Why Ukraines’s Air Success should worry the West

Ukraine’s success in contesting the skies turns the West’s airpower paradigm on its head — it offers an alternative vision for pursuing airspace denial over air superiority. Despite having one of the largest and most technologically sophisticated air forces in the world, Russia has failed to establish air superiority over Ukraine. And many Western analysts are surprised and bewildered. But the puzzlement is a sign of military myopia more than anything else.

Western air forces still follow a path first laid out by Italian Gen. Giulio Douhet, U.S. Army Air Corps’ Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell, and the Royal Air Force’s Air Marshall Hugh Trenchard. These founding fathers of airpower theory championed winning and maintaining “command of the air,” or, in today’s doctrine, “air supremacy.” Douhet suggested that “to have command of the air means to be in a position to prevent the enemy from flying while retaining the ability to fly oneself.” This understanding was based on popular reading of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s command of the sea, in which the goal is to seek out and destroy the enemy fleet in a decisive battle.

A century later, this vision remains firmly entrenched in the doctrine and ethos of Western air forces. But the air war in Ukraine, where neither side controls the skies, suggests that denying air superiority is sometimes a smarter operational objective than trying to gain it outright. U.S. Air Force leaders and defense analysts recognize the United States can no longer take air superiority for granted. But their solutions amount to searching for a technological silver bullet that will can nonetheless guarantee it. The war in Ukraine shows the Air Force should instead be doing more to exploit the potential of air denial.

Re-Imagining Corbett as an Airpower Theorist

In rethinking America’s approach to airpower, pundits should look to Mahan’s contemporary, the British naval theorist Sir Julian Corbett. Corbett regarded total command of the sea with skepticism, arguing the “most common situation in naval warfare is that neither side has the command.” He favored a relative, rather than an absolute, interpretation of command of the sea, calling for a “working command,” delimited in time or space — “sea control” in today’s parlance. Similarly, Douhet’s absolute rule of the skies may be desirable, but air forces may get by with more limited control of the airspace, or temporary and localized air superiority.

For Corbett, the corollary of sea control is sea denial. If a navy is not strong enough to gain command of the sea, he argued, it could still attempt to limit or deny the other side’s ability to make use of the sea. He referred to this concept as “disputing command,” and offered two main methods: a “fleet in being” and “minor counterattacks.” He envisioned an active defense, in which a smaller navy could avoid battle but still remain threatening as a “fleet in being” by staying active and mobile. “The idea,” he explained,” was “to dispute control by harassing operations, to exercise control at any place or at any [opportune] moment … and to prevent the enemy from exercising control in spite of his superiority by continually occupying his attention.”  Additionally, an inferior navy could conduct minor counterattacks, or hit-and-run strikes, to try to take undefended ships out of action.

Ukraine’s Masterclass on Corbett in the Skies

Corbett’s strategy of denial in the naval realm is pertinent to the air domain as well. Ukraine has used mobility and dispersion to maintain its air defenses as a “force in being.” Operating a mix of Cold-War era, Soviet-made mobile surface-to-air missile systems Ukrainian defenders on the ground have kept Russian aircraft at bay and under threat. To do so they have used the long-range S-300 family, medium-range SA-11s, and short-range SA-8 Gecko systems. Exploiting dispersion and mobility, as Corbett advised, Ukrainian air defenders have used “shoot and scoot” tactics, firing their missiles and quickly moving away from the launch site. “The Ukrainians continue to be very nimble in how they use both short and long-range air defense,” a senior Pentagon official concluded. “And they have proven very effective at moving those assets around to help protect them.”

Mounted on tracked vehicles, Ukraine’s surface-to-air missile systems are fleeting targets. Given the danger of flying over Ukraine, Russia relies largely on standoff sensors to find radar targets, lengthening the time required to engage Ukraine’s mobile systems. After firing, the defender can turn off the radar, pack up and drive away to hide in the ground clutter — forests, buildings, etc. During the Gulf War in 1991, the U.S.-led coalition hunted Iraq’s truck-mounted Scud missiles, but even with the advantage of air superiority, it still failed to achieve a single confirmed kill. In the skies over Ukraine, Russian aircraft are not only the hunter but also the hunted, further complicating the task of finding and destroying them.

