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A USAF F-22 Raptor, a stealth fifth generation air superiority fighter.

Air supremacy is a position in war where one force holds complete control of air warfare and air power over enemy forces. It is defined by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United States Department of Defense as "that degree of air superiority wherein the opposing air force is incapable of effective interference."[1][2][3]


There are three levels of control of the air: air supremacy, air superiority, and air parity.

  • Air supremacy is the highest level meaning there is complete control of the skies.
  • Air superiority is the second level which is being in a more favourable position than the opponent. It is defined in the NATO Glossary as "that degree of dominance in the air battle of one force over another that permits the conduct of operations by the former and its related land, sea, and air forces at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by opposing air forces."[2]
  • Air parity is the lowest level of control meaning control of the skies only above friendly troop positions.

The degree of air control between opposing forces is inversely proportional to one another, with increasing air control by one force corresponding to decreasing air control by the other. For those air forces that are unable to contest for air superiority or even air parity, a course of action would be air denial; that is, maintaining a level of operations that, although it concedes air superiority to the other side, prevents it from achieving air supremacy.

Friendly Forces Enemy Forces
Air supremacy Air incapability
Air superiority Air denial
Air parity Air parity
Air denial Air superiority
Air incapability Air supremacy

Air power has become an increasingly powerful element of military campaigns; military planners view having at least an environment of air superiority as a necessity. Air supremacy allows greatly increased bombing efforts as well as tactical air support for ground forces. In addition, paratroop assaults, airdrops, and simple cargo plane transfers can move ground forces and supplies. Air power is therefore a function of the degree of air superiority and numbers/types of craft, but representing a situation that defies black and white characterization: NATO forces enjoying air superiority over Kosovo still lost a stealth fighter to an "obsolete"[4] Serbian air defense system, and primitive An-2 biplanes, less visible to radar than metal planes, were considered[according to whom?] for some time a serious capability of the Korean People's Air Force in North Korea.[citation needed]

During and between the World Wars

World War I

During the First World War, air superiority on the Western Front changed hands between the Germans and the Allies several times. Periods of German air superiority included the so-called Fokker Scourge of late 1915, early-1916 and Bloody April (April 1917).[citation needed]

The Italian Corpo Aeronautico Militare established air superiority over the Imperial and Royal Aviation Troops of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto in late October 1918. The defeat suffered by Austria-Hungary in that battle caused the dissolution of their empire.[5]

Interwar period

In 1921, Italian aerial warfare theorist Giulio Douhet published The Command of the Air which posited that future wars would be decided in the skies. At the time, mainstream military theory did not see air power as a war winning weapon. Douhet's idea that air power could be a decisive force and be used to avoid the long and costly war of attrition of World War I was influential, even if later events proved him wrong in many details. In The War of 19, Douhet theorized that a future war between Germany and France would be settled in a matter of days as the winner would be the one to gain air supremacy and destroy a few enemy cities with aerial bombs (the targets would be announced ahead of time and all of the population evacuated). The population would be so terrorized by this that they would pressure their government into immediate surrender. At the beginning of World War II, Douhet's ideas were dismissed by some but as the war continued, it became apparent that his theories on the importance of aircraft were supported by events.

The Royal Air Force tested the ability of air supremacy in isolation from other forms of warfare during their first independent action in Waziristan in 1925. The operation that would later come to be known as Pink's War, after Wing Commander Richard Pink in charge of the operation, used only air warfare in a combination of air attack and 'air blockade' over fifty-four days to force militant tribes to surrender. As successful as the campaign was in bringing the tribes to surrender, with only two deaths for the RAF, not all were entirely convinced of its use in isolation; Commander-in-Chief, India General Sir Claud Jacob stated: "Satisfactory though the results of these operations have been, I am of opinion that a combination of land and air action would have brought about the desired result in a shorter space of time, and next time action has to be taken, I trust that it will be possible to employ the two forces in combination."[6]

American general Billy Mitchell was another influential air power theorist of the interwar period. After World War I, Mitchell arranged live fire tests which proved that aircraft could sink battleships (the largest and most heavily armed class of warships). His ideas were not popular, but would prove prescient.

World War II

A Royal Air Force Supermarine Spitfire at the Battle of Britain.

At the beginning of World War II, the main combatants took different views on the importance of air power. Adolf Hitler saw it as only a helpful tool to support the Heer, the German army (an approach dubbed "flying artillery"). The Allied powers, however, saw it as being a more important part of warfare, specifically long-range strategic bombing which they thought could cripple Germany's industrial centers.

