The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.

Suppression by Land & Sea: Historical Uses of the Surface Domains to Combat Air Defenses

  • Published
  • By Maj. Thomas Horan

The introduction of aircraft into modern warfare led to the resulting invention and proliferation of air defense weaponry. As a response to an interwar notion about how bomber aircraft were untouchable by enemy defenses, airborne or not, celebrated airpower practitioner Claire Chennault espoused “the ancient principle that for every weapon there is a new and effective counter weapon.”[1] While Air Forces the world over have learned that control of the air is a necessity and a “prerequisite for success” in conflicts, the greatest combat threat to aircraft is from the ground and not the air, despite years of technological development and investment.[2] The suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) mission grew from the lessons learned in blood during the quest for control of the air in several major twentieth-century conflicts. SEAD describes a simple concept: using airpower to target the air defenses that threaten friendly control of the air. Despite the mention of surface component SEAD in joint doctrine, the United States military views it as a mission primarily accomplished by air assets, most often by “SEAD-dedicated aircraft” or multi-role fighters.[3] This air-centric view, however, disregards several lessons learned in combat that show the effectiveness of incorporating effects from capabilities in the surface domains against threat air defenses. During multiple conflicts across the globe, whether deliberately or inadvertently, surface forces frequently contributed to suppressing the adversary’s air defense system (ADS) or the defense of their airspace. Although doctrinally accomplished by specially-equipped aircraft, the SEAD mission must incorporate effects from the sea and land domains to appropriately gain and maintain control of the air while reducing the destruction of friendly air assets.

The genesis of the ADS started with augmenting anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) with visual observers in World War I, evolved to include radar and signals intelligence in World War II, and then incorporated the surface-to-air missile (SAM) during the Cold War.[4] At its core, an ADS consists of sensors to locate air threats, weapons to engage them, and some facet of command, control, and communications to build the operating picture for higher leadership. Further evolutions that incorporate battle management and intelligence form an integrated air defense system.[5] The appearance of German Zeppelins over England at the start of World War I signaled a terrifying realization by the British leadership about their lack of preparation to defend their homeland against aerial attack. Over the next two years, Britain would develop a nascent air defense network that combined early warning, communication links, and weaponry designed specifically to down aircraft and airships.[6] During the interwar years, the British recognized the need to further develop this capability into an early integrated air defense system (IADS) by combining and fusing information from multiple layers of sensors, intelligence intercepts, and a national telephone system that allowed for communication from higher command to the AAA posts across the country that enabled a more effective defense of the nation’s airspace.[7] The expanded situational awareness provided by all of an IADS' components greatly increases both the lethality and resiliency of the system, reducing the probability of success for bombing missions tasked to destroy targets protected by its umbrella.

During World War II and Korea, Allied air strategies focused on targeting both the enemy’s willingness to fight and major industries supporting the war efforts.[8] The emphasis on offensive airpower has, at times, overshadowed the capabilities offered by a nation’s air defense. Ground-based air defenses (GBAD), combined with enemy fighter aircraft and environmental factors, enacted devastating losses to both aircraft and aircrew due to this fixation on offensive aerial warfare. Until the 1960s, the lack of a precise means to target ADS components effectively and repeatedly by air drove the need for surface components — land and naval forces — to occasionally engage these threats to air operations. During the first part of World War II, for instance, few aircrew could drop a bomb within five miles of a target.[9] Employing tactics that committed multiple bombs against strategic targets and their surrounding defenses increased the chances of inflicting damage but at the cost of potentially losing bombers from flak fired by air defense gunners. During the war in Korea, dive-bombing tactics increased accuracy and decreased the circle of error probable to hundreds of feet, but still at the cost of significant damage to many aircraft and restrictions on safe operating altitudes due to AAA positions across the theater.[10] The effectiveness of enemy air defenses drove changes to Allied employment strategies due to the heavy toll exacted on the aircraft needed to carry out the strategic bombing campaign at the heart of the joint campaign plan.

