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Air SuperiorityAir Superiority is a concept that has been the goal of military commanders since fighter aircraft were invented. Air Superiority means having total control of the airspace above a battlefield or theatre of conflict. Gaining this control means the destruction or neutralisation of enemy air assets that can pose a threat such as fighters , bombers and even recon aircraft. This can be done by their destruction in the air or on the ground by bombing airfields. This is not easily done as the Battle of Britain illustrates were the German commanders wanted air superiority before committing to an invasion of Britain. During this conflict the British airfields proved difficult to put out of action for any length of time and the British were able to replace fighter losses more quickly than the Germans.
In more modern conflicts advanced weaponry has made the task of neutralising airfields more possible, with airfield denial weapons which not only crater a runway but leave it covered in small explosive devices and mines which have to be cleared before any repair work can take place. True air superiority that is complete dominance of the air has proved illusive but recent conflicts in Iraqi in 1991 and 2003 have shown that it is possible. Air superiority gives a commander a tremendous if not decisive advantage allowing normally venerable strike aircraft and helicopter gunships to attack with little risk, recon assets to rove the battlefield proving up to date information, and interdiction to take place with ease. The effect of this can be clearly illustrated in the Gulf War 1991 and the Iraqi war of 2003, yet despite these successes no war has ever been won by air power alone, ground forces are always needed to take and hold ground.
Losing US air superiority risks ground forces
The asymmetric advantage that the U.S. military possesses ― and that has prevented enemy aircraft attacks on American ground forces since April 15, 1953 ― is eroding.
The U.S. faces a reemergence of great power competition, and although we have maintained air superiority since the Korean War, it has to be fought for and won. Fifth-generation aircraft with stealth capability are required to survive in today’s air defenses, and the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter is the only active fifth-generation fighter production line among friendly nations. It is time to procure what is needed to protect our troops.
Air superiority ensures quicker victories and, perhaps, prevents war in the first place. Parity diminishes detente leading to protracted ground wars with massive casualties on both sides.
Theater commanders have grown accustomed to operating with air superiority. Army, Marine Corps and allied ground forces can concentrate on the battle at hand and do not have to look up when they hear aircraft above. During the Gulf War, allied fighters, tankers, surveillance aircraft and bombers enjoyed freedom of movement in the skies, and coalition forces capitalized with unhindered ground movements while we were able to attack the enemy at will from the air.
We need to remove the presumption that the U.S. will maintain air superiority into the foreseeable future without drastic changes. We are on track to lose this capability within the next 10-15 years. America has rising near-peer competitors, and its outdated fourth-generation aircraft are outclassed ― and in some theaters, outnumbered by its competitors. Given its grave implications, parity is not an acceptable goal in warfare. Russia and China are catching up in fifth-generation fighters and cybersecurity, and they have already surpassed the U.S. in hypersonic missiles and technology.
Portion of A-10 fleet to move into backup status in lead up to FY25
The Air Force expects it will have to ground a portion of the A-10 fleet in the years running up to fiscal year 2025, as the life of their wings runs out, but the service believes it will not effect operations.
The Air Force has the oldest, smallest and least-ready force in its 70-year history. It is weary after 27 continuous years of combat operations, dating back to the beginning of the Gulf War. Since 1991’s Gulf War, the Air Force has drawn down from 134 to only 55 fighter squadrons. They need 70 to deter aggressors and, if needed, to win decisively. Including training, tests and backup aircraft, they need approximately 2,100 fighter aircraft.
7 Answers 7
I believe three factors play to the rapidity with which the Allies acquired air superiority over the Axis:
- The Battle of Britain - The cream of the Luftwaffe fighter force was crippled in this battle because of suffering all their casualties over enemy territory. A bailed-out RAF or RCAF pilot was usually back at his aerodrome within 48-72 hours. A bailed-out Luftwaffe pilot would spend the next 5 years at Old Fort Henry, Canada, in a POW camp.
- Population Base - Fighter combat is very much an individual test of skills and will, especially when compared to ground combat. Reflexes, marksmanship, initiative, creativity and sheer determination at a very high level are required for success, and these combine in only a small proportion of the population. Germany had a population base of roughly 80MM to search through for these skills in combination, while the Allies had a population base several times that to search. Germany's advantage in command and control that played such a decisive role in ground combat simply was irrelevant in most air combats.
- Technology - Other than a brief period after the FW-190 came out, the Axis never had a fighter plane that surpassed those of Britain and the U.S. The Japanese had better technology a bit longer with the Zero, but still only until the F6 Hellcat came out. Without superior technology to compensate for a lower skill base, the normal attrition of combat was always going to increase the edge possessed by the Allies.
Some factors not already mentioned:
- American factories and assembly lines worked hard, and turned out huge numbers of planes. A notable one is Willow Run in Michigan, which produced the B-24 Liberator. The Allied GDP outpaced that of the Axis.
- The American and British air forces alternated attacks against Germany. Americans would go bombing during the daytime, while the British would do so at night. It was called "round the clock bombing" the intent was that "the devil will get no rest."
- When enough American aircraft had been committed to bombings, the German ability to produce diminished.
- Eventually, American and British strikes happened deeper and deeper in Germany, hitting infrastructure. Alongside landings at Normandy, bombing of German targets further intensified.
Air coverage, if not superiority, was essential. But for backup by the RAF, the evacuation at Dunkirk would have been subject to the Luftwaffe.
The Allies, especially the US after converting it's huge auto industry to aircraft production, were able to produce huge numbers of aircraft, and trained crew to operate those aircraft, while Germany was not. Germany did make astounding numbers of aircraft considering the state of their industry, but they were not able to supply those aircraft with trained pilots.
Nor were the Germans able to improve their designs as rapidly. US/UK manufacturing and project management methods allowed changes to be incorporated reliably and rapidly, while changes to German production took far longer to implement. The B17 went from the C model to the vastly improved G model, and the P51 went from the early B to the penultimate D model, in less than two years. Both were produced in vast numbers, in their improved form.
Not being harassed by a bombing campaign was a major factor there - German factories were under constant attack, while US factories were unmolested, and by 1943, UK factories were relatively free of air attack.
The Germans held the edge in high tech with their jet fighters, but were never able to produce them (or more correctly, never able to produce the engines) in such numbers to make a major difference. The lack of rare metals to produce reliable gas turbines was also a factor - the average life of a Jumo 004 was in the 20-25 hour range.
The US oil campaign proved to be very successful - towards the end of the war, lack of fuel became a major problem for both Luftwaffe and motorized ground forces as well. Much of the strategy of the Germans Ardennes offensive was based on capturing Allied fuel supplies. which did not factor in how easily a fuel dump could be set on fire.
To a degree, Allied training methods were better. Their philosophy was to send their most experienced pilots home to train new pilots, while Germany (like Japan) kept their aces in combat until they died. This accounts for the very high number of 'kills' of the best German aces, 200 to 300 kills, while the best Allied pilots rarely got more than 20 or 30. They went home to pass their expertise along to a great number of new pilots.
The result of that policy was lower overall kills for the individual pilots, but a higher overall level of experience on the part of new pilots, so they were more effective and suffered fewer losses. By early 1945, most new German pilots didn't last more than one or two missions, while most new Allied pilots survived the war.
I feel it was really a critical mass issue, which was lost around the start of 1943, mostly in the east. Looking back at losses, air forces don't stand up so well when stretched for resources. Germany had the massive eastern front to deal with as well as constant harassment from the British.