After the Battle of France, the Luftwaffe achieved air supremacy over Western Europe. The Battle of Britain represented a concerted attempt by Germany to establish air superiority over Britain, which it never achieved. Through home-territory advantage and Germany's failure to push home its strategy targeting Britain's air defenses, Britain was able to establish air superiority over that territory – superiority that it never lost. It also denied the German military air superiority over the English Channel, making a seaborne invasion (planned as Operation Sea Lion) impossible in the face of Britain's naval power. Strategically, the overall situation at home and abroad at the end of the battle might be considered air parity between Britain and Germany. After this air battle, known as the Battle of Britain, the Germans switched to a strategy of night bombing raids which Britain echoed with raids over Germany.

During Operation Barbarossa the Luftwaffe again achieved air supremacy for some time over the Soviet Union. As the war dragged on, the USA joined the fight and the combined Allied air forces gained air superiority in the West, eventually gaining air supremacy. Russia did the same on the Eastern front, such that the Luftwaffe could not effectively interfere with Allied land operations. Achieving total air superiority later allowed the Allies to carry out ever-greater strategic bombing raids on Germany's industrial and civilian centers, most notably the Ruhr and Dresden, and to prosecute the land war successfully on both the Eastern and Western fronts. Following the Big Week attacks in late February 1944, the new 8th Air Force commander Jimmy Doolittle permitted the growing numbers of P-51 Mustangs starting in March 1944 to no longer closely escort the bomber formations, but fly far ahead of them in a massive "fighter sweep" tactic to clear the skies over Germany of Luftwaffe fighters, then go after those same German fighters wherever they could be found, substantially lowering bomber losses for the rest of the war over western Europe.

The element of air superiority has also been the driving force behind the development of aircraft carriers, which allow aircraft to operate in the absences of designated airbases. For example, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was carried out by aircraft operating from Japanese aircraft carriers thousands of miles away from the nearest Japanese air base.

Some fighter aircraft specialized in combating other fighters, while interceptors were originally designed to counter bombers. The most important air superiority fighters of Germany were the Bf 109 and Fw 190, while the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane were the primary ones on the British side. Performance and range made the P-51 Mustang the outstanding escort fighter which permitted American bombers to operate over Germany during daylight hours, shooting down 5,954 aircraft, more than any other American fighter in Europe. In the Pacific Theater, the A6M Zero gave Japan air superiority for much of the early days of the war, but suffered against newer naval fighters such as the F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair which exceeded the Zero in both performance and durability. The Hellcat shot down the second highest number of enemy aircraft, 5,168 while the land-based Lockheed P-38 was third, shooting down 3,785 in all theatres.[7]

After World War II

India and Pakistan fought wars in 1965 and 1971 during which air supremacy was challenged. Conditions stretched from near-parity in certain places for certain lengths of time to general air superiority by India. Pakistan has flown American, British, and Chinese frames. Indians have generally equipped themselves with Soviet and Western designs.

Israel and its Arab nationals have fought numerous air wars since 1948. The Israelis have upheld substantial air superiority for most of this time. Israelis began with British and French designs and began using American designs. The Arabs have commonly used Soviet designs.

Korean and Vietnam Wars

A United States Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet fighter aircraft

In the Korean War, the swept-wing jet-powered MiG-15 soon outclassed initial superiority of United Nations forces. The United States introduced its own swept-wing F-86 Sabre which claimed kill ratios as high as 10 to 1 against the MiGs.

In the 1950s, the United States Navy tasked the F-8 Crusader as their close-in air superiority fighter, though this role would be taken over by the F-4 Phantom, designed as an interceptor. The USAF had developed the F-100 and F-104 as air superiority fighters, but these did not have the range or performance to counter the MiG threat encountered over Vietnam.

In the 1960s, the limited agility of American fighters in dogfights over Vietnam led to a revival of the concept of the dedicated Air superiority fighter which led the development of the "Teen Series" F-14, F-15, F-16 and F/A-18. All made close-combat maneuverability a top priority, and were equipped with guns which had been absent from early Phantoms.[8] The heavy F-14 and F-15 were assigned the primary air superiority mission because of their longer range radars and capability to carry more missiles of longer range than the lightweight fighters.

1980s to present

An F-35 Lightning II, a stealth fifth generation fighter aircraft.

In the 1980s, the United States opted for a newer fighter capable of gaining air superiority without being detected by the opposing force. The ATF was held in order for the United States Air Force to receive new aircraft to replace their ageing F-15 fleet. The YF-23 and the YF-22 were chosen as the finalists for the competition. The F-22 was the subsequent result of the program and has been dubbed the "fifth generation" of fighter aircraft.

