Small Wars Journal

Keeping Angels on Our Shoulders: The Army’s Contributions to Air Superiority

Sat, 03/11/2017 - 9:25pm

Keeping Angels on Our Shoulders: The Army’s Contributions to Air Superiority

Dan Sukman

There are a few things Soldiers desire above all else in combat. Hot chow, quality leadership, and looking up to the sky with confidence that the aircraft above are friendly. Indeed, not since the Korean War has an enemy aircraft launched a successful attack on American ground forces.[i] As each of the services looks towards future force capabilities development, capabilities that contribute to gaining and maintaining air superiority should attain a position high on the list. More specifically, as the Army looks to develop concepts on fighting wars in all domains, contributing to what has historically been an Air Force mission is paramount to our success in future wars.

Current joint doctrine defines Air Superiority as “That degree of dominance in the air battle by one force that permits the conduct of its operations at a given time and place without prohibitive interference from air and missile threats.”[ii] It is understood that gaining air superiority is never an end in itself,[iii] but a condition necessary for forces in all domains to impose their will upon an adversary. As such, each service is a stakeholder in the battle for supremacy in the sky.

In terms of joint force contributions to air superiority, the Army will have a role to support the Air Force in the air superiority mission. Capabilities and platforms such as the next generation of Patriots and THAAD are essential to the defense of air bases. Indeed, as enemies and adversaries acquire longer-range fires, the ability to protect airfields from distanced adversaries will be necessary. Moreover, although air defense missile capabilities have a history of shooting down enemy missiles as demonstrated in the Middle East in 1991 and 2003, they remain effective at destroying enemy aircraft.  

In addition to air defense platforms, the Army can provide a combination of ISR using special operations forces. Indeed, Special Forces cannot only identify enemy air defense targets for destruction; they can provide the Joint Force Air Component Command (JFACC) with accurate battle damage assessments. Moreover, Special Forces working with local populations and indigenous forces can influence a wide range of enemy platforms prior to the introduction of friendly aircraft into a Joint Operations Area (JOA).  The use of Special Forces does not occur in a bubble, they must accompany a wide range of options to defeat enemy and adversary A2AD threats.

Complementing the use of Special Forces are joint force information operations capabilities. These capabilities range from Military Information Support Operations (MISO) to public affairs to key leader engagements and can be critical for the suppression of enemy air defense systems. For example, in terms of MISO, the ability to message enemy air defense platform operators or enemy pilots prior to takeoff can reduce the risk to U.S. aircraft and pilots. Should enemy pilots understand that take-off in their respective aircraft will translate to death; they tend to think twice before engaging. Indeed, examples are plentiful in both Iraq Wars of Iraqi Pilots flying aircraft to adjacent nations to avoid destruction by the U.S. and other coalition air forces. MISO, however is not the only Information Operations related capability that the joint force can leverage to attain air superiority.

A successful key leader engagement plan executed prior to and throughout a conflict is paramount to overcoming anti-access efforts by adversaries. While U.S. diplomats engage political leaders for access to other nation’s air bases and support facilities, Joint leaders must engage their counterparts to ensure a rapid execution. The ability to seamlessly flow aircraft into a newly opened airfield that is set for operations allows the joint force to gain and maintain the initiative in the air. Key leader engagements supporting air superiority include face-to-face contacts as well as virtual meetings with foreign counterparts.

Each service has a stake in the attainment of air superiority, and should contribute to the mission in the shared domains of space and cyberspace. Each service provides capabilities to ensure success in the cyberspace domain. However, although the Air Force will certainly focus its efforts on the Air Superiority mission, both the Army and Air Force will be well served to develop multi-service or joint concepts on how cyberspace operations will contribute to Air Superiority. These concepts should include the latest required capabilities in the form of material and platforms, but also include the requirements for non-material solutions.

Development of human capital must play a role in how the United States will attain supremacy in the air domain.  Air superiority must move beyond material solutions in the DOTMLPF paradigm. Although the Air Force requires material solutions in the form of platforms such as 4th generation and 5th generation aircraft, all services should examine requirements to adjust tactics, training, and education. This means considering how we develop the people who will operate platforms. These include pilots and navigators, programmers working in the cyberspace domain, analysts evaluating intelligence, missile defense planners and Special Forces operators. As enemies and adversaries continue to advance and disseminate near-peer technology, America’s asymmetric advantage and ability to achieve air superiority will be in the form of human capital.  