-Too many experienced pilots were lost, which reduced the effectiveness of each plane, putting extra pressure on the inadequate production and development of planes.
Early in the war, the Germans had many advantages. The Bf 109 was one of the best fighters of the war. Particularly at the beginning it outclassed everything but the Spitfire. Fighting in the Spanish civil war gave the Luftwaffe experience, then a constant string of victories made them almost unstoppable. The fall started with the Battle of Britain. Hitler only reluctantly decided to attack after Churchill refused his peace offering. It was a massive loss of air power for nothing in return. It delayed and hindered Barbarossa, Hitler's real goal.
Then came the Soviets - who had a lot of aircraft, but initially almost all of them were lost on the ground. Germans had the air virtually to themselves, but a combination of massive manpower, production and development of great planes slowly ground down the Germans. A lot of air power was lost around Stalingrad, particularly ground support aircraft, allowing soviet artillery to get a leg up. By the time of the Soviet counter-offensive numerical superiority was lost, partly due to the movement of aircraft to defend North Africa from the allied landings. If there was a tipping point it was around this time, mostly on the eastern front. Hitler had thrown everything at the Soviets and lost. The Soviets were producing more planes than Germany even in 1941, and this disparity nearly doubled by the next year. What's more, these planes were equal and sometimes better than the German planes. The US and Britain were also drawing critical resources away from the east and giving direct support of lend-lease materials and resources to the soviets.
By the time the allies were pushing through Europe, the US had collected many victories in the pacific, the arena of carriers and planes. By D-Day, Germany had only 600 fighters left, essentially nothing. The US had massively increased production of planes and had developed some of the best single engine fighters of the war. German resources were far too overstretched to really have had any chance of standing up to the allies at this stage, even with the 262.
More from Opinion
Second, we must look to our history of innovation as we build the flight plan to guarantee air superiority for the future. To achieve this, we must ensure the next phase of sensors and shooters fully integrates with the capabilities of our allies and partners–and visa-versa.
Enhanced capabilities must be matched with improved decision support tools to keep us a step ahead of our adversaries. Future warfare will play out quickly, so we must be prepared to operate at speed.
Third, as the above architecture develops, we must not forget that mass is an important principle of war. We must put capabilities in numbers in the hands of our Airmen — numbers that allow them to dominate. Weapons development and deeper arsenals must be pursued aggressively.
Finally, it is time to go mobile. After 29 years of taking on adversaries who don’t have credible air forces, we have become comfortable operating from large, fixed bases…bases that are easily targetable by adversaries. Iran’s attacks on Saudi Arabia and Iraq are the canary in the air superiority coal mine.
Our adversaries should no longer have the luxury of aiming at fixed targets if we are to gain and maintain air superiority. We must invest in enabling synchronized distributed forces, and new methods for dispersed command and control, both are necessary to sustain the efficacy of our combat power.
The air superiority our nation has enjoyed for decades is no longer assured. Like freedom, it needs to be fought for.
We must have a force that can compete, deter and win over near-peer adversaries in 2030 and beyond. As we deliberate tough fiscal choices, we must first and foremost provide our nation with air superiority — at home and abroad.
There is no time in the foreseeable future when we can afford to deprioritize air superiority, in competition or in war. It is the core mission of the U.S. Air Force.
We fly…we fight…and with continued prioritization of air superiority as our core mission, we will win.
6 F-15 Eagle - United States
The F-15 Eagle has been one of America's main air superiority fighter jets. While not as advanced or stealthy as the F-22 Raptor, it is much cheaper (and is still being produced while the F-22 is not). This fourth-generation fighter jet is more than capable of contending for the skies against the vast majority of threats around the world.
The F-15 Eagle first entered service in 1976 and is still being procured by the US Air Force today. Today 1,198 Eagles have been built and it has been one of the most successful aircraft ever built. It has also claimed some 100 victories with no losses in return (mostly in the Israeli Air Force).
How Important is Air Superiority?
The appearance of Air Forces have changed even the human geography, overall in urban areas.
Taking a look at ancient cities in Europe, Africa, America, Asia . there are walls everywhere. They were defensive systems against troops and they were still effective in late 19th century, despite the introduction of long range artillery [planning the defensive walls of a city the architects made the choice of a particular shape - star shape with picks- allowing to the defenders on the walls to have a longer range for their own cannons than the incoming attackers . and the defenders were also in a higher position].
Planes changed it all and walls were no more useful. Anti air guns were required.
From that moment on [already in WW I] the air superiority gained more and more strategical value in case of conflict.
WW II saw a real mass air conflict, on global scale, with thousands of planes involved to conquer the skies.
During the advance of the allied forces after the D-Day [but it was the same in Italy] it was evident that the air support was essential, so that to stop the enemy air force was an absolute need.
That's why the Germans were studying jets and they used them against allied units [obtaining a great rate of success, btw] in the last phases of the war.
That's why during the Cold war we have seen a real run to produce the best plane, and then anti radar units [stealth].
But today there is a further evolution: space superiority begins to become tactically and strategically interesting. The step after stealth units is the "satellite war".
An intermediate step is about missiles.
If WW I has been won by the armored forces, WW II has been won by the air forces next global war will be won by missiles.
A power can have air superiority, but if an enemy country can launch thousands of missiles against its territory . that is a tremendous matter to deal with. Anyway air superiority can help also in this: the power "enjoying" it can reach the enemy land to bomb the missile launch installations [like allied air forced did with reference to German V2, for example].
”The 4th Fighter Group was as Predatory a Fighter Unit as Ever Fought in a War”
From October 1942 until May 1943, only the 4th Fighter Group remained operational in the United Kingdom. The handful of other fighter groups that had reached the British Isles by October 1942 had been diverted or, in the case of the 78th Fighter Group, stripped of its airplanes, which were needed as replacements by groups in North Africa. Between early October 1942 and the end of April 1943, 4th Fighter Group pilots accounted for just 16 German airplanes. (Between mid-March and April 8, the 4th was withdrawn from combat so it could transition from Spitfires to Republic P-47 Thunderbolts. The group’s first aerial victories in the P-47—and the P-47’s first victories, ever—were scored on April 15 over the Belgian coast.)
As was to emerge in time, the paucity of aerial victories—even the paucity of aerial encounters—had less to do with the scarcity of American-manned fighters than it did with American fighter tactics. The 4th Fighter Group was as predatory a fighter unit as ever fought in a war. In better times, with better tactics, it became one of America’s premier fighter units. But during the period it flew as the only American fighter unit in operation in northern Europe—and for several months beyond—it attained negligible results because it was hobbled by idiotic tactics.
The immediate culprit was Maj. Gen. Monk Hunter, the commander of the VIII Fighter Command, but it must be said that Hunter was a product of his training and, to a degree, poor technology. Both of these factors obliged him and his eager fighter pilots—Hunter was eager, too—to work apart, virtually in a separate war, from the Eighth Air Force’s other combat arm, the VIII Bomber Command. Indeed, the doctrines that defined bomber and fighter operations were so far apart as to obviate direct cooperation.