In the Falklands War (2 April-20 June 1982),[9][10] the British Harrier jet was employed as an air superiority fighter against Mach 2-capable Dassault Mirage jets.[11]

In the Gulf War (2 August 1990 – 28 February 1991), the Iraqi Air Force was almost completely obliterated in the opening stages, losing most of its aircraft and command and control capability, to precise Coalition strikes as well as to Iraqi troop desertion to Iran. Meanwhile, the Iraqis shot down relatively small numbers of opposing American aircraft.[citation needed]


Although the destruction of enemy aircraft in air to air combat is the most glamorous aspect of air superiority, this has not been, and is not, the only method of obtaining air superiority. Historically, the most effective method of gaining air superiority is by the destruction of enemy aircraft on the ground and the destruction of the means and infrastructure by which an enemy may mount air operations, e.g. through the destruction of fuel supplies, the destruction of runways and the sowing of air-fields with area denial weapons. A historical example of this is Operation Focus. In the beginning of the Six-Day War,the outnumbered Israeli Air Force dealt a crippling blow to the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian Air Forces, achieving Israeli air supremacy.

This disruption can be carried out through both ground and air attack. On 6 December 1944, the Imperial Japanese Raiding Group Teishin Shudan destroyed B-29's on Leyte. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union claimed that it could achieve air superiority despite the inferiority of its fighters by over running NATO airfields and parking their tanks on the runways (note the Germans used parts of their Autobahn as airfields during the last war). The Soviet Union also planned to use its Spetsnaz special forces in attacks against NATO airfields in the event of conflict.

Attack by special forces is seen by some commanders as one way to level the playing field when faced by superior numbers or technology; attacking German aircraft and airfields was the main role for which the British Special Air Service were formed. Given the disparity in effectiveness between their own fighters and the South Korean and US fighters they would face, North Korea maintains a large force of infiltration troops, who in the event of a war with the south would be tasked, amongst other missions, with attacking coalition air fields with mortar, machine gun and sniper fire, possibly after insertion by some 300 An-2 low radar-observable biplanes. Even in today's era of asymmetrical warfare, some 15 Fedayeen destroyed or severely damaged 8 Marine Harrier jump jets in the September 2012 Camp Bastion raid with pilots fighting as infantry for the first time in seventy years.[12]

To protect against conventional and unconventional ground attack, most air forces will train airmen in infantry skills. This reached the most extreme degree in Hermann Goring's 22 Luftwaffe Field Divisions, eventually totalling some quarter million men engaging in regular infantry action. In some air forces these may be airmen who receive infantry training in addition to other tasks or in others airmen who belong to units such as the RAF Regiment and United States Air Force Security Forces, whose main task is the protection air fields and of aircraft on the ground.

See also


  • Franks, Norman; Guest, Russell; Alegi, Gregory. Above the War Fronts: The British Two-seater Bomber Pilot and Observer Aces, the British Two-seater Fighter Observer Aces, and the Belgian, Italian, Austro-Hungarian and Russian Fighter Aces, 1914–1918: Volume 4 of Fighting Airmen of WWI Series: Volume 4 of Air Aces of WWI. Grub Street, 1997. ISBN 1-898697-56-6, ISBN 978-1-898697-56-5.


  1. "Chapter 13: Air Power Definitions and Terms". AP 3000: British Air and Space Power Doctrine. Royal Air Force. Retrieved 19 May 2013. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 "AAP-06 Edition 2013: NATO Glossary of Terms and Definitions". NATO. Retrieved 19 May 2013. 
  3. "air supremacy". Joint Publication 1-02, DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms 08 November 2010 (amended through 15 April 2013). Department of Defense. Retrieved 19 May 2013. 
  4. "The conduct of the air campaign", North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) official website (Retrieved 26 July 2013)
  5. Franks et al. 1997, pp. 111–113.
  6. "No. 33104". 20 November 1925. 
  7. "WWII US Aircraft Victories". Warbirds and Airshows. 11 June 1944. Retrieved 14 October 2012. 
  8. Flight International Magazine described the F-14 in 1969 as an "air superiority fighter".
  9. "UK | Falklands war timeline". BBC News. 27 March 2007. Retrieved 14 October 2012. 
  10. "BBC ON THIS DAY | 14 | 1982: Ceasefire agreed in Falklands". BBC News. Retrieved 14 October 2012. 
  11. "Shropshire – Shropshire TV – Shawbury's farewell to Sea Harriers". BBC. Retrieved 14 October 2012. 
  12. Timperlake, Ed (21 September 2012). "Tribute To Camp Bastion Fallen; Taliban Targeted Harriers, Their 'Biggest Threat'". Retrieved 24 September 2012. 

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