Is the Face of Air Warfare Changing? (An Opinion Piece)

Canberra, 31 March 2023


In the last decade of the 20th century, three successful air campaigns were conducted by the Air Forces of Western countries, led by the USA—the Gulf War of 1991, the campaign in Bosnia in 1995 and then the Kosovo crisis in 1998–99. These three campaigns entrenched two concepts in the doctrinal ethos of all major military forces. One, air power became the obvious instrument of first-choice for power projection; and two, modern air power became the panacea to solve complex socio-political challenges that have geo-strategic implications and therefore necessitates the employment of military power.

Almost three decades later, the question looms—do these assumptions, made at the turn of the century, still hold true? Or, have international affairs moved in an unchartered direction, which makes conceptual developments in the application of force, particularly through air power, temporary and at best, short-term? It is this conundrum that needs to be analysed so that air forces could continue to provide air power to the decision-makers as the first-choice option for the application of force, when all other means have failed.

Conventional Insight

Traditional wisdom regarding air power dictates that ‘control of the air’—defined and delineated in different ways, from command of the air to barely tolerable air situations—is the paramount and foundational raison d’etre for an air force. This fundamental idea was reinforced during World War II and in subsequent conflicts, till about a decade ago. Of course, there was the aberration of the Yom Kippur War (the 1973 Arab–Israeli War) in the Middle-East, when the Egyptian military employed a peculiarly Soviet concept of employing a mobile air defence umbrella to protect the army formations on the move. The concept was of a mobile, vertical air defence created by multi-layer and overlapping systems that in combination protected a defined space for a defined time from air attacks.

For two main reasons—first, the inability of the Egyptian Air Force to capitalise on the initial success of the concept; and the second and more prominent of the two, the furious operational rebuttal of the tactic and the concept by the Israeli Air Force—the concept was allowed to lapse as unfeasible in the air power thinking and analysis of the time.

Conflicts (I hesitate to use the term war) have progressed in the past two decades into a new reality. Conventional military forces, still heavily dependent upon air power, are facing irregular forces with almost no air power capabilities. Therefore, air power has become the asymmetric advantage of conventional military forces with the ability to deliver direct kinetic firepower and the enabling capacity of air mobility. Facilitated by the inability of the irregular adversaries to obtain sufficiently robust air defence capabilities, air power has continued to hold sway as the vanguard of traditional military forces in operations.

The downside of this development has been the onset of complete complacency in the mindset of Western military forces regarding the need to obtain and maintain control of the air—the idea itself has fallen on the wayside since there has been no opposition to Western air operations for decades. The major air forces, mainly Western/ NATO/US, have been content to rest on this hubris brought on by relative superiority in capabilities. However, in the background smaller air forces, who accept that they cannot hope to achieve or contest the control of the air in a conflict yet are unwilling to let adversary air power roam free over their vital areas, installations and points, have been developing concepts that would negate the freedom of the larger air forces. A leaf was taken out of prevailing maritime doctrine. For long navies have doctrinally enshrined the concept of sea control and sea denial. An analytical look perceived that these concepts could be adapted to the employment of air power—control of the air and air denial.

The Concept of Air Denial

A simple definition of ‘air denial’ would be—to deny the adversary the uninhibited use of air power within a defined area/space and for a predetermined, or fixed, period of time, irrespective of the air power capability of the opponent. The corollary would be to deny the adversary control of the air during critical periods in one’s own operations. The nitty-gritty of the capabilities necessary to achieve effective air denial is not being discussed here, this analysis is about the concept and how it might, or might not, change the doctrinal underpinnings that guide the employment of air power into the future.

It is, however, necessary to mention here that air denial is by no means a cheap capability. Analysts who quote the success of the Ukraine military in limiting the Russian Air Force operations tend to forget that the Ukraine air defences are being propped up by extremely costly surface-to-air systems that have been supplied free by US/NATO. Realistically, how many small air forces will be able to afford such systems, in the quantity required to achieve conceptual and operational success against a major air force, indefinitely, is an unanswered and awkward question—one that is being swept under the carpet, at least for the time being. The answer would be ‘none’.

