jump jets in the September 2012 Camp Bastion raid, with pilots fighting as infantry for the first time in 70 years.
NATO forces rapidly achieved air supremacy in the theater by destroying Serb interceptor aircraft in the air and on the ground and by destroying or damaging their airbases.