The bombers had been built and the bomber crews had been trained to attack enemy targets without protection from fighters. Even as late as 1942, non-German air strategists honestly believed that wars could be won by bomber campaigns alone. Since the mid-1930s, Americans who accepted this outlook had developed what they called the self-defending bomber. That innovation, however, had more to do with the fighter technology of the 1930s fighters of the day possessed neither the range nor the speed required to protect modern bombers. Fighter technology improved, but by mid-1942 the concept of the self-defending bomber had taken on a life of its own. It was believed that Germany could be bombed into submission by long-range self-defending bombers that were capable of flying—without fighter escort—to industrial targets anywhere in western or even central Europe. There was no offensive role for fighters.
As with most self-fulfilling prophecies, fact came to match belief. In 1942, American heavy bombers (and their British counterparts) had the range to strike targets in distant Berlin and beyond. The British had attempted daylight raids against Berlin early in the war, but they had been trounced by German fighter and antiaircraft-gun defenses. So they had switched to night “area” raids, nominally against industrial targets but, in reality, against whomever or whatever their bombs happened to strike.
America’s Air Superiority Starts Here: Land of NO SLACK, Part 2
On 4 May 2021, I had a fantastic visit to the 173rd Fighter Wing, of the Oregon Air National Guard. Situated in beautiful southern Oregon in Klamath Falls, the 173rd FW trains F-15 Eagle pilots, and has been doing so since 1998. The base started training fighter pilots in air superiority in 1983 with the F-4C Phantom, and in 1988 the F-16A Fighting Falcon arrived. In March 1989 the Air Defense Fighter (ADF) variant of the F-16 was brought on board. You can see more history of the Wing and about David R. Kingsley, for whom the airfield is named for, HERE.
In the morning, I spent time with Maintenance, and in the afternoon, with Operations.
But first, I must thank the folks that made the visit possible:
• All the members of the 173rd Fighter Wing
• “Axe”, for being receptive to my request idea, communicating and coordinating
• SMSgt Jennifer Shirar, 173rd FW Public Affairs Superintendent, for her support, coordination, trust, guidance, and airplane display escort
• Brian, 173d Maintenance Squadron, for his support, escort duties, finding unique photo opportunities and knowledge sharing
• All the folks in Maintenance, including leadership, the crew chiefs, flight line, aircraft maintainers, engine shop, hydraulic shop, and fuel cell maintenance, for allowing me to shadow and get photos and ask questions
• ”Tiny”, 114th Fighter Squadron, for his support and assistance while juggling flying duties
• “Hog”, 550th FS, for his support, escort duties, and knowledge sharing while managing Supervisor of Flying Ops
• All the folks in Operations for their support, and allowing me to shadow and get photos and ask questions
• Security Forces at the main gate, for a friendly, professional, and seamless entry
The afternoon of the visit focused on Operations, and you can see my article on Maintenance HERE.
114th Fighter Squadron / 550th Fighter Squadron
The 114th FS is the flying unit of the 173rd Operations Group / 173rd Fighter Wing.
The 550th FS is an active-duty squadron, which became official at an activation ceremony on 21 July 2017 at Kingsley Field. The squadron reports into the 56th Operations Group at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. It was brought to Kingsley Field to help with the training of F-15C pilots.
Shortly after lunch I headed back to Operations / 114th FS / 550th FS in preparation for the afternoon flying. “Tiny”, who was my original scheduled escort, was tasked with flying, and “Hog” became my escort while also performing Supervisor of Flying (SOF) duties. While waiting I walked around a bit marveling at the plethora of photos, paintings, artifacts, and other items that historically decorated the Operations’ area.
Shortly, some pilots arrived and were looking over documents and the large screens on the wall and talking with Hog. I did not want to disturb them as they got their briefing, so I quietly took some photos from behind and to the side of them.
Hog then said it was time for us to head out to the ramp. We went outside and got into a pickup and drove out to the flight line where 4 Eagles were busily being prepped for the afternoon launch. I jumped out and started taking photos from the opposite end I had in the morning.
I took photos of both maintainers and pilots prepping, as I did in the morning, with the flurry of activity working between a massive ramp construction project. For the theme of this article, image use will primarily be on the aircraft and pilots. The pilots were a mix of instructors and students, both from the 114th FS and 550th FS. The teamwork was seamless, just like in the morning.
Something special that I forgot to mention in the Maintainers article was F-15C Eagle 79-0046 with the shark mouth markings. It was the first time I had seen an F-15 in person with a shark mouth, and it was subtle and not gaudy at all.
Once the first couple of jets taxied from their spot, I got back into the truck with Hog and we drove over to the area in which the last checks are performed. We were there for just a minute or two and Hog graciously asked me where I would like to set up for pictures by the side of the runway, asking what types of shots I was looking for. We went about one third the way down and parked on a taxiway.
Take offs and landings
Soon, the first jet was roaring down the runway towards us. As it was the first time I had taken pictures at Kingsley Field, I was not exactly sure where the jets would rotate to lift off and at what height they would be as they passed, especially as they were not carrying external tanks, and I didn’t know if afterburners would be used (which they did). In the end, it all worked out well, and special thanks to Hog for knowing where to set up, and I cannot thank him enough for helping me get the shots! Being so close that you feel 50,000 pounds of thrust taking off never gets old!
After the 4th jet departed, I got back into the truck and Hog drove down to the area where the arrestor cable was set up and we parked there, awaiting the jets to return. During this time, we talked about the F-15EX and the other potential future aircraft of the 173rd FW.
Soon, the jets started to return, and the spot Hog had set up was perfect for the landing shots. Interestingly during this time, a Tactical Air Support civilian-owned CF-5D aggressor landed as well, to join one other CF-5D and F-5E parked on their ramp. After the 4 Eagles landed, we returned to the Operations building.
Tactical Air Support
Tactical Air Support hosts a small detachment of aircraft at Kingsley Field, and operates F-5AT Advanced Tiger and Canadair CF-5D aircraft in the adversary role. They work with the 173rd FW, providing “red air“ support to train F-15 pilots. While I was at Kingsley Field, I saw an F-5AT and a CF-5D taxi out for the morning mission, and in the afternoon, an additional CF-5D landed.
You can read about Tactical Air Support at Kingsley Field HERE
David R. Kingsley Anniversary Eagle
One of the highlights I was looking forward to on my visit was seeing F-15C Eagle 78-0543, which was unveiled in January 2020 wearing an incredibly special paint scheme in memory of David R. Kingsley. The airport is named in his honor, and he lost his life in a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber crash in Bulgaria in June 1944. You can read more about him HERE.
The jet was in the hangar for some maintenance work, and made it a bit of a challenge to get photos, but Brian was very accommodating and suggested different angles etc. This is where shooting in RAW really helped me bring out the exposure on some shots. I was very pleased to see the amazing work and tribute to Kingsley. The artwork inside the tails is especially impressive, with Kingsley and Crater Lake below him. Crater Lake is a gorgeous lake and National Park, located about 90 minutes north of Klamath Falls. I visited there on the day before my visit at the suggestion of Axe, and it was well worth it! Interestingly, this jet also used to be based at Barnes Air National Guard Base, Massachusetts, and the 104th FW.
The 173rd FW has a beautiful display of 3 static aircraft, with nicely manicured landscape, which also includes a display in memory of David R. Kingsley, that has a section of the B-17 Flying Fortress that he perished in, which was recovered in Bulgaria. The aircraft on display are an F-15A Eagle, F-4C Phantom and F-16A Fighting Falcon. Additionally, there is an F-15C Eagle tail wearing the special artwork from their previous color jet – you can read more HERE. I also included a photo of an F-16A Fighting Falcon on display at the Medford Airport.
