Air Superiority and Australian Defence

By Chris McInnes

A misunderstanding of air power is distorting Australia’s defence discussion. The misunderstanding is the use of combat air patrols (CAP) over surface forces as a substitute for air superiority. CAP has its place but using it as a substitute for air superiority conflates presence with utility and ignores two key insights from history.

First, securing enough air superiority in required times and places is a necessary precondition for broader air and surface operations and must take precedence in concepts and planning. Second, air superiority is best secured through concentrated and sustained campaigns of offensive actions, often far removed in time and space from surface operations.

Addressing tough questions about Australia’s air superiority needs should be foremost among Australia’s defence considerations, not obscured by easier substitute questions like CAP radius.

Air superiority allows friendly forces to use airspace or the surface below it without prohibitive interference from enemy air operations, including missiles. It is a relative and often temporary condition: enough air superiority to do what you want to do in a particular time and place for a given duration is sufficient. CAP is one among many options in the pursuit of air superiority.

The present CAP confusion dates to at least this this 2013 article by Dr Andrew Davies, then of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). According to Davies the map below shows the approximate range to which the Australian Defence Force (ADF) ‘would be able to project force under the cover of our own airbases by having a standing fighter patrol or CAP overhead.’

Approximate ranges from Australian bases at which an F-35 JSF aircraft could remain on station for an hour. The inner line is for unrefueled aircraft. The outer line assumes an air-to-air refuelling at 500nm from base. (Source: ranges estimated from December 2009 Selected Acquisition report data.) Range rings for the Super Hornet with a weapons payload would be smaller. (Image and caption credit: ASPI).

The picture should be ‘compulsory reading for anyone contemplating ADF maritime power project projections’ because ‘unless they are relatively close to home, they’ll be done without persistent fixed wing air cover.’ Dr Marcus Hellyer echoed similar views (also while at the ASPI) in a 2019 series on the range of the F-35A (part 2, part 3, and part 4).

Davies and Hellyer are first-rate analysts, but they have this wrong on two counts. The errors are conflating air power’s utility with its ability to remain on-station over a location, and the consequent use of CAP radius as a proxy for effective range. This bait and switch – doubtless unintended – lures analysts with a ready answer to an easy question about CAP radius but means they avoid thinking through tough questions about air superiority.

In this example drawing on Hellyer’s work, the F-35A’s CAP radius is treated as a frontline in the sky behind which Australia is assumed to hold air superiority. This is a dangerous over-simplification to put it mildly.

More recently a series on the future of the Royal Australian Navy cited Davies to illustrate Australia-based air power’s limited ability to support surface operations. According to the authors, this is a ‘major weakness’ because ‘naval operations in a hostile environment require continuous airborne early warning support and in situ or immediately on-call combat air support.’

The flaw here is insisting on the presence of aircraft without articulating the purpose of that presence. If it is true that Australia’s warships will need aircraft continually overhead to survive in hostile environments, we need to rethink our operational concepts and investment plans.

On-call air power has always been attractive to surface forces because it is reassuring and responsive. It is expensive but doable in permissive environments and has enhanced Western militaries’ operating style since the Second World War. During Operation Okra Australian F/A-18 provided near-instantaneous reconnaissance and firepower for three to four hours or more for friendly forces in northern Iraq and Syria, more than 1,000nm from the aircraft’s base. The 90 percent survival rate of Western troops suffering traumatic injuries in recent conflicts owes much to rapid aeromedical evacuation.

But all this air support has depended on earlier air superiority campaigns, however brief or far removed in time and space they may have been. For the first time since the Second World War, Australia cannot assume air superiority in its region due to the PLA’s growing air strength.

Attempting to maintain CAP, and other forms of on-call air support, without sufficient air superiority is a short route to disaster. It ‘penny packets’ air power and puts it on the back foot, allowing enemies to concentrate and overwhelm thinly spread forces at the time and place of their choosing. Friendly air power is concurrently prevented from concentrating and is rapidly exhausted and bled dry. We should hope the PLA works this way.

We know this because surface commanders repeatedly insisted air power be used this way during the Second World War, the last major conflict to see sustained struggles for air superiority. The approach failed every time, accelerating defeat for air and surface forces.

Despite comparable numbers and technical capabilities, thinly spread Anglo-French air umbrellas were swept aside by concentrated German air power in 1940. Similar outcomes befell the Soviets in 1941 and the Americans in North Africa in 1942.