As a result, there is a deadly “cat-and-mouse” game between Russian aircraft and Ukrainian air defenses. The Oryx open-source intelligence site reports that, since the start of the war, 96 Russian aircraft have been destroyed, including at least nine Sukhoi Su-34 and one Su-35 — equivalents to the American F-15. Ukraine started the war with a total of 250 S-300 launchers, but 11 weeks later, the Russians have only managed to knock out 24 of them, at least so far as Oryx has confirmed with photos and videos. Given how Ukrainian officials carefully manage information about their losses, caution is needed in drawing conclusions from our limited information about them. Still, these figures suggest that the Russians are only able to attrite a small portion of the threat, and, compared to radar and battery command vehicles, the less important part at that. The best evidence may be Russian behavior itself. As a senior Pentagon official argued, “And one of the reasons we know … [Ukraine’s air defenses are] working is because we continue to see the Russians wary of venturing into Ukrainian air space at all and if they do, they don’t stay long … And I think … that speaks volumes …”

On the rare occasions that Russian jets and bombers fly into Ukrainian airspace, they generally fly low to the ground to evade radar detection. But solving one problem creates another — these tactics put Russian aircraft in the range of Ukraine’s anti-aircraft artillery and thousands of shoulder-fired man-portable air defense systems, including American-supplied Stingers. To this end, Ukrainian defenders have exploited the homefield advantage, particularly their intimate knowledge of the local terrain. “We are hidden on familiar ground; he is exposed on ground that is less familiar,” Corbett observed. “We can lay traps and prepare surprises by counter-attack when he is most dangerously exposed.”

Ukraine describes its air defense strategy in exactly these terms — luring Russian planes into Ukrainian air defense traps. “Ukraine has been effective in the sky because we operate on our own land,” Yuri Ihnat, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force, stated. “The enemy flying into our airspace is flying into the zone of our air defense systems.” Even if Ukraine cannot secure air superiority for itself, it has still been able to deny it to the Russians. As long as Ukraine maintains an air defense in being, it will continually occupy Russian attention — the mere threat of targeting and strikes is enough to deny the airspace to Russian aircraft.

A New Era of Air Warfare

In this regard, the air war in Ukraine is likely to be the rule rather than the exception. It offers a harrowing glimpse into the future of air warfare, one in which medium-sized powers, not to mention other great powers, will increasingly control and deny areas of airspace to U.S. and other Western air forces.

The global spread of advanced, highly mobile long-range surface-to-air missiles, man-portable air defense systems, and loitering munitions — along with continued advancements in networked unmanned systems, dual-use robotics, sensors, and advanced materials — place the capabilities needed to contest air control in more adversaries’ hands. Iran, for example, has made successful use of combat drones, land-attack cruise missiles, and precision-guided short-range ballistic missiles against ISIL in Syria, Saudi oil facilities, and a U.S. air base in Iraq. Likewise, in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijan combined combat drones with loitering munitions and precision-guided artillery to interdict Armenian forces, and even employed an Israeli-made LORA ballistic missile to target a bridge connecting Armenia to Karabakh. Small- and medium-sized states observing these events have surely taken notice and will seek to acquire such capabilities for themselves, ushering in an age of increasingly roboticized air forces with precision-strike capabilities that are effective but less costly than traditional manned combat aircraft.

In the past, financial, organizational, technological, and scientific hurdles confined the development and employment of air forces to major powers. Today, however, the democratization of technology — the declining costs of computing power and the internet’s global reach, along with the dual-use nature of many current and emerging technologies — make cheap but effective robotic airpower available to a much broader range of states.

Unfortunately, the West finds itself on the wrong side of a cost curve, insisting on expensive and exquisite capabilities — such as next-generation fighter jets and stealth bombers — to conduct deep strikes against enemy defenses. This Douhetian “shoot the archer” strategy has become unsustainable over time. On average, successive generations of American warplanes cost two-and-a-half times more to acquire than those they replace. The F-22 Raptor cost approximately $250 million apiece, far more than the $65 million F-15 Eagle it replaced: nearly a 400 percent increase.

As a result, American warplanes have become more capable, but the overall fleet size has gotten smaller. Nearly four decades ago, Norman Augustine, former undersecretary of the Army, commented wryly: “In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one aircraft. This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3-1/2 days each per week except for leap year, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day.” In a great-power conflict, the United States will lack the superior aircraft numbers (mass) to win a long and destructive war of attrition.