Control of the air aspires for the uncontested movement and action across either an entire theater or in a localized area, free from interference from both the fighters and ground-based systems that form part of the enemy’s ADS. More than fifty years after the widespread introduction of GBAD to warfare, the dedicated SEAD mission was born from the devastating losses incurred by the United States Air Force and Navy from Soviet-provided SAMs in North Vietnam. In 1965, a combination of technological advances led to effective aircraft-mounted radar warning receivers (RWR) that finally allowed for direct attacks on radars and SAMs.[11] While the fight for control of the air correctly focused on attacking fighter aircraft in both World Wars and Korea, GBAD weaponry continued to inflict punishing losses with a high cost in both aircraft lost and aircrew killed.[12] The development of the SEAD mission allowed for the targeting of every aspect of the ADS.

Doctrinally, the SEAD mission seeks to destroy or disrupt the adversary air defenses by primarily targeting the early warning network and GBAD weaponry such as AAA and SAMs, thus enabling control of the air by friendly forces.[13] An attacking aircraft first encounters the sensors of a hostile ADS providing long-range advanced notice of intruders when proceeding to a target. Akin to layers of an onion, a combination of radar, visual observers (VISOBS), and signals intelligence (SIGINT) forming the early warning network determine the location and numbers of inbound aircraft while still quite a distance from their target areas. General George Kenney’s Far East Air Force (FEAF) used ship-mounted radar in World War II to provide early warning for his forces in locations in the theater that did not have sufficient land-based coverage, effectively providing an aspect of air control in an area that otherwise lacked it.[14] A Japanese naval attack on the vessels with this capability would have left the FEAF virtually blind, potentially adversely changing the outcome due to the number of Japanese aircraft in the vicinity. Due to the theater’s geography, naval surface fires by either the allies or the Japanese could disrupt control of the air by integrating the appropriate intelligence, sea capabilities, and air efforts to target the radar sites. The Imperial Army effectively hindered the establishment of Australian coast-watching and SIGINT stations across the Southwest Pacific, degrading the early warning timelines for both the FEAF and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). General Kenney relied on these capabilities as the forward edge of his network throughout the war, correlating this information with intelligence gleaned from decrypted Japanese communique.[15] During the LINEBACKER raids in Vietnam two decades later, a Soviet vessel surveilling B-52 takeoffs at Anderson Air Base in Guam gave the North Vietnamese approximately seven hours’ notice before each strike.[16] While political restrictions likely prevented any response at the time, the kill chain of the North Vietnamese ADS extended to Guam; using naval assets to counter seaborne observation and intelligence gathering of air operations exemplifies how seapower can positively affect control of the air, even in an area of operations thousands of miles away. Later during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Syrian special operations forces took out the intelligence monitoring station known as the “Eyes of Israel,” cutting off the Israelis’ situational awareness of their northern front.[17] While locating and engaging forward observation and intelligence sites may prove difficult for land and amphibious forces to accomplish due to terrain and geography, the lack of these observation nodes delayed the warnings provided to friendly leadership by up to several hours or, at a minimum, introduced doubt in other components of the early warning chain.[18] As these networks cover large amounts of area and provide up to hours of notice before the attack, a disruption to any system component can drastically reduce the resulting ability to control the air. As shown in both the South Pacific, Vietnam, and Israel, the surface domains provided a noticeable degradation of control in many instances and could have accomplished more if effectively tasked.

