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One of the most influential innovations used in warfare has been the employment of air. From a
modest beginning in the First World War to the high technological use of air in the Kosovo conflict, air
has come a long way and today it holds the center stage in l’affaire militaire. This journey over just
seven decades has been one of remarkable transformation in which air is today talked about as the
dominant arm of any nation that can be used decisively to even win wars. While the assertion about its
ability to influence wars is not disputed, it is debatable whether air can win wars on its own. Gulf War of
1991 and even Kosovo have shown that air is still not able to decisively influence operations on the
ground, leave aside achieve the terminal objective of the war. Also, the traditional concept of air power
and ability of an Air Force to assert even the air power on its own is being reviewed in light of the
transformation taking place in aviation and the conduct of air warfare. The face of air power is gradually
but surely changing from the ‘manned’ to the ‘unmanned’. From the days when the aircraft were the
only means of power projection, air power is today represented not only aircraft and helicopters but also
by unmanned aerial vehicle, cruise and ballistic missiles and even the space vehicles.

Inspite of these changes, Air Forces the world over still claim that it is the Air Force alone which
is the military means of projecting air power of any nation. While Air Force does play the most
important part in air warfare as it represents the strike element, the pivot around which the air operations
function can only be provided by the air defence artillery. History has time and again proved that no
nation can employ its air power without a well integrated ground based air defence nee Air Defence

Air Power and Control of Air Space

Brigadier General William Mitchell, one of the earliest proponents of air power defined it as “
the ability to do something in the air”1. The USAF Chief of Staff during Second World War, General
HH Arnold defined it as the “ The ability of a nation to deliver cargo, destructive material and
warmaking potential through the medium of air to a desired destination to accomplish a desired
purpose”. It has also been defined as “the ability of a nation to assert its will through the medium of air”.

The air can only ‘do something’ in case it has the control of the air space while denying the
same to its adversaries. The ability to exploit air power depends a great deal upon the ability to control
the air. This is a direct measure of ones capability to exploit this medium as well as the degree to which
enemy air can be prevented from being employed. Such control can be in various degrees of totality or
be limited by time and space. In any case, some control of air space is essential for the conduct of air

The application of air power is also dependent upon certain critical factors viz firepower,
mobility and freedom of action to exploit them. Freedom of action is central to the exploitation of air
power and it can only be achieved by an integrated employment of air’ and Air Defence Artillery.

Kosovo is often touted as the prime example of employment of air power to achieve national
goals. Claims were made by USA about the efficacy of its air force and the near total rout of Serb
ground forces and Air Defence network. The truth is however somewhat different. The claims made by
the Joint Chief of Staff about the damage caused by the USAF

were far more than the actual attrition caused (See box below). 2
250 TK
200 APC


The Chief of Israeli Air Force General Eitan Ben Eliah , commenting on the ‘Operation Allied
Force’ noted that almost the entire air campaign was conducted at medium and high altitude, well
outside the range of Serb Air Defences that could not be eliminated by allied air forces. Also, the allied
were forced to raise the ante as the air defence network and the ‘zero casualty’ syndrome made the allied
forces use a large number of precision-guided munitions.

The following observations by the General therefore merit attention

All air operations were at medium and high altitudes which resulted in loss in accuracy
of target acquisition and engagement. This is also borne out by the analysis of the claims made
by allied forces.

There was an increased use of air against civilian targets. This was not only because the
allied hoped to destroy the ‘center of gravity’ of the Serbs but also because the Serb air defence
cover over the ground forces made air operations very prohibitive.

Though a total of 40,000 sorties were launched, only 10,000 were used for strike
missions. The rest were for suppression of air defence, escort missions, mid air refueling,
logistics and the like. Thus air defence by its very presence had caused ‘virtual attrition’ of over
two third of the total allied air effort.

Even the B-2 bomber, despite its hype about its stealth capability, carried out its missions
under heavy escort of EA-6 Prowler and air superiority fighters. This was because of the need to
safeguard it from Serb Air Defence. When the stealth aircraft did operate without this cover, they
were not only detected but also engaged by the ground based air defence. In fact one F-117 was
even destroyed by the SA-6 missile system.