Even so, analysis of the concept of air denial relative to other much older and matured concepts that have proven true over a century and the latest conflict from where it has gained much credence is necessary to ensure that air power remains a coveted military capability in conflicts of the future. In attempting to do so, the first constraining factor that must be assumed is that it is highly unlikely that the conflicts of the future will be against a rag-tag team of irregular forces; it will be against small but organised military forces. The on-going Ukraine conflict is a case in point—a small force, numerically and capability-wise, has come up against the military power of a major power. There is something to ponder about the fact that despite sweeping control of the air that the Russians have achieved, they have not been able to use the airspace to their benefit as they would have liked. However, even after one year of conflict in the Ukraine, it cannot, and should not, be taken as the blueprint for a future conflict, especially since the Russian Air Force’s in-house failures added to the possible lessons. On the other hand, the Russian Air Force’s failures must not be used as an excuse to discard the lessons that have so far emerged.

There are questions to be asked …

To start the analysis, it is necessary to go back to the fundamentals and ask—what do air forces achieve? The succinct answer would be to enumerate four basics.

  • Air Force ensure that own forces have uninhibited use of the medium of air while denying the same to the adversary, essentially ensuring control of the air;
  • In conflict air forces provide offensive fire support to own forces, both before contact – interdiction, and in contact – close air support;
  • Air forces deliver air mobility to own forces to achieve the element of surprise and create even strategic effects through tactical actions; and
  • Airborne assets provide reliable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) at the right time to the right decision-maker.

Control of the Air

As mentioned earlier, control of the air is the raison d’etre for an air force. It is meant to provide absolute freedom of action to friendly forces, while denying the same to the adversary. There is a duality in this concept. One is that own forces will function unopposed from the air, while the adversary will not be able to operate without our own air force interfering, effectively, with their efforts, both in the air and on the surface. The doubt that creeps up is what happens when this capacity is denied to both, or all, the contenders in a conflict? And, as a corollary, how will control of the air be achieved?

In a nuanced manner, the concept of air denial counters control of the air—not across the entire area of operations, but at times and places of the defenders choosing, thereby retaining an element of surprise. This concept, therefore, harks back the question of the need to achieve control of the air, whether or not it is a concept that has lived its day. If it is decided that control of the air is not a necessary state to be achieved in future wars, as is being proclaimed by some analysts, the implications for air forces across the world will be enormous. The very earth would have been moved from under the feet of the concept of the employment of ‘air power’ and of air forces. However, that is far-fetched scenario, since air denial is an evolving concept and its effectiveness yet to be conclusively proven.

Irrespective of the disparity in capabilities between the adversaries, control of the air will always be contested. Air denial is the latest iteration in this fight, an asymmetry brought about by a lesser capable, but innovative, adversary against an inept, but large, Air Force. The current situation in Ukraine highlights this challenge. The answer to fighting an adversary who is cleverly adopting air denial tactics is to adapt the employment of air power differently and to keep aside the age-old concept of control of the air being the panacea to all battlefield requirements. A different perspective of control of the air will have to be accepted, starting with a period of mutual air denial that should with innovative employment concepts shift towards a favourable air situation and then air superiority for the more capable air force.

A dichotomy exists to this slightly nuanced view of control of the air. The fact remains that without assured control of the air, even in the initial stage when it is being contested by an air denial strategy, surface operations cannot succeed. This harsh truth is being repeatedly demonstrated in Ukraine for the past one year. Air Forces must rethink—doctrinally, conceptually and operationally—the current overarching requirement for the sought after ‘air superiority’ and accept a lesser degree of control even when engaged with ‘lesser’ adversaries. Gaining absolute control of the air is a means to an end and should never be considered an end in itself.

Offensive Fire, Air Mobility and ISR

Offensive fire support has traditionally been provided by manned fighter aircraft. In a contested airspace, it has always been acknowledged to be a high-attrition game. In a cost-benefit analysis, especially when denial of air space is possible, offensive support by manned fighter aircraft may become self-defeating, especially with the escalating cost of platforms and training. However, offensive fire support from the air continues to be a mainstay to the success of ground warfare. Innovative ways to deliver this critical element, in the initial stages of a conflict when a state of mutual air denial may exist, will have to be developed.

In a situation of mutual air denial, air mobility will also be degraded and perhaps could only be employed after sufficient level of control of the air has been achieved. ISR could continue uninhibited, employing platforms that could operate outside the envelope of the air denial systems of the adversary.

Air Denial – Questions

Air denial as a concept is yet to mature, it is a work in progress and therefore two fundamental questions regarding its efficacy have yet to be answered comprehensively. The first: it is obvious that the concept cannot be applied across a large theatre and will be confined in time and space. This is so because of the prohibitive cost of systems required to enforce air denial, even in defined areas. The question therefore is, how effective would this concept be when it can be applied only to selected areas and times? The second: as yet there has been no believable assessment done regarding the quantity and quality of the air defence systems required to effectively enforce air denial, even when spread in different clusters around the larger theatre, for a reasonable period of time. At least for the time being and into the short-term future, it is certain that the implementation of an efficient air denial strategy would be a resource-intensive enterprise. The question looms large, how many smaller military forces would have the wherewithal to entrench such a strategy, even on a semi-permanent basis?