Searching for a New Paradigm

As Thomas Kuhn noted in his classic work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, as the world changes, an established paradigm — or set of foundational beliefs — may come to no longer match the observed reality. When this occurs, the paradigm itself comes into question, and an alternative paradigm must be created and accepted. Increasingly, the Western airpower paradigm — with the absolute requirement to control the air with manned aircraft — no longer holds true. And the United States Air Force must urgently come to terms with this paradigm shift.

To be sure, senior Air Force leaders have warned for years now that the uncontested rule of the skies that the United States enjoyed in the age of primacy is coming to a close. “I have a lot of trouble” with the idea of total and permanent air supremacy, Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration, and requirements, said recently. “I don’t see [that] as a viable thing to try to establish.” Acknowledging air supremacy is no longer achievable in a high-end fight, the Air Force is aiming instead for “temporary windows of superiority,” or the air equivalent of Corbett’s temporary and local control of the sea.

To achieve this, the Air Force wants to accelerate investment in the Next Generation Air Dominance fighter program — an integrated system of manned aircraft, drones, and other advanced capabilities — with each manned, sixth-generation aircraft expected to cost “multiple” hundreds of millions of dollars. The goal is to be able to penetrate advanced enemy air defenses and strike air and ground targets deep inside enemy territory in order to gain air superiority and facilitate close air support to ground forces. Of course, Corbett never advised using a small, expensive, and exquisite fleet to counter the enemy’s superior mass. Put simply, the Air Force has still not fully absorbed Corbett’s teachings.

Likewise, existing Air Force operational concepts and acquisition priorities overlook how air denial can act as a complement to air control. Hinote defines the Air Force’s challenge as “how we’re going to penetrate into those contested areas and how we’re going to create that effect of air superiority.” But penetrating contested airspace is only part of the challenge — and it may not even be the most important one. The other is denying that same advantage to the adversary. As Harry Halem and Eyck Freymann argue, “Without air control … China would be incapable of executing almost any military plan against Taiwan.”

Rather than striving myopically to burst the enemy A2/AD “bubble,” the Air Force would do better to exploit the defender’s advantage in the skies. By adopting an air denial strategy, the Air Force would aim to make it both difficult and costly for China or Russia to quickly seize territory and present it as a fait accompli. This calls for a paradigm shift in American airpower thinking.

Change Faster or Lose

The U.S. Air Force needs to come to terms with this paradigm change in two ways. First, it must “open the aperture” of airpower strategy and doctrine to recognize and respond to the growth and spread of roboticized air forces and precision-strike capabilities. Here the Air Force must put air denial on equal footing with the air superiority mission. This requires moving more rapidly toward unmanned and autonomous systems and swarming tactics with thousands of cheap small-sized drones. And it means moving away from the few and exquisite high-end fighters and bombers the Air Force continues to favor. This air denial strategy will therefore require a broader change for a service that still clings to fighter pilot culture and the old belief that Air Force operations should remain predominately centered on manned aircraft.

Instead of a small number of large, exquisite, and hard-to-replace manned platforms, a strategy of air denial calls for a mix of manned aircraft and large numbers of smaller, cheaper, unmanned aircraft and missiles. Air denial envisions employing sufficiently large numbers of smaller, low-cost weapons in a distributed way so they can survive the initial enemy air and missile strikes and keep the airspace contested. The return of mass is possible because unmanned systems cost a fraction of the price of manned aircraft, while advanced manufacturing can reduce the cost and speed of their production still further. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall acknowledged this reality, saying, “To have an affordable Air Force of reasonable size, we’ve got to introduce some lower-cost platforms.” He proposes pairing low-cost unmanned platforms with more expensive manned planes, and having a single pilot control multiple drones. The U.S. Air Force now needs to go even further, giving unmanned systems roles that go beyond being the loyal wingmen to high-end manned aircraft.

Finally, embracing a new paradigm calls for a review of the Key West agreement on service roles and missions. Specifically, it requires rethinking which service should have responsibility for air defense as well as ownership of systems like Patriot missiles and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense. Part of the reason the Air Force continues to prioritize air superiority and offensive strike missions is simply bureaucratic politics — other services have primary responsibility for air defense. Given the centrality of air defense and denial to the future of air control, the Air Force should focus on protecting ground forces, not denying airspace. The alternative is for the Air Force to keep buying few and exquisite capabilities for conducting long-range penetration missions while remaining indifferent to changing cost and effectiveness calculations. Though the impulse to hold tight to the Douhetian paradigm may be strong, the future of air warfare is denial.