The US air force was thus forced to devote a large part of the total effort to suppress the air
defence in order to gain freedom of operation. This brings out a simple lesson, Without dominating air
defence, air control is not possible.

Early theories of Air Space Control

The main propaganists of the theory of control of the air were Italian General Giulio Douhet and
US Brigadier General William Mitchell who advocated massive use of bombers to gain supremacy.
Lord Trenchard, the first Chief of Staff of the Royal Air Force was of the same opinion viz strategic
bombing to achieve mastery of the air. In fact such was the faith in the capabilities of the bomber that
the common perception was that ‘the bomber will get through’. This was obviously at the cost of
developing good fighters – the need of which was felt later when the bombers were suffering heavy
attrition. The bomber squadrons were used to carry out the strategic air campaigns by the allied forces

over Germany. They could however achieve mixed results - while the civilian targets were destroyed
quite effectively, military targets that were the primary aim were not. In fact the military production in
Germany increased during the worst and most intense phase of the bombing campaign3. Also, the
bombers without adequate protection suffered heavy losses and it was only the political stubbornness
that ensured the continuum of bomber offensive.

The basic Soviet doctrine for air control is largely based on the experience of ‘The Great
Patriotic War’. In the initial stages of the War, the Soviets lacked adequate air defence forces, which
resulted in large attrition – both in air and ground. Soviet planners had early on realized that the ground
forces had to have their own air defence and not depend upon the air force for air defence. When the
Soviet ground forces were equipped with the air defence weapons, the German air superiority eroded
and the number of Soviet air sorties for air cover declined. Soviet Divisions were equipped with either
Light (37mm) or Heavy (85mm) anti-aircraft battery, with the field army having one or two anti-aircraft
battalions. In all there was an eight-fold increase in air defence weapons between 1941 and 1945. This
was a key factor in enabling the Soviets to go on the offensive.

Even today the Russians lay great emphasis on massed anti aircraft weapons being used in
support of ground forces. The Surface to air missiles are also integrated in a manner to provide tiered
defensive layout. The principles of mass and concentration were validated and refined after the Middle
East wars and the recent Gulf and Kosovo conflicts. There has also been a shift in the use of electronic
warfare in support of air defence forces.

US doctrine is based on use of air to achieve control of air. It relies on technological superiority
to tilt the balance of forces in its favour and wrest the air space control. The US does not rely much on
air defence artillery to protect the ground forces – as is apparent from the disregard of this arm in its
army. It is only recently that US has started developing its weapons for providing ‘Forward Area Air
Defence’ and missile defence systems. The soundness of this doctrine viz reliance on air alone for air
defence has never really been tested in combat as all the conflicts in which US has taken part – post
second world war, have been asymmetrical wars with the odds heavily in favour of US. Therefore the
soundness of the doctrine can only be speculated, not really be commented upon. Maybe that is also
apart of US design – to directly participate in asymmetrical wars only!

Post Second World War Conflicts

The Korean War saw an asymmetrical conflict between the US led UN forces against the
communist Korean defence forces. USA had established control of air over almost the entire Korean
peninsula and had also introduced the jet-aircraft. Countering them were the North Korean and Chinese
air defence forces, depending on weapons and tactics employed by the Soviets during the Second World
War. The primary weapons were the radar controlled 85 mm guns for high priority targets and 12.7 and
37 mm guns for the field forces. Even as the ground forces were protected by “ a swarm of anti aircraft
defences dotting the Peninsula”, they were not adequate to provide adequate against the US close
support aircraft. However the North Korean Air Defence forces destroyed 544 aircraft – five times more
than were lost by USA in air-to-air combat4.
Also, use of radar at a large scale for the first time forced the US aircraft to intensify their
electronic warfare capability and dedicate aircraft to suppress air defences. In fact this resulted in the
need of dedicating aircraft for air defence suppression, thereby denuding effort available for strike
missions.This was the beginning of ‘virtual attrition’5 of air power by air defence. In addition, air
defences forced the US aircraft to fly higher and release their weapon loads at higher altitudes with
reduced accuracy. This itself was, after all the primary task of air defence, to safeguard the target areas
and not to destroy aircraft. However, whenever the Koreans used weapons and tactics of the previous
war, they were ruthlessly suppressed by UN air forces– bringing out the first lesson. Tactics, if repeated,
do not pay the same dividends. This was to be learnt by both the Israeli and Arabs during the Middle
East conflicts also.

