A few months after the D-Day invasion in June 1944, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower surveyed the Normandy beaches with his son. “You’d never get away with this if you didn’t have air supremacy,” then 2nd Lt. John Eisenhower told his father. “Without air supremacy,” the elder Eisenhower replied, “I wouldn’t be here.”
The United States won air superiority in Europe by 1944 and the Pacific by the fall, won it in Korea in 1950 and hasn’t lost control of the skies since. No American service members on the ground have died from enemy air attacks since three were killed during the Korean War more than 60 years ago.
Control of the air gives a military power the opportunity to exploit height, reach and speed, enabling informed decision-making, the ability to strike freely at a distance, and the ability to maneuver unconstrained by the limits of terrain or ocean, said Dr. Richard P. Hallion, former Air Force Historian and senior advisor for air and space issues with the Directorate for Security, Counterintelligence and Special Programs Oversight.
“I go back to David versus Goliath,” said Hallion, author of “Storm Over Iraq: Airpower in the Gulf War” and “Strike from the Sky: The History of Battlefield Attack.” “There wasn’t a manhood issue here demanding he engage in the close fight, where he could have lost. Instead, David hit him with an aerospace weapon – a rock at a distance. In the airpower era, that aerospace weapon is the airplane and missile of today.”
When the North Koreans invaded the South in June 1950, they did so with overwhelming military force, and initially, without encountering immediate air attacks, Hallion said. Retired Marine Corps Col. Warren Wiedhahn experienced combat in Korea as a private first class, both with and without close air support.
During the initial days of the Korean War, “there was no close air support, the North Korean juggernaut moved very rapidly with their tanks, artillery and infantry. They annihilated everything in front of them until there was nothing left in Korea but the Pusan perimeter,” Wiedhahn said.
But by then, robust air power forces – Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps – assisted by British, Australian and South Korean airmen as well – were taking a heavy toll on North Korean attackers, Hallion said.
“During that period of time, the close air support was building up,” Wiedhahn said. “The ships were coming in. The Air Force was flying. Now, all of a sudden, we began to see aircraft.”
After participating in the Inchon Landing and helping to liberate Seoul, Wiedhahn also fought in the battle of the Chosin Reservoir a few months later. United Nations forces chased the North Korean army to the southern tip of South Korea until China sent more than 100,000 troops that surrounded about 30,000 U.N. troops.
“When we were up in the Chosin Reservoir, and the Chinese decided to attack, we began to see air – mostly Navy and Marine Corps (Vought F4U) Corsairs off of the carriers. That’s how I really began to appreciate close air support. It (Control of the air) is absolutely, positively vital.
After a 17-day battle in sub-zero temperatures, the Marines managed to withdraw to the coast, where they were evacuated in December.”
“Indeed, air power saved the Marines from annihilation as they made their way from the reservoir down to the coast,” Hallion said.
Five years after Wiedhahn retired as a colonel in 1982, he talked with four of the Chinese he fought against in the Chosin Reservoir during a visit to Beijing as part of his Virginia-based Military Historical Tours organization. About 40 years later, the sights and sounds of American aircraft were still engrained in their memories.
“One of the greatest things we feared was your airpower,” the Chinese told Wiedhahn. They said, they always moved at night, and never moved when the weather was clear because of their fear of our planes.
Air superiority and supremacy are two of the five conditions in the air warfare spectrum, along with air paralysis, air inferiority and air parity. There is actually a huge difference between air superiority and supremacy that can be especially costly in war, Hallion said.
“Air superiority is the absolute minimal condition we should ever be prepared to fight with,” he said. “Air superiority means that the enemy is still able to undertake air action against you, but you are able to confound and defeat it. What we should really seek is what we had in the latter stages of World War II and what we had in the (Persian) Gulf War, where we had air supremacy, indeed, we had air dominance. That’s where you so thoroughly dominate your opponent that they are instantly confronted with air attack, and they are unable to do anything about it.
“We had air supremacy, clearly, in the first Gulf War because in that war, the Iraqi air force was simply unable to intervene either against our coalition air forces or against coalition surface forces. At the end of the Gulf War in 1991, by the second or third week, the Iraqi air force was fleeing the country, and the air action there was primarily intercepting aircraft trying to flee to Iran.