Special thanks to Jenn for ending the day on a high note strolling through the displays and admiring such a nice set up.
The Future – F-15EX Eagle II
Unlike my visit with Maintenance, I did not really get a chance to discuss the F-15EX with Operations, other than some high-level information with Hog, which included budgets, which units would eventually the aircraft, etc.
You can read about the announcement HERE.
Afternoon portion/visit concludes
After walking through the aircraft static park, my amazing and productive visit concluded. I hope the 2 articles give some insight into the tremendous work and contributions by the 173rd Fighter Wing.
Again, I cannot thank Team Kingsley enough for their support, hospitality and dedication and service to our country!
Air Superiority, Air Supremacy, Air Dominance?
a. Favorable Air Situation. A favorable air situation is one in which the extent of the air effort applied by the enemy air forces is insufficient to prejudice the success of friendly land, sea or air operations.
b. Air Superiority. Air Superiority can be defined as that degree of dominance in the air battle of one force over another which permits the conduct of operations by the former and its related land, sea and air forces at a given place and time without prohibitive interference by the opposing force (AAP-6).
c. Air Supremacy. Air Supremacy is that degree of control of the air wherein opposing forces are incapable of effective interference with friendly air operations.
AP3000 agrees, in that it says exactly the same thing!:
Air Superiority. That degree of dominance in the air battle of one force over another which permits the conduct of operations by the former and its related land, sea and air forces at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by the opposing force.
Air Supremacy. That degree of air superiority wherein the opposing air force is
incapable of effective interference.
I think it means. 'Domination in the Air'..
Or am I being too simplistic.
Edited for red wine speeling.
Air Superiority and Air Supremacy's definitions both sound like domination, though, don't they?
One guesses that Vietnam illustrates a 'favourable air situation', while the Falklands and Korea illustrate 'air superiority' and Granby/DS 'air supremacy'.
Does Iraqi Freedom/Enduring Freedom illustrate Air Dominance?
My understanding (which could well be wrong) is that air superiority can be a temporary thing. An example - when a huge package is going into the badlands, the F15Cs clear out the red air, and provide air superiority for the period while the muddies get on with their work. However, when the package all goes home, then the enemy still has fighters etc that can cause problems at a later time.
Air supremacy is the next step up, when you've wiped out most of your enemy's air force and they're only capable of throwing up the odd aircraft to cause the occasional nuisance.
Air dominance is when they have nothing left, either in terms of airframes, or the 'will to fight'.
So in the Iraqi context, you might say that during Op Southern Watch, the coalition had air superiority in the southern no-fly zone during a 'vul' period, but perhaps not 24/7. During the opening days of GW1 the coalition had air supremacy, but the odd Iraqi still got airborne. During Iraqi Freedom though, with the Iraqis burying their aircraft, and when I don't believe a single one got airborne, you'd say that the coalition had air dominance. It's all in the nuance of the level of 'interference' the enemy can or does cause.
A favourable air situation would be one when the enemy are still coming up in numbers for a fight, but you can get the job you're trying to do done. eg Korea in Mig Alley perhaps.
I might be totally wrong of course, and ready to stand corrected by the doctrine gurus out there, but that's my take on it.
Single Seat, Single Engine, The Only Way To Fly
"I would describe the difference between 'air dominance' and 'air superiority' as one of magnitude of ability to influence events in a given piece of airspace. For instance, when you begin to conduct any kind of a combat or theater-wide operation, normally that theater commander's first priority is to make sure that you have air superiority over your own troops, [which should] generally guarantee that you will not have your troops attacked. . . . The next stage has been called air supremacy, where you, for all intents and purposes, not only are able to defend your own people, but you pretty much dominate the space. You can operate at will in there. Air dominance . . . is a term that's sort of grown up in the last couple of years in joint doctrine. . . . Dominance to me is kind of an extension of the supremacy idea that says, 'Nothing moves or operates in that guy's airspace.' I mean, you totally control it. It's a step above."
General Fogleman, in March 14, 1996, testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"What the concepts of air superiority and supremacy lack is the consideration of the effectiveness of airpower to achieve objectives after an air force attains either. An enemy which has been defeated in the air may still prevent air dominance through a variety of means ranging from ground-to-air attacks to attacks on friendly airbases. The domestic procurement budget may also prevent air dominance due to a lack of understanding, hence funding, for any of the links of the air dominance chain".
Which would suggest the difference is in your ability to achieve your objectives after achieving air supremacy. This might be by prevented by enemy SAW concentrations, camouflage, use of hostages etc or by failing to have the types of precision or penetration weapons to exploit the supremacy achieved.
I would offer the proposition that we had air supremacy over Serbia, but not air dominance.
Modernization and the Case for Air Supremacy: A Short History
Just the other day, a conversation amongst a small group of Army, Navy, and Air Force officers turned to the topic of recent U.S. Air Force (USAF) modernization and recapitalization efforts, sparked by the issue of A-10 and MQ-1 divestment and turning to debating the point of the F-35. The consensus from the non-Air Force officers was that they simply did not understand what the big deal was. Why can’t the USAF continue to do what it needs to with what it has? The root of this disconnect was a misunderstanding of air superiority built upon misinformation, a lack of education, and over-generalizations of previous conflicts. That initiated some self-reflection: where does the responsibility sit to educate the other services on airpower, and why does it really matter? My conclusion: airpower education must start at the lowest levels, as soon as it can be understood, comprehended, and propagated. Understanding airpower (capabilities, limitations, and issues that affect it) is a critical element of joint interoperability. Unfortunately, and ironically, even the USAF falls a bit short in the airpower education department.
At the root of the problem, what is commonly referred to today as air superiority has become synonymous with what is actually air supremacy. USAF doctrine categorizes the degrees of air control as parity, superiority, and supremacy. Air parity is described as the point of intense conflict in the fight to gain an air domain advantage. The best historic example of air parity is the Battle of Britain in World War II. Whereas air parity is easy to identify, the other degrees of air control are less clear. As USAF doctrine describes it, the difference between air superiority and air supremacy depends on whether the enemy is capable of “effective interference” versus “prohibitive interference” to operations, respectively. Additionally, air superiority can be further quantified as either localized or spanning the entire area of operations.
Don’t let the semantics preclude an understanding of the strategic impact one has over another. Air supremacy is achieved when the size, composition, and capability of one air force overwhelms another, thereby making the lesser force’s efforts to challenge the air domain futile. Historically, the over-whelming advantage of air power has occurred through preparation, NOT execution. Sun Tzu’s Art of War proposes “every battle is won before it’s ever fought.” In the same context, being organized, trained, and equipped for air supremacy negates the chance of engaging in air parity. Thus, there is no point in time when losses of any significant value are sustained. On the other hand, air superiority can have areas and degrees of contestment and, more importantly, attrition. An air force should always strive for air supremacy and not be content with air superiority. For the USAF, which must maintain both the capability and capacity to respond globally, air supremacy is an imperative, not an option.
Senior leadership quotes describing the USAF as “the best air force in the history of the world” and how it’s now in its “24th consecutive year of combat operations” are taken out of context to the uninitiated. Realize that no one in the active US military today has been engaged in a conflict where the enemy put up a meaningful resistance to air operations. While partly due to the nature of counter-insurgency operations, when an enemy has challenged the air domain long-term investment in air supremacy has prevented a battle of air parity. This preparation actually started in the late 1970s when the USAF realized it was on an eerily similar downward slope as it is today and invested in force modernization, emphasizing qualities of speed, stealth, stand-off, and precision to counter Soviet quantity.