Vietnam war saw the emergence of surface to air missiles (SAM), first large scale use of radars
for air defence and also the anti radiation missiles and precision guided munitions. Amongst all these
new weapons and concepts many a lesson were learnt – and an equal number ignored.

US air offensive against North Vietnam was code-named ‘Rolling Thunder’6. Due to the US
policy of gradual escalation, North Vietnam had ample opportunity to build up its air defence network.
At the beginning of the US air offensive in 1964, North Vietnam had only about 1,000 medium and
heavy caliber guns. By mid 1965, they had tripled in number and by end of the year North Vietnam had
between 6,000 to 7,000 guns ranging in caliber from 20 mm to 100 mm. These guns, mostly optically
guided, caused more than their fair share of attrition on the US aircraft. Ground based air defence guns
alone accounted for over 73 percent of all US air force aircraft destroyed while they also accounted
for 64 and 58 percent of US Navy and Marine Corps aircraft respectively. Translated into numbers,
guns alone shot down 1,600 fixed wing aircraft of the total 2,300 aircraft lost by USA.

The war also saw the extensive use of SAM in combat for the first time. SA-2, which the North
Vietnamese used, was a combat proven missile system that had been in service for eight years in Soviet
Union. The first casualty to SAM was a US F-4C, destroyed on Jul 24, 1965. This marked the beginning
of a basic change in the competition between air attack and air defence. Though they shot down only a
little over 200 aircraft between 1965 and 1972, they played an important role in dictating the terms of
conduct of air strikes over Vietnam as they forced the aircraft to fly lower, directly into the effective
range of guns thus complementing the ‘flak’.

The SAM and guns thus forced the US aircraft to constantly change tactics and evolve new
weapon delivery means in order to wrest back the control of the air. The extensive air defence
suppression tactics of US air proved futile as Vietcong Air Defence continued to take a heavy toll
throughout the war. In the end, USA had to resort to blockade of Haiphong and other ports from which
the Vietcong used to receive their military supplies in order to strangle the Vietcong air Defence.

The ‘ring of steel’7 which the air defence had put around Hanoi was finally broken – not by
air power but a naval operation!

The Middle East wars, right from the 1967 war to Lebanon 1982, provide numerous lessons for
air defence and planners of air operations. The first major war of 1967 saw the Israeli Air Force gain
total control of the air space over the entire battle zone. This was inspite of an array of Egyptian Air
Defence guns and SAM. On the very first day of the war, Israel had destroyed 418 Arab aircraft, 393 of
them on the ground. This was achieved by coming over the sea at low level, under the radar cover. The
only worthwhile lessons for the Air Defence were need to have adequate low level air defence network
and high degree of combat readiness.

The Soviets, smarting under the failure of their weapons during 1967, inducted unprecedented
amount of weapons and advisors. By July 1973, Egyptians had an integrated air defence network
consisting of 130 SAM sites and eight different types of anti aircraft guns. The air defence network was
first tested on October 6, 1973 when they claimed a large number of Israeli aircraft. And they claimed
over 100 aircraft during the entire war. The Arabs in fact inflicted more losses on attacking aircraft than
any other air defence force since Second World War.
Inspite of sophisticated aircraft like F-4 and Mirage-III, Israeli Air Force was denied the
opportunity to affect the overall outcome of the war. Soviet writers claim that the SAMs had ‘a major
effect not only on the use of aggressors air force but also on the development of the operations by the
ground forces’.

