Six months after pre-dawn airstrikes first launched Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the skies over Ukraine remain contested. Ukraine’s success in denying air superiority to a larger and more technologically sophisticated Russian Air Force continues to puzzle military pundits. But in focusing mainly on Russian deficiencies, Western analysts have often missed the point: The air war in Ukraine, where neither side controls the skies, offers an alternative model of air control — mutual air denial.
In both Europe and the Indo-Pacific region, the United States aims to preserve the status quo — to prevent acts of military aggression and territorial conquest in these regions. This calls for a defense strategy and military strategy capable of dissuading aggression and revisionism. As neither Moscow nor Beijing wants to start a war it cannot win, the task before the United States, alongside its allies and partners, is to convince Russia or China they cannot gain control of the air domain. Without air superiority, offensive ground operations cannot succeed — something Russian forces have learned through great cost in blood and treasure.
Through a strategy of air denial, the United States would not seek to gain air superiority but instead work with allies and partners to implement a smarter defense-in-vertical depth approach, layering the effects of cyber disruptions, electromagnetic jamming, ground-based air defenses, drones and counter-air operations in increasing degrees of strength, from higher to lower altitudes.
The outer layer of American and allied defenses ought to consist of an integrated air defense system, including mobile surface-to-air missiles, radars and communications systems. Employing so-called shoot-and-scoot tactics, air defense units would fire their missiles and quickly turn off the radar and move away, making it difficult for the enemy to find and destroy them.
During the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S.-led coalition employed strike aircraft and special forces to hunt Iraq’s truck-mounted Scud missiles. But even with the benefit of air superiority, Iraq’s effective use of maneuver and high-fidelity decoys prevented the U.S. Air Force from claiming even a single confirmed kill of Scud-associated vehicles.
The mobile surface-to-air missiles of the United States and its allies and partners would present an even more challenging hunt: Russian or Chinese aircraft would be “not only the hunter but the hunted.” As the war in Ukraine amply shows, Russian pilots largely avoid entering Ukrainian airspace to conduct close-in strikes under these circumstances. As long as the United States and its allies maintained an active and credible threat against Russian or Chinese warplanes — an air defense in being — it ought to be sufficient to deny the enemy’s fighters and bombers unfettered use of the “blue skies.”
Even then, the airspace below them would remain contested. Enemy warplanes may resort to flying at low altitudes to evade radar detection by high-end surface-to-air missiles, but it would send them right into the thick of the inner layer of American and allied air defenses.
The “air littoral” — the airspace between ground forces and high-end fighters and bombers — would approximate an “aerial minefield” where thousands of drones, low-flying missiles, loitering munitions, anti-aircraft artillery, electronic warfare systems and shoulder-fired man-portable air defense systems would reap destruction on the attacking air force.
Ukraine has shown the defender enjoys an inherent home-court advantage in the air littoral.
“Ukraine has been effective in the sky because we operate on our own land,” according to Yuri Ihnat, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force. “The enemy flying into our airspace is flying into the zone of our air defense systems.”
Ukraine has had great success against low-flying Russian fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters using anti-aircraft artillery, rockets and American-supplied Stinger missiles.
It is a harbinger of the future, where the advantage will shift decisively toward the defender — a strategic and operational advantage the United States and its allies and partners ought to exploit to the fullest extent. By employing sufficiently large numbers of smaller, cheaper, unmanned systems in a distributed way, the United States and its allies and partners would increase both the costs and uncertainty of Chinese or Russian efforts to quickly seize territory and present their conquest as a fait accompli.
Given the United States is on the strategic defensive, and the costs of achieving and maintaining traditional air superiority are rapidly growing compared to the costs of air denial, a strategy of air denial is the smarter and more economical choice.
Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements for the U.S. Air Force, comes to a similar conclusion, saying that “the barriers to entry for denial, for denying the use of airspace, are much, much lower these days than the barrier to entry for extending control and keeping control of the airspace.”
Gaining air superiority is a core tenet of Western air forces — firmly entrenched in the doctrine and ethos of the U.S. Air Force — but it is a means to an end, not an end itself. Hinote acknowledges as much, reasoning that if the mutual denial of air superiority is an advantage for the United States, “then we need to have a military that can achieve mutual denial, even at the edges of the battlespace, even on the doorstep of our adversaries.”
Such a strategy requires the economy provided by mass. The U.S. Air Force ought to move away from the capable, costly and numerically limited high-end fighters and bombers and embrace more unmanned, autonomous and more attritable systems. It also requires moving away from penetration and precision strike with manned aircraft to swarming tactics of denial with thousands of cheap, small-sized drones.
The alternative is for the Air Force to keep buying few and exquisite capabilities for conducting long-range penetration missions, while remaining indifferent to changing cost and effectiveness calculations. Though the impulse to hold tight to the air superiority paradigm may be strong, the future of air warfare is denial.
U.S. Air Force Col. Maximillian K. Bremer is the director of the Special Programs Division at Air Mobility Command. Kelly A. Grieco is a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy Program at the Stimson Center and an adjunct associate professor of security studies at Georgetown University. The opinions in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Defense Department nor the U.S. Air Force.