“You can’t kill unless you are prepared to die,” remarked ethicist Michael Walzer, who challenged NATO’s bombing campaign in Yugoslavia in 1999. NATO forces seemed willing to accept the concept of killing Serbian soldiers and risking “collateral damage” to civilians, justifying the thousands of civilian casualties and injuries as mistakes or necessary to defeating its adversary while ruling out the use of ground troops and keeping pilots at high altitudes to reduce the risk from enemy ground-based air defenses. If the recent course of the air war over Ukraine is a portent of the future of warfare, US aviators must prepare to assume new risks.
Unlike the experience of US aviators following World War II, battlefield air superiority in Ukraine has only been achieved locally and temporarily. With sophisticated ground-based air defenses on both sides—and a surprisingly resilient Ukrainian air force that refuses to disappear despite expectations that it would be quickly overwhelmed by Russian numerical advantages—casualties have steadily mounted. As of August 19, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence claimed to have destroyed 234 Russian aircraft and 197 helicopters. Although the exact number of Ukrainian air losses is unknown, they are similarly high. This air superiority standoff was foreseen in the US Army’s Multi-Domain Operations concept, which assesses that military forces will have to choreograph windows of opportunity across all domains to overcome adversaries’ anti-access and area-denial capabilities, or attempts to deny freedom of movement on the battlefield.
The role of personnel and platforms
Contests for command of the air can be costly, often resulting in a high number of aircraft losses. As a result, US leaders will need to re-envision procurement plans for requirements to maintain air superiority. The widespread availability of sophisticated technology will make that goal in the twenty-first century difficult if not impossible to achieve. Harkening back to World War II, the United States’ Eighth Air Force lost almost four thousand fighters over Europe. In nine days protecting the evacuation of Dunkirk, France, the Royal Air Force recorded the loss of at least 106 Spitfires and Hurricanes. Today, the US Air Force is ill prepared to sustain such losses.
Initial plans offered to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in 2009 for the procurement of F-22 Raptors—an air superiority jet—envisioned a “low-risk” force of 381 or a “moderate-risk” force of 243. However, facing two counterinsurgency fights in Afghanistan and Iraq, Gates decided that 187 F-22 Raptors would be sufficient to be prepared for future wars through the middle of the twenty-first century. The results of the current conflict imply that former Secretary Gates’s decision not to beef up US air assets needs to be reexamined. A big part of US efforts to achieve air superiority in future conflicts will likely also be borne by fifth-generation fighters, like the F-35. The US Air Force has touted wargames that show a kill ratio of twenty-to-one or more for the F-35 in air-to-air combat due to the aircraft’s stealth and networking capabilities. However, that supposition has not been proven in combat, where enemy technologies and tactics can come as a surprise, as can unforeseen deficiencies in a country’s own arsenal.
Additionally, the Air Force has had to relearn numerous times in its history that, although aircraft might be able to fulfill many roles, it is more difficult for pilots to remain as flexible. They perform best when specialized in a particular combat role. For example, the US Navy has found that there is not enough time to train Super Hornet squadrons to remain proficient in conducting both air-to-surface strike as well as air-to-air combat missions because each requires very different skill sets. Moreover, the strike mission can be deadly: unprepared for skillfully deployed Arab air defenses, the Israeli Air Force lost about a third of its strength in the first week of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
A protracted war of attrition with a high turnover of aircraft and personnel over extended periods will present more challenges to an expeditionary air force than the unchallenged and casualty-free air supremacy American aviators are accustomed to. Four-month deployments common to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will not be suitable for a major conflict against a peer or near-peer. Thus, strains on aircraft and maintenance crews will increase during a major conflict. While World War II air planners had to send many aircraft to ensure the destruction of important targets, modern precision munitions have often changed calculations of sorties per target to targets per sortie. The loss of one aircraft now can mean numerous targets remain unengaged, requiring more planning to ensure redundancy.
Moreover, the rate of expenditure of those precision munitions can cause concern. Russia appears to have encountered shortages. US Central Command expended more than 41,500 precision-guided munitions (PGMs) in the first two years of its air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, forcing the Department of Defense to draw from other stocks and ask for an emergency procurement for replacements. Large-scale, high-intensity warfare will place even higher demands on PGM stocks, and the industries that produce them.
Preparing for future wars
In preparation for future wars, all the US services will need to relearn how to perform replacement operations for casualties—both for personnel and platforms. For example, the F-35 is built and sustained by nineteen hundred suppliers across forty-eight states and ten countries. While this bolsters congressional and allied support for procurement, it does not facilitate the speedy building of new aircraft, especially in light of global supply-chain vulnerabilities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. The contrast to an earlier era is striking. By 1945, the Ford aircraft factory at Willow Run, Michigan, rolled out a new bomber every sixty-three minutes; now, for Javelin missiles thirty-two months is required from order to delivery.
No two wars are alike. Nonetheless, fighting in Ukraine demonstrates that future conflict involving the US Air Force and peers or near-peers is bound to be much more complex and dangerous than previous air power experiences in this millennium. Future wars are unlikely to be the form that former Secretary Gates envisioned when he reduced Raptor procurement. Nonetheless, proper preparation now can save the lives of American aviators in this new environment and better support joint operations in a war of attrition. The Air Force needs to develop sustainment plans for longer deployments and replacement operations. Such plans should include aircraft as well as pilots and crew, including the older stocks at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. Arrangements should be made with industry for speedy production of new aircraft as well as the development of an expanded capacity to produce munitions. The United States’ biggest edge in the air has always been the competence of its air force officers and enlisted personnel. Keeping them well trained for a wide array of missions must remain the top priority.
Conrad Crane is the Senior Research Historian for the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College. He is the author of American Airpower Strategy in World War II and American Airpower Strategy in Korea, 1950-1953, both from University Press of Kansas.
The views expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US government. The author also has no special access to intelligence or any operational matters that are not otherwise available to the general public.
Read more essays in the series
Forward Defense, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, generates ideas and connects stakeholders in the defense ecosystem to promote an enduring military advantage for the United States, its allies, and partners. Our work identifies the defense strategies, capabilities, and resources the United States needs to deter and, if necessary, prevail in future conflict.