Short-sighted, politically-driven fiscal decisions create long-term risk to air supremacy that simply can’t be undone. Imagine the difference in discussions today regarding force projection and highly-contested operations if the USAF had acquired 750 F-22s as originally intended instead of 183. A false sense of security from miscomprehension has created a biased expectation that the pace of modernization (i.e. organize, train, and equip) can rest on its laurels and assume the world will remain unchanged. This is simply not the case. For example, when the F-15 was first delivered to the USAF in 1972, it was an “air superiority fighter.” Today, 43 years later, it is more accurately defined as an “air-to-air fighter” because the systems around the world that challenge air superiority have improved dramatically, changing the dynamic. In 2012, the USAF had 5,672 aircraft. This number included 1,221 training aircraft/gliders as well as 248 VIP transport aircraft. The average age of the fleet at that time: 28.5 years and only 18% of the fleet was less than 10 years old. This sounds like an impressive number, but by historic comparison, it was not.
In 2003, the Iraqi Air Force buried their planes instead of taking to the skies against the coalition. In fact, more fixed-wing aircraft were lost in fratricides (one F-18 and one Tornado GR4 were shot down by US Army PATRIOT fire units) than in combat (the sole fixed-wing loss was an A-10). The state of the USAF in 2003: 6,073 aircraft with an average age of 24 years. While UN sanctions, as well as Operations SOUTHERN WATCH and NORTHERN WATCH can be considered enablers, preparation for air supremacy prevented a battle of air parity.
Serbian MiG-29/FULCRUM Downed by NATO Fighters During Operation ALLIED FORCE
(DoD Photo, SPC Tracy Trotter)
In 1999’s Operation ALLIED FORCE, Serbian forces used 1960s/1970s SA-3 and SA-6 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to threaten the NATO coalition in the most formidable air defense the modern USAF has faced. Although the Serbians only had 41 of these SAM systems, they shot an estimated 665 SA-3 and SA-6 missiles at coalition forces. A vast majority of these were unguided for fear of the radar site being attacked by HARM anti-radiation missiles, a lesson learned and quickly adopted worldwide after observing Operation DESERT STORM. In fact, the coalition employed 743 AGM-88 HARMs (equivalent to depleting 13% of today’s entire US inventory), with only 11 of 16 SA-3 LOW BLOW radars and 3 of 25 SA-6 STRAIGHT FLUSH radars being destroyed. Despite the perceived tactical failure, this is easily viewed as a technological operational success. Of all the missiles fired at the coalition, there were only three notable incidents in the 10,500 sorties flown into the air defenses (one F-16 and one F-117 were shot down while another F-117 received battle damage). The state of the USAF in 1999: 6,203 aircraft with an average age of 21 years. Preparation for air supremacy with SEAD tactics and equipment that was well-suited for the conflict prevented a battle of air parity to achieve air superiority.
In 1991, Operation DESERT SHIELD positioned 2,500 coalition aircraft to counter the roughly 700 aircraft of the Iraqi Air Force. During the first week of Operation DESERT STORM almost half of the Iraqi fighter force fled to Iran rather than face the coalition. Out of 116,000 sorties flown, the coalition lost only 37 fixed-wing aircraft in combat. Of these, 75% of the losses were due to air defense artillery (ADA) and 1970s infrared missile systems more fixed-wing aircraft were lost to mishaps and flying into terrain than to SAMs. The state of the USAF in 1991: 8,510 aircraft with an average age of 16 years. Again, being prepared for air supremacy prevented a battle of air parity.
In Vietnam, much has been written about how the MiG-17 and MiG-21 challenged and outperformed superior US fighters and how the introduction of the SA-2 changed battlefield dynamics. Although the USAF did lose 2,251 aircraft during the war, only 270 of these were lost to MiGs and SAMs (90 and 180 respectively). Almost double the losses were non-combat related and 77% of all USAF aircraft losses (1,737) were due to ADA. Luckily, during the 14-year conflict the North Vietnamese systems remained postured defensively and lacked a force projection capability. Because of this, air parity existed over North Vietnam while air supremacy existed over the rest of Southeast Asia. Combat attrition per sorties flown was actually lower than Operation DESERT STORM. The state of the USAF in 1972: 10,971 aircraft with an average age of 9.7 years (48% of the inventory was less than 10 years old).
51st Fighter Wing F-86 Sabres at Suwon AB During the Korean War
The Korean War was quite different. Despite the exploits of the air war, US losses to air combat only comprised 10% of all combat losses (and only 5% of all US aircraft lost). Air parity existed in pockets around North Korean ground positions and the Yalu River (better known as MiG Alley), but preparation (namely equally-capable equipment and better training) enabled air superiority. For the first six months of the Korean War, the US F-80 enabled air superiority by outclassing the North Korean Yak-3, Yak-7, and Il-10. On 1 November 1950 the first MiG-15 was encountered over the skies of Korea seven days later the first F-86 deployed from the US. Within twelve months, MiG-15s numbered approximately 525 compared to only 89 F-86s. In a manner not unlike how massive quantities of poorly-trained Allies produced numerous German Aces in WWI and WWII, the average MiG-15 pilot only received six weeks of rudimentary training. By comparison F-86 pilots received 18 months. By the latter stages of the war, all of the MiG-15 instructors had been shot down and the remaining inexperienced pilots were on their own. North Korea had to rely on their overwhelming number of fighters compared to the US, with disastrous results. Between March and July 1953, 225 MiG-15s were shot down to a loss of only 10 F-86s, and the Korean War would eventually produce 41 US Aces (39 Air Force, 1 Navy, and 1 Marine). The state of the USAF in 1950: 18,927 aircraft with an average age of 4.7 years.
While Vietnam marked the last time air superiority was truly challenged, investing in air supremacy has contributed to ensuring the USAF has the capacity and capability to enable and support the joint force. With today’s fiscal environment, the need for Airmen to comprehend airpower has never been more important. Similarly, education among the joint force requires airpower advocates at all levels. Inevitably, there are numerous technological breakthroughs that will continue to evolve airpower and the forces that exist to counter it. Investment in continual modernization to pursue air supremacy ultimately benefits the joint force through swift, decided airpower projection that will continue to make airpower an asymmetric advantage now and in the future.
Once the command of the air is obtained by one of the contended armies, the war must become a conflict between a seeing host and one that is blind.
H. G. Wells, Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life, 1902 [a year before the Wright Brothers flew and prophetically foretelling of air power in World War I]
Major Mike “Pako” Benitez is an instructor Weapons System Officer in the F-15E Strike Eagle with over 1,000 combat hours spanning multiple deployments. A prior-enlisted Marine and graduate of the US Air Force Weapons School, he has been involved in operational-level crisis action planning in both CENTCOM and EUCOM and has recently completed a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) fellowship.
Gain and Maintain Acquisitions Superiority: Why the USAF Needs to Deliver Faster, Fail Smarter, and Innovate Better
Author’s Note: Names of some senior military and industry officials are deliberately excluded from this article in accordance with the principles of academic freedom for statements made to educate and inform in a university forum. Their opinions, as recorded in person by the author, add critical substance to the article’s arguments.