General Mohammad El-Gamasy voiced, what can be called the primary lesson of the war,
‘Despite the superiorty of an air force, both qualitatively and quantitatively, it has an inability to
achieve air superiority when opposed by a strong ground air defence’.

Major General Chaim Herzog of Israeli Air Force also admitted that ‘many of the accepted
concepts of air war will have to be re-evaluated and light air defence missiles will change the concept of
close air support’.

Bekka Valley was, on the other hand, an excellent example of air managing to wrest and manage
to retain the control of the air. The basic lesson of the war is not that the air can suppress the air
defence but that without suppressing air defences, no nation can assume the control of air.

Wars in the Indian Subcontinent

The 1965 war has been glamourised, with some justification, by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) as
their ‘finest hour’. The results speak for themselves. PAF stared the war with 149 aircraft, including 12
T-33 trainers, against 504 Indian aircraft. At the end of the seventeen-day war, PAF had claimed 65
Indian aircraft for a loss of only 25. One of the interesting features of the war was the almost total
absence of counter air operations. This was primarily due to the heavy loss suffered while executing
these operations in the initial days of the war. During the infamousraid on Sargodha on Sep 7, 1965
Indian Air Force (IAF) lost 5 Hunters and 2 Mysteres. Earlier they had lost all the four Vampires
launched in the first mission of the War. The IAF after this never ventured on counter air operations.
Also the entire fleet of Vampires was grounded by IAF for the entire duration of the war.

PAF had in fact launched the first blow on Sep 6 when they attacked Indian air bases at 1740
hours and destroyed 18 aircraft on ground in the first strike itself8. However, they could not press home
this advantage because of bad planning and lack of coordination. PAF never carried out any counter air
operations after the first day’s operations.

The control of the skies was not with either side – it was an open sky, with the air defence forces
dictating the terms of operations to the rival Air Forces. Only over the Pak sky was PAF the master, in
control of its air space and it was ably supported by the Pak Air Defence. This was in fact the first
instance after the Second World War that a force on the defensive defeated a numerical force on the
offensive to cause such heavy attrition that mastery of the air was gained by the defender. The attrition
caused by the air defence artillery had played a significant role in stemming the Indian air offensive as it
claimed majority of the Indian aircraft destroyed.

During 1971 War, both sides went into battle better prepared. IAF had 32 combat squadrons, of
which nine were in the East. PAF had 14 including one in (then) East Pakistan. Even during this war,
IAF did not perform too well as far as counter air and achieving air supremacy is concerned. Even in the
East, with 9 Squadrons, IAF claimed total air control within 48 hours but at the cost of 8 aircraft – all
due to ground air defence. Not much of a control of the air space at that!

In the West, IAF launched 437 sorties for counter air operations and lost 23 aircraft that
translates as 5.2 percent attrition rate. Of these, 11 were lost to ground fire. In fact, of the total 56
aircraft lost by IAF, 35 were to ground fire i.e. 62 percent of the total losses. Though IAF utilized 49
percent of its total air effort in offensive air support (a total of 3243 sorties), in the West offensive air
support there were only 1859 sorties. During these IAF lost 28 aircraft, 24 to air defence artillery.9

Even during Kargil, hand held SAM caused the IAF to stop close air support sorties by armed
helicopters. This after the loss of just one helicopter! Even IAF strike aircraft went in only after
assured of adequate air defence10.
During the war, the Indian Army had requested for armed helicopters for close support but the
IAF refused as it wanted to first activate its air defence network and also send in its strike missions to
suppress Pakistani ground based air defenec. Later, when the helicopters were sent in, strike missions
preceded them. However, due to large time differntial between the preceding strike air craft and the
helicopters, by the time the helicopters reached the target area, the Pak air defences were reactivated and
were able to engage the aircraft. What followed was the loss of just one helicopter and the IAF never
used them again!