Countering Air Denial

Countering the strategy of air denial will have to first analyse the cost-benefit equation and bring it back in favour of the attacking force. This could be achieved by using Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) armed with sophisticated precision-guided weapons or less sophisticated, and therefore relatively cheaper, UAVs sent on suicide missions, individually or in swarms. ‘Cheap’ UAVs, with sufficient weapon load can be used to overwhelm the operational array of the air denial concept through numerical saturation to turn the cost-benefit analysis around.

Air denial depends on creating a layered air defence network. The systems required to keep even long range, beyond visual range attack missiles at bay, deployed at the outer fringes of the air defence cordon, are expensive and not easily available to all and sundry. These systems are made available to political allies and friends by the few manufacturing nations, normally with strings attached. High cost and unsure availability make the employment of such a concept a risky strategy for the defending entity.

Without delving into operational tactics, a scenario wherein a swarm of relatively cheap UAVs overwhelms the necessarily limited fire power of the air denial system to be then followed by high-end aircraft to destroy vital areas/infrastructure is not difficult to envisage. The employment of UAVs to saturate air defences, reduce the cost of individual missions and yet achieve mission objectives through an innovative combination with manned assets is a concept and topic to be separately elaborated. The concept is mentioned here as a counter to the employment of the strategy of air denial.

Analysing the Current Situation

Several speculative analyses have already appeared in reputed publications—most of them predicting a total change in the future conduct of air warfare. These conclusions should only be accepted after careful consideration of the arguments. There is no doubt that air superiority on the first day of conflict is a parable of the past; however, there is no stopping a determined Air Force, with sufficient strength-in-depth, from achieving control of the air by employing altered and adapted concepts of operations to suit the circumstances. When analysing the pros and cons of the situation it must be borne in mind that air denial is a new concept, not yet fully tested, while equally innovative counter-measures are already being conceived.  

It has to be agreed that the concept of air denial provides an asymmetric advantage to smaller military forces. The crux of the argument here is that the concept is meant to provide a certain amount of evening of the power balance in favour of a ‘smaller’, less resourced, Air Force. No doubt that the asymmetry will work to a degree, but for how long and in what spread of territory? On the other side of the coin, a major Air Force facing such a situation will definitely have to transform on a case-by-case basis, alter fundamental concepts of operations, and reinvest in innovation to counter a determined air denial scenario. However, greater resources will eventually prevail, make no mistake about it.

Some of the current analyses have gone to the extent of suggesting that the US Air Force should adopt air denial as its primary strategy and forgo attempts to gain and maintain air superiority. Nothing would be more of a regressive step than adopting this conceptual thinking, especially if it starts to percolate into the doctrinal ethos of the largest, and arguably the most capable, Air Force of the world. Air power is an offensive capability and to employ it in any other manner is to invite disaster, a lesson well-learned over a century of its application.   

To Conclude …

As explained in the text, for a number of reasons the on-going conflict in Ukraine cannot be assumed to be a blueprint for future conflicts or the harbinger of a fundamental shift in the conduct of air warfare. Like all conflicts and wars before, this conflict has also thrown up a new paradigm in its conduct, which is to be analysed and countered with equally innovative concepts of operations.

Control of the air, however it is achieved, will remain as relevant today as it was during World War II and in later conflicts. If anything, the new concept of air denial only reinforces this fundamental truth. Many analysts have written in the past few months that ‘future of air warfare is denial’. What is being forgotten is that gaining air superiority is also ‘denial’, only in a more robust and offensive manner.

Air warfare, at the fundamental level has not changed; the concepts of operations and the application of air power at the operational and tactical levels is, and will be, ever-evolving. The innovative changes in concepts should not be mistaken for deep doctrinal changes, for the ultimate objective of air warfare has remained the same—to be able to use the medium of air at will while denying the same to the adversary at all times. 


© [Sanu Kainikara] [2023]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

One Response to “Is the Face of Air Warfare Changing? (An Opinion Piece)”

  1. lewisfrederickson Reply March 31, 2023 at 20:32

    Dear Sanu,
    Thank you for this insightful piece. You have reduced a deeply intricate discipline to its essential elements for me-and offered a glimpse into what might eventuate.
    Much appreciated,

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