Abstract: The US’s near-peer competitors are closing capabilities gaps by rapidly acquiring new technologies deliberately designed to challenge the US Air Force’s air superiority. One main reason for this “capabilities closure” is the slow and risk-averse nature of the Department of Defense’s acquisitions process. But even within the limitations of the DoD’s system, tThe USAF can increase the effectiveness of its acquisitions by prioritizing speed of delivery, accepting and managing the increased risk of failure, and incorporating innovative ideas as core acquisitions priorities. Aggressively adopting these three focus areas may help the USAF to retain – or even expand – its comparative military advantage against near-peer competitors.
The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) directed the Department of Defense’s (DoD) service branches to refocus on global competition with some of the world’s most aggressive revisionist powers. These states, including China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, have made major advances in technology and military systems in recent years. Their centralized governments and authoritarian regimes have allowed them to rapidly field new, novel, complex, and interconnected systems deliberately designed to challenge US military power and deny access to future battlespaces. By increasing their capabilities, these states seek to overturn the US military’s competitive technological and military advantages. As Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Hyten explained, “When you look at our competitors, large and small, one of the things you find they have in common is they’re moving very, very fast. And we are not.”
These states will continue to accelerate aircraft, missile, computer, and space development by proliferating cheap and highly accessible technologies, practicing industrial espionage, and promoting dual-use civilian and military infrastructures. Addressing these issues requires a global, whole-of-government approach from the US, with many of the “soft power levers” falling outside of the DoD’s jurisdiction. But within the US military’s scope of responsibilities, one of the biggest impediments to maintaining the US’s comparative military advantage is self-induced: our own military acquisitions process. “US bureaucracy is built to remove risk,” said General Hyten, “not to move fast.”
Many active duty military members working within the DoD’s 5000-series acquisitions process have undoubtedly been frustrated by the lack of speed, risk tolerance, and innovation allowed by the rigid and bureaucratic system. Many of these same people, however, will also likely acknowledge that the DoD system is so large, programs are so entrenched, and budgets are so massive, that trying to rebuild from scratch could lead to budgetary disaster.
Instead of recommending a complete overhaul of the DoD’s behemoth acquisitions system, this article will prescribe three focus areas the USAF can adopt to more effectively maneuver within it. This article draws on speeches and interviews with senior USAF leaders, industry partners, and research organizations, as well as historical examples, to codify the three focus areas and highlight their potential effectiveness. The three focus areas are: 1) prioritizing speed of delivery 2) accepting and managing an increased risk of failure and 3) incorporating innovative ideas into core acquisitions priorities.
FOCUS AREA #1: Prioritize speed of deliveryFrom original quote, “Il meglio è l’inimico del bene,” or literally, “the best is the enemy of the good,” in Dictionnaire Philosophique, 1770. Image by author.
As explained by General Hyten, the DoD’s current acquisitions processes are designed to minimize risk. Achieving this requires long and complex timelines, with a focus on fielding mature, near-perfect solutions. New weapon and aircraft programs must complete years-long milestones and earn approval from many different authorities before the first systems are ever fielded. This system has benefited the DoD during critical interwar periods, e.g., the Cold War, when the US’s investments had to last for decades to effectively counter looming global threats, like the USSR. But in today’s fast-paced, globalized, and technologically enabled world, the DoD’s risk-averse system often transforms fiscal security measures into bureaucratic roadblocks for new capabilities.
During critical periods of history, the DoD has proven its ability to rapidly field new and effective systems in quantities capable of shifting the tides of war. Today, however, private businesses are more likely to field advanced technologies at breakneck speed because they are unhampered by slow-moving acquisitions restrictions. One reason private industry has outpaced military development in many sectors is its willingness to field imperfect solutions, so long as they move quickly.
With profits at stake, many companies understand that there is not enough time or market share available to develop perfect products. Instead, they focus on delivering products that are “good enough,” while also creating plans for continued improvements and updates. During periods of peacetime, it can be difficult for the DoD and its service branches to feel the same market-force pressures that drive private companies to deliver quickly or be left behind.
For example, a senior USAF official explained to ACSC students in 2020 that it takes five or six years for the US to acquire an existing space asset. Developing and fielding a new space capability can take twelve years or more. By comparison, a company like Elon Musk’s SpaceX moves at a much faster pace. SpaceX’s stated goal is to launch over 4,000 satellites in the Starlink constellation providing global internet service, recalled the senior official. While visiting SpaceX, the official observed that “they went from a mockup of the production line to over sixty satellites in orbit within months. We [the DoD] have to figure out how to deliver faster.”
The idea that the USAF can field systems at speed and quantity is not without historical precedent. For example, during the famed Century Series period from 1950-1960, the USAF designed and fielded six fighter variants that thrust American warfighting aviation into the supersonic age. While these aircraft were not perfect, their cumulative effect on the USAF’s lethality in combat revolutionized the way the US delivered air power to this day.
In another example, Dik Daso describes General Henry “Hap” Arnold’s focus on the speed of relevance in his book Hap Arnold and the Evolution of American Airpower. Between WWI and WWII, General Arnold and his colleagues from industry and academia had already transformed American aviation through long-term research and development efforts. In 1939, however, General Arnold completely shifted the Army Air Corps’ acquisitions priorities to the most likely field-ready efforts, including the B-17, the B-29, fighter aircraft, glide bombs, and airborne radar systems.
In a quote perhaps as relevant today as it was in 1939, Arnold demanded that the Army Air Corps “sacrifice some quality to get sufficient quantity to supply all fighting units. [We must] never follow the mirage, looking for the perfect airplane, to a point where fighting squadrons are deficient in numbers of fighting planes.” While the USAF’s scope has grown beyond “fighting planes” to include advanced computing, space, command and control, and other systems, the spirit of his intent remains the same: when the free world’s security is at stake, a whole lot of “good enough” may be more effective against our adversaries than “perfection” delivered late…or never.
Can today’s Air Force return to its WWII or Century Series roots and rapidly field capable systems at speed and quantity? According to Director and Program Executive Officer for the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) Mr. Randall Walden, the answer is – yes. “Operational Test and Evaluation thinkers typically want to hold out for the 100% solution,” said Mr. Walden in an interview for this article. “But oftentimes, the last 20% takes more time than the first 80%. The RCO wants to immediately field those 80% solutions, with solid follow-on plans.”
The Air Force’s RCO subscribes to a three-step acquisitions philosophy. First, make a decision to acquire a new capability as soon as possible. Second, get potential platforms and weapons on contract immediately. And third, start building the weapon or aircraft. Mr. Walden summarized this philosophy in three words: “Deliver, deliver, deliver!”
It is not to say that imperfection is the RCO’s ultimate goal. Instead, the office wants to increase delivery of weapons and aircraft to warfighters by spending less time on spreadsheets and update briefs. By closely collaborating with warfighters, the RCO strives to field capabilities with the biggest potential impacts on the battlefield, instead of waiting for the “perfect” solution. By allowing the warfighting customer to agree that a solution is “good enough,” the RCO seeks to avoid the inertia and red tape of traditional DoD processes. Mr. Walden advises his organization that, “If your product is ‘process,’ all you’ll ever deliver is ‘process’.” The traditional DoD acquisitions process is lengthy, cumbersome, and sets near-perfection as its goal. Speed is usually sacrificed to reduce risk, while new systems often have unforeseen flaws upon initial fielding. Speed not only puts new capabilities in warfighters’ hands sooner, it includes warfighters in the discovery learning process while simultaneously providing operational effects. Speed allowed General Arnold to rapidly grow the Army Air Corps from a fledgling military organization into the world’s most powerful Air Force. Speed is also what allows private businesses to create and field technologies that seemed impossible at the turn of the century. Organizations within today’s Air Force, such as the RCO, embrace delivery speed as a measure of success. The Air Force should make speed, not perfection, its top acquisitions priority as it seeks to counter the growing threat from countries such as China and Russia. As General Hyten surmises, speed itself is a type of efficiency it builds capabilities sooner while also introducing savings in the long run.