Any degradation of enemy early warning reduces its effectiveness at cueing the air defense system’s weapons to engage friendly aircraft. The earliest form of air defense weaponry — and most prevalent over multiple conflicts — is AAA.[19] In World War I, Britain used 13,000 people to shoot at German bombers from February 1918 until the end of the war. While some argue that investment in defense takes away from the offense, the cost of employing AAA is frequently much lower than acquiring and maintaining aircraft.[20] Over time, moreover, technological advances increased the range, power, and mobility of anti-aircraft guns. The Japanese Imperial Navy displayed its naval AAA prowess in earnest across the Pacific. In one instance, a convoy of destroyers and merchant vessels resupplying the island of Biak successfully engaged multiple attacking B-25 bombers with AAA, completing their mission “despite overwhelming American air and sea superiority” with no ships lost.[21] Complications with integrating air and seapower prevailed throughout the theater, leaving General Kenney to engage these convoys with the small number of aircraft available despite being better suited for a naval task force. The Viet Minh demonstrated this against the French at Dien Bien Phu a decade later.[22] By carrying hundreds of AAA pieces into the mountains surrounding the airfield, the Viet Minh army effectively stopped any aerial resupply or close air support during their siege of the airfield, preventing any control of the air in the surrounding area.[23] Similarly, the Viet Cong later demonstrated their prowess by moving anti-aircraft artillery over long ranges under the concealment of the heavy jungle to engage American and South Vietnamese aircraft, further exploiting an advantage on the ground from the lack of an effective air control plan by the two nations, which reduced their ability to provide close air support to embattled forces.[24] The Soviet Union further improved the mobility of these systems with the ZSU-23-4 self-propelled anti-aircraft artillery weapon, provided to Syrians and Egyptians before the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Israeli Air Force planners focused on the anti-aircraft artillery threat over surface-to-air missiles, paying a high price for this mistake, losing multiple aircraft during close air support missions.[25] The ZSU-23-4 was a better target for the Israeli Army’s armor and artillery as a part of the Egyptian mechanized land forces. As the most ubiquitous threat to aircraft in these conflicts, AAA sites needed to be engaged by surface forces on land or sea. This mistake resulted in the unnecessary loss of aircraft in multiple engagements and adversely affected the ability to control the air.

While AAA has proven effective for most conflicts during the twentieth century, the introduction of the SAM greatly increased the overall lethality of enemy air defenses. Adapted from the rocketry developed by the Germans and others during World War II and able to engage maneuverable targets at a high rate of speed, the Soviet-provided SA-2 missiles were used in earnest by the North Vietnamese, with the first shootdown of an American fighter aircraft occurring in July 1965.[26] These weapons posed an astounding threat, forcing large support packages for the B-52 bombers during the LINEBACKER attacks. Losses resulted in nearly every raid, even with nearly eighty-five aircraft fighter and attack aircraft accompanying each mission to keep both the air and ground pictures clear. Electronic countermeasures (ECM) degraded the SAM system’s ability to track and engage the strike packages. Despite President Nixon cutting many operational restrictions prevalent throughout the war, enemy defenses still dictated where American aircraft could and could not fly. However, targets such as SAM sites near Haiphong harbor remained off-limits, despite their ability to engage aircraft striking targets outside the restricted area.[27] Naval fires on these sites could have eliminated these weapons before the strike packages began their attack, removing the threat to the strike assets. While the war in Vietnam wound down, Egypt and Syria received the newest surface-to-air missiles from the Soviet Union in preparation for their invasion of Israel in 1973, including both the mobile, radar-guided SA-6 and the hand-carried, heat-seeking SA-7. The SA-6 provided effective cover for the advancing land forces, as Israeli electronic countermeasures could not jam their radar. Despite initial setbacks due to the lack of close air support (CAS), Israeli land forces managed to seize the initiative and capitalize on the Egyptians from moving out from their GBAD umbrella, where they subsequently began destroying SAM sites to open a gap in Egypt’s ADS for the Israeli Air Force to exploit. While smaller than the combined Arab armies and split between two fronts, the Israeli Army’s actions effectively suppressed the sites decimating Israeli air support.[28] The opening salvo of the Yom Kippur War directly exploited the vulnerabilities of both the Israeli Air Force and Army. Still, the SEAD effects provided by its land component enabled Israel to regain control of the air. Israel overlooked many of its weaknesses during the previous war of attrition, failing to realize the added tactics that the Egyptians could employ with the newer Soviet weaponry.[29] Using Israeli armor and artillery to engage and destroy the mobile SAM missile threat would have reduced their air losses during the opening days of the invasion and allowed the close air support mission to continue.

