China launched its second aircraft carrier recently -- the first built domestically by China -- the latest example of how that nation is seeking to challenge America on the question of air supremacy. This reminded me of a discussion a while back on that issue. Air supremacy is not about relative numbers -- aircraft inventories or expenditures. Rather, air supremacy is the ability to control the air. China is clearly seeking to achieve local control over the South China Sea in the event of a conflict with the United States.
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:
- Air supremacy is the highest level, where a side holds complete control of the skies.
- Air superiority is the second level, where a side is in a more favorable position than the opponent. It is defined in the NATO glossary as the "degree of dominance in [an] air battle ... that permits the conduct of operations by [one side] and its related land, sea and air forces at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by opposing air forces."
- Air parity is the lowest level of control, where a side only holds control of skies above friendly troop positions.
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.
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 lost a stealth strike aircraft to an "obsolete" Serbian air defense system.
Air superiority is a necessity. Since the German attack on Poland in 1939, no country has won a war in the face of enemy air superiority, no major offensive has succeeded against an opponent who controlled the air, and no defense has sustained itself against an enemy who had air superiority. Conversely, no state has lost a war while it maintained air superiority, and attainment of air superiority consistently has been a prelude to military victory. It is vital that national and theater commanders, their air component commanders, and their surface component commanders be aware of these historical facts, and plan accordingly.6
To be superior in the air, to have air superiority, means having
sufficient control of the air to make air attacks on the enemy without
serious opposition and, on the other hand, to be free from the danger of
serious enemy air incursions. Of course, variations exist within the
category of air superiority.
Air superiority is the single most important factor in deciding the outcome of a modern conventional war. Military operations on land, sea, or in the air are extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the side that doesn’t control the sky. In the words of Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, “If we lose the war in the air, we
lose the war and we lose it quickly.”
There’s a difference between air superiority and air supremacy, terms often used synonymously. Air superiority is defined as being able to conduct air operations “without prohibitive interference by the opposing force.” Air supremacy goes further, wherein the opposing air force is incapable of effective interference.
Gaining air superiority isn’t an end in itself. It’s a means to an end: to damage, destroy, or otherwise affect an enemy’s centers of gravity, whatever they may be.
Air superiority must be a commander’s top priority,however. If surplus airpower is available, it can be allotted to other air campaigns. Such “parallel operations” are unique to airpower and are one of its greatest strengths.