FOCUS AREA #2: Accept and manage an increased risk of failure
In a speech to ACSC students in 2020, a senior USAF official referred to the USAF as “the original garage startup.” This was due to the experimentation and risk-taking by the Wright brothers and other fledgling aviation developers at the turn of the 20 th century. Today’s Air Force, however, is bound by an acquisitions process determined to mitigate risks at every turn. This creates two major cultural problems for those working in or alongside the acquisitions community. On one hand, it discourages the allocation of DoD money on high-risk, high-reward ventures. On the other, it disincentivizes individuals from providing honest feedback, as anything other than glowing reviews or bureaucratic jargon could cause an organization to lose years-worth of future funding.
First, the current military acquisitions environment forces acquisitions professionals to prioritize budget security and political messaging over the actual delivery of new and novel capabilities. Executive Program Reviews, POM cycle meetings, and Armed Service Committee inquiries can often feel as tense and high-stakes as battleplan meetings in the warzone. Within this “budget battlefield,” participants may refer to budget drills as “flaying skin.” Mantras such as “money in motion is money at risk” create real inertia for otherwise common-sense reallocation decisions. This risk-averse environment reinforces the desire to wait for “near-perfect” solutions rather than pursuing higher-risk initiatives with potentially greater payoffs. It can also prevent decision-makers from moving funding from one team’s failing effort to a more promising venture, even within the same organization.
Second, this environment also creates a culture that stifles calculated risk-taking and honest evaluation. In his book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, Tim Hartford explains how a complete intolerance for failure creates two kinds of bureaucrats. One over-promises capability performance to secure budgets and advance his or her own career. The other under-promises expected results in hopes that by “lowering expectations,” the actual platform performance will surprise and please senior decision makers. Neither of these bureaucrats is incentivized to focus on the unvarnished truth. Only when truth data is properly communicated can Program Managers (PMs) identify the true risks involved in a new weapon or aircraft and the measures that can be taken to either accept or mitigate those risks.
Finally, and perhaps worst of all, is that today’s Air Force tends to massively overcorrect when failures do occur because the DoD’s system values “process” over honest assessment and delivery. A senior USAF official explained to ACSC students in 2020 that, “If we take risks on building a large, exquisite satellite and it fails, it will be five or six years before we try again. On the commercial side, they’re launching so many satellites that they can afford to experiment and try new ideas.”
In the new reality portrayed in the 2018 NDS, where revisionist states tolerate failure and quickly move forward, these work stoppages are a major factor eroding the US’s comparative military advantage. General Hyten echoed this sentiment, stating that the US lost a ten-year jump in hypersonic development over its competitors. Two failed missile efforts lead to multi-year investigations and the cancellation of one of the main hypersonic programs. Every time we fail, he lamented, the DoD stops development for years.
How can a risk-averse system and culture once again learn to take chances and survive failures? In Adapt, Hartford draws on the philosophy of Russian engineer and government analyst Peter Palchinsky. Sadly, Palchinsky was “disappeared” from Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Russia in the late 1920s for speaking too much “truth to power.” But he left behind three principles for properly accepting risk and fostering innovative ideas: “First, seek out new ideas and try new things second, when trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable and third, seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along.”
The Air Force is already taking steps to build acquisitions infrastructures within the broader DoD system that can survive setbacks and failures. In Mr. Ben Fitzgerald’s June 2018 interview, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (Acquisition, Technology and Logistics) Dr. Will Roper shed light on how the Air Force may already be applying “Palchinsky’s Principles.” By increasing the use of Middle Tier of Acquisitions (MTA) authorities (also known as 804 authorities), the Air Force is optimistic about its ability to incorporate calculated risks. “We’re really happy to have the [MTA] authority,” Dr. Roper pronounced, “because it lets us go back to what acquisition is always supposed to do…tailor the process to the specific needs of the program.”
In the interview, Dr. Roper describes how 804 authorities, which were recently delegated from the Secretary of Defense to the individual services, make risk management better. PMs can dedicate time and resources “on the things that matter.” The Air Force is using 804 authorities to separate prototyping and large-scale fielding, allowing for a more “Palchisky-like” approach during the prototyping phase. This model contracts several competitors to develop a new or upgraded system, requires them to build prototypes, and then competes them against each other. According to Dr. Roper, this model “starts to sound like a commercial airliner, not the US Air Force.” It allows PMs to tailor timelines, risk, and costs targets throughout the prototyping process, instead of blindly adhering to the predicable and years-long milestones of 5000-series acquisitions.
When asked how the Air Force could “fail with purpose,” Dr. Roper reiterated that pursuing parallel efforts would allow some to fail, while successful ones would move on to large-scale fielding. For larger programs where multiple prototypes are unrealistic, such as the Air Force’s new bomber or tanker aircraft, long-lead items could still be pursued with four or five competitors in case the primary contractor failed. Not only does the 804 authority/prototyping model include calculated failure as part of its process, it also distributes risk between the USAF and industry. It requires private companies to put “skin in the game” by way of building and competing operational prototypes.
While the Air Force should expand efforts and infrastructures to incorporate failure into its discovery-learning process, the culture surrounding acquisitions must also change. In an interview for this article, an aerospace executive provided insight from the industry’s perspective. “Industry will move as fast as government will allow. If the DoD won’t accept risk, neither will industry,” said the executive. “We need to fail fast, learn, and move forward.” Dr. Roper reinforced this idea, saying that both industry and the Air Force must embrace a new culture. Dr. Roper made clear that until the culture changes, both industry and acquisitions bureaucrats will continue to present data in long-lead and risk-averse language: the exact way they’ve been told to for decades. Only a deliberate and sustained effort to create a new culture that values constructive criticism and flexibility will challenge this entrenched culture.
Mr. Walden of the RCO also hopes that both PMs and senior Air Force leaders can work together to break through inertia and learn to embrace purposeful failures. “PMs and PEOs [Program Executive Officers] usually have good strategies, and they’re success-oriented,” said Mr. Walden. But senior leaders cannot simply state in public forums that they want to fail faster and learn better. “Senior leaders also have to follow through with the ‘if you fail, we support you’ aspect of culture building.”
While the Air Force has taken steps towards embracing risk and allowing for constructive failure as part of the prototyping process, . Changing the broader environment and culture surrounding acquisitions, both by demanding honest risk assessment from bureaucrats as well as challenging adherence to decades-old policies, requires significant work. Failure is difficult, and yet risking failure is necessary at times to discover truly ground-breaking technologies. Learning how to fail in a purposeful and survivable way will unlock the Air Force’s potential and help the US recapture its comparative military advantage. “You have to be able to accept failure,” General Hyten pointed out, “…if the dictator of North Korea has learned how to accept failure, why can’t the United States learn how to accept failure?”
