Mutual Denial of Air Superiority Could Benefit US in Future Conflict, Says USAF’s Top Planner

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Russia inability to take control from the skies during its invasion of Ukraine raises serious questions about the concept of air superiority – and how the United States could actually benefit from a contested domain in a future conflict, the chief planner of the Air Force on September 6.

Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategy, Integration, and Requirements, detailed these issues in a virtual fireside chat with the Atlantic Council on the future of air warfare in light of the Russian-Ukrainian war, which has been going on for more than six months now.

During those six months, the airspace over Ukraine was contested as the more technologically advanced Russian air force was largely blocked by Ukrainian air defense systems. efficient and inexpensive.

These results led Hinote to conclude 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 expanding the control and keep control of the airspace,” he said.

Airspace control, or air superiority, has long been a central principle of US Air Force strategy. But given that the costs of achieving and maintaining that superiority have increased relative to what it takes to deny it to others, a “very interesting question” arises, Hinote said.

“The question in my mind is, is there a chance, is there a situation in modern conflict, where the mutual denial of a space is good for someone, operationally and strategic?” he said.

Since the United States is interested in seeing the status quo preserved – China not invading Taiwan and Russia not invading a NATO ally – Hinote suggested that the low probability of a nation obtaining the air superiority in a conflict could be a deterrent.

“Our potential adversary, China, has written extensively about what it sees as the preconditions for victory, for successful military operations,” Hinote said. “They believe you have to be able to establish air superiority, sea superiority and information superiority. … So if we could prove that we can mutually deny air, sea and information, the logical conclusion is that our potential adversary never gets to the point where he is ready to go, where he is ready to begin something we don’t want to see started. If that’s true, then I think that idea of ​​mutual denial, especially in those three spaces, is key.

And if the mutual denial of air superiority is an advantage for the United States, “then we need an army capable of achieving mutual denial, even at the edge of the battlespace, even at the doorstep of our adversaries. “, Hinote added. “And clearly that’s what we see when we see a place like Ukraine.”

While Ukraine continues to seek “fast and versatile” platforms such as the F-16 to challenge Russian positions on Ukrainian territory, defenders have used weapons such as the Stinger short-range air defense system and the S-300 missile defense system to keep Russia’s air force largely “absent” from the conflict, in the words of Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall.

The success of these weapons, Hinote noted, raises further questions about how to “project power into the air and affect it there.”

“It doesn’t matter what domain this projection comes from. And more and more, you won’t have to worry about it. More and more, you don’t mind if the effect of mutual denial comes from the ground. Clearly this is happening today,” Hinote said.

Moving away from such a concern is part of a broader shift that Hinote – among many others at the Pentagon – is pursuing as part of the joint operations in all areas concept.

“As someone who thinks about joint command and control across all domains and thinks about how we move from our current doctrine, which was really very domain-centric, to doctrine that seems very fluid in domains , I see a lot of challenges there,” Hinote said. “I also see a huge upside if we can do it.”

However, regarding airpower specifically, Hinote said he would welcome a discussion with the military and other services about the roles and responsibilities of each service. In the meantime, the Air Force seeks to change the “cost-benefit analysis” of air superiority.

“We want to get to the point where firing a missile at something is more expensive than firing a missile. That’s the radical difference. Because generally we’ve thought about using air power in ways that involve platforms and very refined capabilities, which are very expensive,” Hinote said. “And a missile, or sets of missiles, or even a dozen missiles attacking it are much cheaper than that particular platform. We’re trying to turn things around, and we think we can, and when that happens, it has the potential to change the whole ROI for our opponent and for us.

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