That’s what happens when you have air supremacy, and in the best of all circumstances, air dominance. You can then devote 100 percent of your air effort to ensure that the people on the ground get the support they need to prosecute the ground war.”
Gen. Charles A. Horner, who commanded all U.S. and allied air assets during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, credited the airpower dominance to the intelligence, preparation and training before the invasion.
“When did we get air superiority? We had it before the war began because we had the means to get it – the equipment, intelligence, training, and the courage of the aircrews,” Horner said.
“But do not get the idea that gaining control of the air was easy. It was not a macho, no-sweat operation. What turned into a turkey shoot in late January and February started out as a bitter struggle; those first few days were the hardest-fought, most-critical aspect of the entire war.”
Because the Air Force has had almost an unprecedented control of the skies for decades, it might be easy to forget how costly it was to achieve air superiority, especially during World War II. In the European and Mediterranean theaters alone, the U.S. lost 4,325 fighters and bombers before D-Day, with 17,000 killed and 21,000 wounded or POW in the fight for air superiority and didn’t achieve theater-wide supremacy until the final days of the war.
More Airmen were killed in aerial missions over Europe “than all the Marines who unfortunately died in the entire span of World War II,” said retired Gen. David Deptula, who was the Air Force’s senior intelligence community official when he was the Headquarters Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Deptula was also the main attack planner during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and a joint task commander for Operation Northern Watch in 1998-99.
“If you take a look at how many aircraft we lost in the Vietnam War – 2,781 Air Force and Navy combined, that was against a fifth-rate power with only 206 fighter aircraft. Why did that happen? Because, we were late in achieving air superiority.
“It took us some 30 years to apply the air superiority lesson, but we did it in the form of developing the F-15 (Eagle). But those F-15s first flew in 1972, and now some of them are more than 30 years old. In 1979, I flew F-15s at Kadena Air Base, Japan. In 2008, my son was flying the exact same tail numbers I did, but it was 29 years later, and that was five years ago.
Today, we have a geriatric combat Air Force, and we badly need to recapitalize it in order to maintain the advantage of air supremacy in the future.”
Without control of the air, troops on the ground face many hardships and hazards, as the late Gen. Bruce K. Holloway, vice chief of staff during the Vietnam War, wrote in an article for Air University Press.
For six decades, American troops haven’t had to experience “what it’s like to lose mobility except at night; to be cut off from supplies and reinforcements; to be constantly under the watchful eye of enemy reconnaissance aircraft; to be always vulnerable to strafing and bombing attacks; to see one’s fighters and bombers burn on their handstands; and to be outnumbered, outgunned and outmaneuvered in the air,” Holloway wrote in his article, “Air Superiority in Tactical Air Warfare.”
However, there are some who aren’t convinced the Air Force’s decades-long dominance of the air is a certainty, especially with recent cuts in weapons systems such as the F-22 Raptor, which Deptula calls “the most capable aircraft ever built specifically to achieve air superiority,” and F-35 Lightning II. In 2009, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates called for capping the original 722 Raptors to 187. Three years later, across-the-board defense spending cuts have put the F-35 at risk.
“There are newer threats out there, quite frankly, that could defeat the aircraft that we currently have,” Deptula said. “That’s why the Air Force works so hard to recapitalize those aircraft by building F-22s and F-35s that can operate, using modern technology, to achieve air dominance by networking capabilities with sensors that we never had in the past.
“Our challenge in the future is we’re not going to have time to do what we did in World War II – bring America’s industrial might to bear over the time necessary to create the kinds of aircraft to maintain our superiority advantage. It falls on Airmen of today, to articulate the air superiority lessons of the past and to make the Airman’s voice in the defense of our nation heard. Today’s Airmen need to be unabashedly clear about the lessons of history in order to maintain our capabilities in the future.”
As vital as Eisenhower perceived air superiority to success on D-Day, some airpower experts wonder if the day will come when the U.S. won’t have the control of the skies needed for a crucial confrontation with another military power.
“I think the greatest danger we face as a nation today is to assume that air and space power is a God-given right to the United States of America, and we will always enjoy it,” Hallion said.
“We see that sometimes, unfortunately, in our sister services. They have labored so long with perfect freedom of maneuver because of the American airpower shield that we’ve put over their heads that I think many individuals fail to realize that it is perishable. Air dominance is like freedom itself – you have to constantly nurture it, care for it and invest in it to ensure that you will still have it.”