FOCUS AREA #3: Incorporate innovative ideas into core acquisitions priorities
Students from ACSC 2020 asked a senior technology company executive, “Does the US have any remaining technological advantages over China?” The executive did acknowledge China’s ability to copy US and European technology on a grand scale. But he also proposed that the US still had five or more years of comparative advantage remaining, due to the US’s ability to innovate. “The US has strong management and independent subordinates. China copies our technologies, but its subordinates are hesitant to challenge authority or take risks,” explained the executive. “The US is still more innovative and will be for several more years.”
Innovation has long been the hallmark of the Air Force. From the Wright brothers’ flying machine to the F-22, from artillery-spotting balloons to Remotely Piloted Aircraft, the USAF’s ability to field revolutionary aircraft and weapons changed the nature of warfare in an incredibly short period of time. But today, innovation in the USAF is often stymied by traditional acquisitions processes.
Discovery and risk-taking, from the rapid fighter and bomber innovations during WWII, to the boundary-pushing experiments of the 1950s, to the technology-enabled “third offset,” are often only capable when looking beyond the “safe bets.” Dr. Roper best summed up the impact of acquisitions on innovation and discovery, saying, “I’ve always felt traditional acquisitions forced you to pretend you knew more, ahead of having data to prove it.”
The traditional acquisitions roadmap does not allow for continual innovation and risk-taking. Instead, it values meeting a long list of requirements developed at project initiation, and is rarely subject to change without putting the entire program at budgetary risk. Discovering new requirements after program initiation can cause massive budget overruns and delay project timelines by years. Discovery, therefore, negatively impacts projects already underway, rather than offering new opportunities to incorporate game-changing technologies.
But the right innovation, at the right time, has the power to turn the tides of war. WWII provides several excellent examples. For instance, in his article Case Studies in the Achievement of Air Superiority, Robin Higham highlighted how the United Kingdom’s rudimentary Chain Home radio-frequency radar network allowed the vastly inferior Royal Air Force to defeat the German Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. Similarly, in Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries, Safi Bachall argues that pulsed-radio navigation and microwave radar integrated into US aircraft and ships finally allowed the Allies to effectively target Germany’s U-boat fleet. This ended the U-boat “wolfpack” reign of terror within months, securing Allied shipping lanes and winning the Battle of the Atlantic.
Aerospace innovation continued to follow this keep-it-simple model for many decades after WWII. During a visit to a major aerospace company, a senior aerospace executive explained that they purposefully limit themselves to just “one miracle per platform.” Effective innovation often focuses on one narrow and difficult problem, then opens the aperture to as many unique, creative, unconventional, or downright bizarre ideas as it takes to solve it. Trying to incorporate too many innovations at once can dilute the purpose and drive an entire program off track. Mr. Walden agreed with this philosophy, saying that for the RCO, “Defining the exact problem we’re trying to solve is the biggest factor. If we have a ‘muddied’ or ‘fuzzied’ problem set, we’re more likely to get bogged down.” Dr. Roper also supported this idea, stating that programs should “only have one ‘X-factor’ per prototype.”
Recent major acquisitions programs have reinforced this idea, albeit by perhaps drifting too far away from the “single X-factor” model. Recent multi-role or multi-purpose platforms have constantly run over budget and over timeline, as developers and acquisitions bureaucrats attempt to juggle too many capabilities on a single platform. The DoD’s acquisitions processes have incentivized the Air Force to pursue a small number of high-cost, high-tech, and long-lead platforms attempting to achieve a vast array of effects using the same tool.
In acquisitions environment, the USAF may be free to pursue a large diversity of “single X-factor” platform families. While platforms may only be designed for certain mission sets, once freed from competing “jack-of-all-trades” requirements, unique innovations could emerge that allow platforms to execute their assigned missions exceedingly well. The USAF’s A-10 serves as an excellent example while probably unlikely to win any air-to-air fights against enemy 5 th -generation fighters, it has been defended by ground forces for decades as one of the best Close Air Support aircraft ever built. Additionally, it remains one of the least expensive aircraft to fly and maintain in the USAF inventory. While the “single X-factor” approach could create a larger quantity of platforms for the USAF to operate and maintain, it would allow for more novel and effective capabilities at lower costs. It could also create more complex tactical and strategic problem sets for potential adversaries
Can the Air Force recapture the spirit of game-changing innovation? By strengthening relationships between research laboratories like the Air Force Research Labs, think tanks like AFWERX, rapid acquisitions offices like the RCO, and the US’s massive private industry sector, it is possible. The RCO’s Mr. Walden believes that strong cooperation between PMs and industry is the key to driving innovation. The Air Force and industry must be in constant communication, and the Air Force’s desired objectives for new capabilities must be clearly articulated. The Air Force and industry must strike a balance, according to Mr. Walden. “If we listen to industry too much, they may deliver something we can’t use,” he explained. “But if we don’t listen enough, we will force industry to build exactly what we asked for, and not the latest and best technology possible.”
Two factors will foster increased cooperation and innovation between the Air Force and private industry. First, industry must augment the USAF’s willingness to invest in innovative programs by spending their own Internal Research and Development (IRAD) dollars on cutting-edge and high-risk, high-reward ventures. “IRAD is a prime vehicle for driving collective solutions alongside private industry,” said Mr. Walden. Second, PMs must be allowed greater control over their efforts. “In my Defense Acquisitions University graduation talk,” said Mr. Walden, “I tell the newly graduated PMs – ‘you own the process: Take it!’”
Dr. Roper reinforced this position, saying that he already sees PMs using 804 authorities to increase risk and potential reward during prototyping. He advised PMs “…that you’ve got to learn through doing.” Already seeing results, several PMs have come to Dr. Roper to say “Will, here’s what I need to do to hit the performance or cost target for this program…here’s what I don’t know, [and] here’s my prototyping plan to go learn…so I make a choice based on real data and not on ‘hoped for results.’”
By incorporating the first two focus areas (speed of delivery and managing failure), the Air Force could open a proverbial floodgate of innovation. By challenging PMs and industry to imagine creative and cutting-edge, “single-miracle platforms,” rapidly moving through failures and prototyping, and transitioning to large-scale fielding of “good enough” solutions, the Air Force can field a large variety of highly capable aircraft and weapons systems. Innovation, as pointed out by the tech company executive, is still the best avenue for growing the US’s comparative military advantage. This will require the Air Force to significantly shift away from its current “one platform fits all” strategy. But a few key innovations, at the right time, could just be enough to turn the tide of a future war.
The DoD’s acquisitions system is simply too large and entrenched for a complete overhaul. The USAF can make changes within the boundaries of the 5000-series system, however, to increase delivery speed, fail with purpose, and attempt bold innovations. By embracing these three acquisitions focus areas, the US may once again find room for acquisitions “maneuver,” while still operating within the confines of the DoD’s acquisitions process. Repeated USAF acquisitions successes would not only set the bar for other services, it would also once again widen the gap between USAF warfighting capabilities and the inability of would-be adversaries to match it.
Maj Kurtis Paul is a Remotely Piloted Aircraft pilot in Air Force Special Operations Command. He has served as an ISR and RPA advisor in Joint Special Operations Command, where he generated warfighter requirements for multiple Program Offices. Maj Paul has worked directly with industry partners, acquisitions organizations, and multiple Air Force staffs on RPA acquisitions efforts. He can be reached at [email protected]
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US Government.