War in Ukraine shows a need to rethink air superiority, as it may only be possible in short bursts, top US Air Force officer says

  • The war in Ukraine has proven a need to rethink air superiority, the top US Air Force officer said.

  • Gen. David Allvin acknowledged that in future wars, the approach to air superiority may be different.

  • He said there will need to be synchronization with other capabilities in specific situations.

The Ukraine war, in which the airspace has been contested for nearly two years, has demonstrated the value of air superiority but also the need to rethink it, the top US Air Force officer said this week, acknowledging that it may only be possible in short windows during future conflicts.

Gen. David Allvin, the Air Force chief of staff, said the US needs to understand that it might not be able to enjoy "ubiquitous air supremacy for days and weeks on end" when it conceptualizes the idea of air superiority. Instead, multiple lines of effort will likely need to be "synchronized" for a specific time, place, and location.

"And I think that's the difference," Allvin said in a Monday episode of the War on the Rocks podcast when asked what lessons could be learned from the Ukraine war. "Air superiority still matters — it may be for shorter periods of time because it's just unaffordable to do it for longer periods of time."

For air operations, air supremacy means "the opposing force is incapable of effective interference," according to the Air Force, while air superiority means the military can conduct operations without significant "prohibitive interference" from air and missile threats. It creates a more permissive environment.

A Mig-29 fighter of the Ukrainian air force is seen on a mission in Ukraine's war-hit east Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023.
A Mig-29 fighter of the Ukrainian air force is seen on a mission in Ukraine's war-hit east Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023.AP Photo/Libkos

After nearly two years of full-scale conflict, neither Russia, nor Ukraine, has managed to achieve air superiority. Ukraine was never expected to, and Russia's failure to do so early in the war by knocking out ground-based air defense came as surprise to many observers.

Russia has proven during the course of this conflict it can outmatch Kyiv in the skies because of disparities in force size, missile and radar performance, and technical and electronic capabilities, but formidable surface-to-air missile systems on both sides have left the airspace above the battlefield continuously contested.

Russian forces were expected to achieve air superiority in the early days of its full-scale invasion, launched in February 2022, but a series operational mistakes and mishaps prevented it from happening. That failure continues to haunt Moscow, according to Western intelligence reports.

When asked how the US would operate if it found itself fighting without air superiority, a real possibility in a near-peer conflict against an adversary like China or Russia, and how to find windows of opportunity, Allvin said it would likely be necessary to synchronize different capabilities, like electronic warfare, cyber operations, and other kinetic effects.

A US Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon.
A US Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon.US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Keith James

An adversary that is denying air superiority can't necessarily do so around-the-clock. They react to whatever capabilities are put forward, he said. If capabilities are synchronized effectively for a specific purpose, "then you do have air superiority for that period of time."

"But it needs to be integrated with a joint scheme of maneuver, otherwise it's just air superiority for fun," Allvin said on the podcast. He emphasized that if this method is executed in short bursts, an air force can be "very effective" during that timeframe.

Allvin's remarks come as the US continues to conduct air operations across the Middle East, including carrying out retaliatory strikes against Iran-backed forces in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. The Pentagon has been able to carry out these strike operations without interruption or interference.

That may not be the case in the event of a potential war between the US and another major power, such as China. Should conflict break out in the Western Pacific, something that experts and officials have warned is possible, analysts say dominance in the air might not be a long-term possibility for either side.

Read the original article on Business Insider