The Western allies eventually recognised winning air superiority had to come first. Fighting for control of the air became the sine qua non and prime campaign for air forces with the full endorsement of their joint counterparts. As Dwight Eisenhower, a US Army general and supreme Allied commander in Europe, recounted in his memoirs ‘no great victory is possible without air superiority.’

The most effective methods for gaining air superiority were concentrated and sustained campaigns of typically offensive tactical actions targeting enemy forces in the air and on the ground. Air superiority was an outcome of many small independent actions by all instruments of power, often far from surface operations in time and space. It was rarely absolute and sustaining air superiority required continuous effort.

Operation Pointblank, the Anglo-American campaign for air superiority over Western Europe in the lead-up to the Normandy invasion in June 1944, was the largest and longest such effort. From mid-1943, increasingly powerful bomber forces prioritised the destruction of Germany’s aircraft industry. The introduction of American long-range fighter escorts in late-1943 was important but constrained by defensive tactics that prioritised protecting bombers. A shift to more offensive tactics that emphasised destroying German fighters in the air and on the ground unleashed their potential.

Offensive tactics were also important in defensive settings like Australia’s contemporary context. During the Battle of Britain in 1940, a sophisticated early warning and control system allowed British fighter aircraft to focus their efforts and fight offensively. Exhausting standing patrols were minimised as fighters could remain on the ground until German raids were detected. When launched, fighters were directed efficiently with time and awareness to gain advantage through altitude and approach angles. The British also attacked German airfields throughout the battle to disrupt attacks before they were launched.

Just as important as the targeting and tactics was the Anglo-American air forces’ emphasis on training, maintenance, and welfare to build pressure on their opponents through continuous operations. This contrasted with the German (and Japanese) approach and proved a key advantage in the struggles for air superiority.

Pointblank climaxed in February 1944 when thousands of American and British bombers struck aircraft production facilities on six consecutive days while their fighter escorts hunted at will. The Germans lost 2,605 aircraft in February 1944; more than half were non-combat losses as relentless pressure shattered Germany’s air power systems.

Air superiority for the Normandy landings (and incidentally for Soviet forces in Russia) was won in distant skies over many months. Allied air power was then free to attack German defences throughout Western Europe and make ‘daylight movement virtually impossible throughout most of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.’ On D-Day itself Allied aircraft flew more than 20,000 sorties to drop airborne divisions, deliver firepower, and continually observe. The 200 German sorties over Normandy on 6 June 1944 serve as a reminder air superiority is rarely absolute.

This pattern repeated wherever Western forces operated in the war and since. During the Cold War, improvements in surface-to-air defences drove the development of sophisticated techniques to suppress or destroy them. In 1991, the West’s Cold War air forces smashed Iraq’s air defences to seize air superiority in ‘the earliest hours – even minutes – of combat’  of Operation Desert Storm. The largest single air campaign since the Second World War then shattered Iraqi ground forces, allowing friendly troops to sweep aside the world’s fourth largest army in just 100 hours and with minimal casualties.

Air superiority has since come so swiftly and easily as to be taken for granted by Western forces. Its physical and conceptual foundations have consequently atrophied.

After decades of distraction, the United States Air Force has re-emphasised air superiority in the face of China’s growing power. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has laid bare alarming deficiencies in NATO’s European air forces while reinforcing the criticality of air superiority for all forces.

The complacency has also reached the RAAF and the ADF. Australia’s limited public discussion on the topic has focused on technical evaluations of investment options rather than air superiority’s role in Australia’s defence. The last time Australia’s Air Power Manual explicitly identified the primacy of air superiority was in 1998. Later editions have diluted this clarity and air superiority has gone from the prime campaign to just another ‘contribution.’ It is little wonder muddled thinking like using CAP as a substitute for air superiority has emerged.

Australian air power’s ability to CAP at a given place is a secondary consideration to questions like when, where, and to what degree and duration is air superiority needed for the ADF to operate in the region. These questions may, as Andrew Davies argues, raise unsettling doubts about the viability of some surface operations in contested environments, but they need to be asked – and first.

From there, the discussion can turn to the best ways for Australia to win enough air superiority where and when needed. CAP will be an option, but down the list. It is certainly no substitute for air superiority

Chris McInnes is a historian and researcher specialising in air power. He is a former air force officer now in the private sector.

This article was first published by the Sir Richard Williams Foundation on 10 December 2013.