In addition to human capital, it is germane to discuss other joint force contributions to air superiority in the future. Further, attaining air superiority requires the investment of time and effort of non-military entities, specifically diplomacy to ensure friendly airplanes fly over the heads of America’s ground forces. When the joint force considers how to attain air superiority in contingencies, interaction with civilians in the department of state is paramount. Since the end of World War II, the United States has developed a global presence with land, air, and maritime capabilities spread across the globe. Should conflict occur, use of these bases to launch aircraft (strike, ISR, Air to Air Refueling) is critical. Indeed, Air Superiority will depend on the whole of government to overcome the anti-access fight through sustained engagement in peacetime, and in the build-up to conflicts.

Whether we like it or not, the ability of the United States to project military power remains constrained by the tyranny of distance, which includes the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. America’s adversaries learned the lessons of the 1991 and 2003 invasion of Iraq, and future enemies and adversaries may consider it wise to strike U.S. forces during the buildup of military capabilities. Offsetting this risk is U.S. diplomacy, and creating the potential for expanded conflict should adversaries strike America’s forces in friendly nations. Attaining air superiority over the airspace of an enemy is inherently easier when aircraft can initiate sorties from bordering nations. But access is not the only outcome of diplomacy, as legitimacy is just as paramount.

Successful diplomacy to achieve air superiority is necessary in the battle for legitimacy of U.S. operations. Enemies and adversaries will take their arguments to organizations such as the United Nations to delay or prevent the deployment and employment of U.S. power (to include air, maritime, and land forces). Indeed, the use of “lawfare” to prevent the deployment and employment of American military forces is a tactic tried and tested in recent years. These delays can allow enemies to achieve a marked advantage by reducing the U.S. militaries initiative as evidenced by the denial of a northern front during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.[iv] Further, successful action through international organizations can prevent the U.S. from using select basing options necessary to attain air superiority.

Air superiority is not America’s birthright. Enemies and adversaries will continue to seek symmetric and asymmetric advantages to overcome American power projection. Near peer adversaries will continue to develop aircraft and ADA platforms that can engage America’s latest generation of fighter aircraft. Moreover, nations will move in parallel on diplomatic fronts to ensure the United States cannot attain access to friendly or partner nation facilities during times of conflict. The Department of Defense and all services must look at their respective capabilities and determine how they will contribute to the air superiority mission through the lens of a joint force.

This article represents the author’s views and not necessarily the views of the U.S. Army or Department of Defense.

End Notes

[i] Peter Grier. 2011. “April 15th, 1953.” Air Force Magazine. June. Retrieved from:

[ii] Joint Publication 1-02. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. 8 November 2010 (As Amended Through 15 February 2016).

[iii] Phillip S. Mellinger. 2016. “Supremacy in the Skies.”  Air Force Magazine. February 2016. Retrieved from:  

[iv] Sharon Otterman. 2003. “IRAQ: U.S.-Turkey Relations.” Council on foreign Relations. Retrieved from:



About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Sukman is a strategist in the U.S. Army, a former Military Fellow at the Project for International Peace & Security (PIPS), and a member of the Military Writers Guild. Over the course of his career, LTC Sukman served with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), United States European Command, and the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC). His combat experience includes multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Follow him on twitter @dansukman.


I've read much about the Army's efforts to promote its independence under the "multi-domain" banner (although I have yet to find the concept paper at the core of it all), but this is certainly one of the more innovative approaches. This air superiority thing is so *complicated*...if we don't convince other countries to give us base access, if we don't train our folks well, if we don't convince our adversaries they can't win, then the Air Force might not be able to secure the skies. Luckily, the Army can help!

Even more amusing, the Army can help by providing air defense -- a capability they've let atrophy since the end of the Cold War -- through use of SF -- for which they rely on SOCOM to maintain -- through use of MISO -- much the same.... As a former occupant of forward-deployed airbases, I'd be happy enough if they picked up the external perimeter defense mission they abandoned in the mid-80s. I'd be delirious if they recapitalized tactical fire support. Not holding my breath that either will happen soon....

I saw zero mention of the Army's weakness in mobile air defense systems. I don't know whether that is an intentional omission or a symptom of cultural myopia, but it is a bigger deal than all the jargon in the Army's favor.

Between terrain masking and basic curvature of the earth, low-flying aircraft can only be engaged by close-by systems, so all the Patriot and THAAD in the rear won't help shoot down enemy attack helicopters and ground-attack jets. Given that our enemies do have serious mobile air defense capabilities, relying on the Air Force for top-down air defense isn't a sure solution, and definitely not the cheapest one.