A threat to air operations does not solely require a solution from the air domain. As the United States military continues to stress integrated, all-domain solutions, a capability from outside the domain can be the best means of eliminating that threat.[30] Military leaders and planners cannot let inter-service rivalries or allegiances to a single domain remove significant capabilities from consideration.[31] Airpower advocates may assert that a military must attain control of the air before employing sea or land forces. As control of the air operates on a continuum, it is an enabler of not just air operations but all operations.[32] Depending on such factors as geography or scenario, a surface asset may provide a better approach to disrupting or destroying an air threat. Carl von Clausewitz wrote that “the defensive form of warfare is intrinsically stronger than the offensive.”[33] Several of the significant air conflicts during the twentieth century have proven that this assertion holds for the resilient nature of air defense capabilities. The continual improvement of the effective ranges for early warning networks and weaponry hinders the ability of air assets to conduct independent, direct attacks on targets protected by an IADS. The incorporation of effective SEAD support from both land and naval forces, including developing and using long-range precision fires and electronic countermeasures provided by these assets, is critical to success in future conflicts. Effects from multiple domains provide the highest possibility of success against a heavily defended target while minimizing the risk of death and destruction of friendly forces. As history continually shows, the bomber does not “always get through,” even with currently-fielded technologies.[34] The seemingly duplicative effects provided by capabilities that traditionally reside in other domains — or services — win engagements for the joint force as a whole; stove piping the best weapon only increases the probability of kill of friendly forces. Airpower practitioners must incorporate effects from the surface domains into SEAD operations in future conflicts to prevent the destruction of friendly aircraft and the resulting loss of life and combat capability.


Major Thomas Horan
Major Horan is a Weapons Officer and is currently serving as a program manager at the Defense Innovation Unit’s Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning (AI/ML) portfolio. He is an Instructor Pilot in the KC-135R/T and KC-10A. Major Horan is a graduate of the Air Force Weapons School and Air Command & Staff College.



[1.] Quoted in Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 169.

[2.] Joint Staff, Joint Operations, Joint Publication 3-0 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2017), III-33,; Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality, 287.

[3.] Joint Staff, Countering Air and Missile Threats, Joint Publication 3-01 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2017), IV-12, IV-15.

[4.] Richard Overy, The Battle of Britain (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), 44-46; Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 131.

[5.] Joint Staff, Countering Air and Missile Threats, xviii.

[6.] Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality, 20, 22.

[7.] Overy, Battle of Britain, 44-47.

[8.] Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality, 66-67; Conrad C. Crane, American Airpower Strategy in Korea, 1950 – 1953 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000), 41.

[9.] Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality, 1.

[10.] Crane, Airpower Strategy in Korea, 136-137.

[11.] Dan Hampton, The Hunter Killers (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015), 61-62.

[12.] Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality, 73; Crane, Airpower Strategy in Korea, 83.

[13.] Joint Staff, Countering Air and Missile Threats, IV-12.

[14.] Thomas E. Griffith, Jr., MacArthur’s Airman (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 135-137.

[15.] Ibid., 78-79.

[16.] Clodfelter, Limits of Air Power, 193.

[17.] Alan Stephens, Airpower Applied, U.S., NATO, and Israeli Combat Experience, ed. John Andreas Olsen (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017), 258

[18.] Griffith, MacArthur’s Airman, 79.

[19.] Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality, 22.

[20.] Ibid., 73.

[21.] Griffith, MacArthur’s Airman, 172-173.

[22.] James S. Corum and Wray R. Johnson, Airpower in Small Wars (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 200), 158.

[23.] Ibid., 159.

[24.] Ibid., 263.

[25.] Stephens, Airpower Applied, 257, 259.

[26.] Christopher Gainor, The Bomb and America’s Missile Age (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), 40; Clodfelter, Limits of Air Power, 131.

[27.] Clodfelter, Limits of Air Power, 189, 193-94.

[28.] Stephens, Airpower Applied, 257, 259-60.

[29.] Ibid., 249.

[30.] Department of the Air Force, Air Force Future Operating Concept: A View of the Air Force in 2035, AFD-151207-019 (Washington, DC: Department of the Air Force, 2015), 12,

[31.] John Tirpak, “Army’s Long-Range Strike Vision is ‘Stupid,’ AFGSC Chief Says,” Air Force Magazine, 02 April 2021,

[32.] Joint Staff, Joint Operations, III-33. (Author’s note: emphasis added)

[33.] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 358.

[34.] Quoted in Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality, 107-108; David A. Deptula, “Opinion: U.S. Army Missile-Buying Spree is a Waste of Money,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, 15 March 2021,

Wild Blue Yonder Home