Even with the strike aircraft, IAF had to change its attack profiles when two aircraft were lost,
presumably to Stingers. The aircraft ended up engaging targets from safer ranges – safe for both the
aircraft as well as the target.

Emerging threats and Control of Air Space

If one is to go by the classic definition of air power and the need for retaining control of air space
to exploit it, while preventing the enemy from doing so, then the new threats and manifestations of the
air power do not bode well of proponents of ‘air only’ as the means of projection of air power.

In a study by the European firm Oerlikon Contarves, it was found that the classic means of air
power ie fixed wing aircraft were being less favoured by the air forces the world over. Increasing
reliance on unmanned aerial vehicles and ballistic missiles had diminished the use of aircraft11. Even in
the last two decades, aircraft as a percentage of overall air threat had seen a decline from 60 percent
of the air threat to just about 35 percent. The unmanned aerial vehicles on the other hand have seen a
three fold increase in corresponding period, from just under 5 percent to 15 percent.(See Box Below)

50 AC

20 TBM






These new threats cannot be countered by air. To do so, there is a requirement of viable and
effective air defence artillery. And after having suppressed these threats can only the air power in its
true sense be employed effectively.

Attrition and Air Space Control

Attrition is directly related to the capacity of an air force to wage its operations. The ‘acceptable’
attrition rate has been derived at as it allows an air force to conduct operations for about 20-22 days
without suffering heavy losses. An air force would be reduced to half its strength by the end of this 22-
day period. On the other hand, 10 percent attrition will reduce a force to half its strength in just 5 days.
The interse relationship between attrition and aircraft availability is given in the table below.

100 RATE

80 1%
40 10%
1 5 10 15 20 25 30

It is quite apparent that if any nation is able to force unacceptable attrition on its opponent, can
hope to gain air superiority that much easier. It is in this that air defence artillery plays it major role, for
it accounts for maximum attrition. A fact borne out by study of history of air warfare.

Here it must be mentioned that a nation may still continue with air operations inspite of heavy
losses, due to political constraints. Best example is of the Battle of Britain in which UK continued its air
defence operations and just barely survived, with the Germans giving in first. However, more often than
not, a nation would be forced to abandon its air operations inn face of heavy attrition.12


In his book, ‘The Race to the Swift’, Richard E Simpkin states that ‘Soon, if not now, any which
aircraft which climbs out of the nap of the earth into hostile radar vision within the range of SAM will
be destroyed’. While this may not be entirely true, the fact remains that air defence has matured to an
extent that it can right fully claim to dictate the very conduct of air warfare and without its active
contribution no country can claim to gain control of the air space.

Ground based AD guns & SAM may have a short range, but if found at all places over which
a pilot wishes to over fly, these are a potent danger and will prevent an effective exploitation of the air
space by any air force. This will prevent achievement of air supremacy. The control of the air thus
would remain with the force that has effectively integrated and exploited its ground based air defence.

Even if an air force manages to achieve air superiorty, it will continue to face attrition, for losses
to ground based air defence do not reduce even in case of achieving air superiority. Attrition to air
defence itself can force a nation to give up its air superiority missions – thus give up its control over the
air space.

If Gulf and Kosovo are taken as the prime example of air having the capability to
influence wars, if not win them, then Afghanistan must be studied as to how a single air defence weapon
can change the course of history. Stingers, in the hand of Afghan Mujhahideen, became such an
influential weapon system that the Soviets had to abandon their air operations and ultimately withdraw
after having suffered heavy attrition.

1. Quoted by John C Cooper in his address at the Library of Congress on

“ The Fundamentals of Air Power” on Jan 7, 1940.

2. Pentagon had instituted a study group to verify the claims made by the US Air Force about its
effectiveness in destroying Serb military targets. The group, designated the ‘Munitions Effectiveness
Assessment Team’ went on ground to verify each and every claim
and their report was at variance of the “official” figures. The report was made secret and never made
public. Also, General Wesley Clark, the NATO military Commander in Serbia, relinquished his post in
an early retirement. “The Kosovo Cover Up” Newsweek Magazine May 15, 2000.

3. The aircraft production itself increased quite dramatically. Germany

produced about 360 fighter aircraft per month in the initial years of the war. This peaked at about 3317
aircraft of all types per month in 1944, the year that saw the most intense bombing by allied air forces.
Compared to 8295 aircraft inducted in 1939, the Luftwaffe received 39807 aircraft in 1944.

4. By that time MiG-15 had made its debut, so all was not hopeless for the Koreans and Chinese in
the air also.

5. In case air effort is diverted for suppression of air defences and as

escort for the strike aircraft, that much less air effort is available to an air force for its primary strike
tasks. This means that the mere presence of air defence reduces the total effort available for counter air
and offensive air tasks. This is referred to as Virtual attrition. The Europeans primarily use this term.

6. The name has been taken from an old gospel hymn “How Great Are Thou”. It was chosen to reflect
the ‘macho’ image USA wanted to project.

7. The largest concentration of Vietcong Air Defence weapons was in the Red River valley, stretching
some 160 km from Yen Bai in the northwest, southeastward to Haiphong and the Gulf of Tonkin. The
weapons were especially concentared in a 100 by 65 km section of the valley with Hanoi as the hub.
Hanoi itself had about 5,000 guns around it forming a ‘ring of steel’.

8. PAF started the counter air operations by striking at Pathankot and Kalaikunda. While Pathanakot was
attacked on Sep 6, Kalaikunda was attacked in the early hours of Sep 7, 1965. PAF raids later became
predictable, thus intercept able. The losses also mounted. PAF lost 3 of the 4 aircraft over Halwara while
it lost 1 aircraft of the 4 over Adampur. This was to be end of PAF counter air operations.

9. Most of the losses were, to quote Air Marshall CV Gole, due to wrong tactics. According to him,
aircraft were lost as they went in for shallow and medium dives that made them vulnerable. Later, IAF
abandoned the gun/ rocket projectile combination in dives for a safer use of only bombs from relatively
higher altitudes. Even PAF did not go for dive attacks after the initial losses suffered by it.

10. Interview by Air Chief Marshal AY Tipnis. India Today, July 26, 1999.

11. The components of air power have changed over the years. Initially, aircraft were the only means of
projection of air power. However recent years, best illustrated by extensive use of UAVs in the Beqqa
Valley and more recently in the Gulf and Kosovo, have changed the ‘face’ of air power from the
manned aircraft to the unmanned. Even the ballistic missiles are being used more to project power. The
best example is the War of the Scuds during the Iran-Iraq war and later in the Gulf War 1991.

12. RAF launched its day light bomber offensive using Lancaster bombers in December 1939. The
first target was the German fleet at Wilhelmsharen. The raid was by 24 bombers, of which two aborted
the mission, 12 were shot down by German flak and only 10 survived. The British never after this tried
any daytime raid over Germany.

The second example is the raid by Vampires of IAF on the first day of air offensive in September
1965, four Vampires were sent on a raid- of which all were lost to PAF aircraft. The Vampires were
never used in the entire War, losing out the round of ‘numbers’ to PAF.

1. ‘The Impact of Air Power’ by Eugene M Emme. The English Book Depot, Dehradun.
2. “The Future of Air Power” by Neville Brown. Published by Croom Helm, London.
3. “Attrition in Air Warfare”
4. “Battle for Pakistan”
5. “Air Operations of December 1971” by Air Marshal CV Gole. Vayu VI/1991.
6. “ The Development of Soviet Tactical Air Defence” by James Hansen. International Defence
Review 5/81.
7. ‘Anti Aircraft” – A History of Air Defence by Ian V Hogg. MacDonalds and James, London.
8. “The Limits of Air Power” by James L George. USI Digest, Sep 2000.
9. “Technology Favours Future Land Forces” by Colonel Volney J Warner, USI Digest, Sep
10. ‘Air Power in the 21st Century’ by General Eitan Ben Eliah. Military Technology 4/ 2000.