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Maintaining Air Superiority: Looking to the Past to Inform the Future

  • Published
  • By Lieutenant Commander Todd Moulton

The development of future airpower capabilities needs balanced and versatile investment to meet the gamut of United States operations and remain at par or ahead of its potential adversaries. While some foreign policy commentators and analysts see “breakthrough” technology as pivotal for the US to maintain its air dominance, history demonstrates that the American military did not rely on experimental aircraft to win its wars. Rather the services built their superiority through trial, error, and adaptation to the threat facing them. Furthermore, many of the past supposed “silver bullet” weapons systems were the result of evolutionary trends in aviation technology, matured from existing capabilities, and not great generational leaps in military hardware. In parallel with a pragmatic approach to the enhancement of aerial assets, airmen and women were vital to US air warfare achievements over the past century. Beginning with Lieutenant Colonel William Mitchell after World War I through the present conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the creation and incremental refinement of air tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) enabled the United States to establish and maintain itself as the dominant global air force. Concurrent with a sensible approach to advancing US airpower capacity, the services need to judiciously allocate resources to continue educating and training US military personnel to maintain its advantage in the skies. Historical events verify that the reliance on versatile people and capabilities wins wars rather than the potential of wonder weapons. This perspective should serve as the US’ template to retain its airpower superiority for the foreseeable future.

World War I

Before World War I, many in Western society, including the German High Command and Giulio Douhet, saw the airplane as a revolutionary capability that would change the face of warfare.[1] However, others, such as Winston Churchill, viewed the use of aircraft as a niche capability that would influence the outcomes of war, but not necessarily be the decisive factor in an armed conflict. The latter school of thought proved to be more in line with the actual capabilities of airplanes.[2] The early limitations of aviation drove the Allies and Axis powers to take a balanced approach in crafting aerial doctrine and utilizing platforms in accordance with established TTPs. The initial usage of aircraft was for reconnaissance and spotting positions for artillery bombardment.[3] As the war proceeded and aircraft capabilities gradually progressed, further modifications to the employment of military aviation took place. In 1915, all sides of the conflict began to focus on operating aircraft in an aerial bombardment role to attack the war-making capacity of their enemy.[4] Concurrently, air planners saw the need for pursuit planes to intercept and down the airplanes coming to bomb their industrial facilities and those escorting them.[5] By 1916, the Germans saw the utility in employing aircraft in a ground attack role to support its army movements, which was not a huge leap in the role aviation was already playing.[6] When World War I concluded, the Allies and Axis powers were using airpower across the spectrum of aerial operations. The utilization of aircraft was evolutionary and calculated over the course of four years and there was no single aerial capability that changed the course of the war. Rather, the warring militaries adapted the aircraft to meet the demands of the situations before them.

World War II           

World War II commenced with Germany’s blitzkrieg tactics, which the world saw as the application of ground-breaking aerial aviation TTPs and the revolutionary use of aircraft. When examined in hindsight, blitzkrieg was an innovative modification of certain air operations conducted in World War I and not a radical advancement of the use of airpower. Germany attached itself to this concept and did not remain versatile in adapting the way it fought in the air, even as fortunes turned against the Luftwaffe.[7] Instead, Adolf Hitler invested heavily in wonder weapons to win the war, which did not halt the overwhelming force of Allied air campaigns. In contrast, the Americans and British continuously refreshed their aerial skills through a positive and negative feedback loop after various well-constructed and disastrous air missions to stay ahead of the Germans and Japanese. The Allies also followed numerous air theories from World War I, but they were much more flexible in adjusting them when the theories proved inaccurate during World War II. In the European Theater, the American and British realized that strategic bombing was not curtailing Germany’s ability to defend its skies. The Americans concluded that to secure the airspace over Germany and prepare for the Normandy invasion, Allied fighters and bombers needed to destroy Luftwaffe aircraft to allow the US and United Kingdom bombers unfettered access to strike at the German war-making industrial base. The Allies slightly adapted their TTPs, including more escort fighter aircraft with their bombers to fight the German airplanes in the sky and destroy them on the ground.[8] Furthermore, the debacle at the Kasserine Pass provides another example that advanced weapons were not the key to victory; rather the malleability of the US Army’s capacity to grasp its mistakes, correct them, and implement a new strategy resulted in its success.[9]

During operations in the Pacific, American experimentation in modifying existing aerial technologies and refining British “skip-bombing” TTPs were successful in routing the Japanese Navy during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. The Japanese decimation positively shifted the view many senior military leaders had of airpower and demonstrated yet again that versatility and resourcefulness were keys to military triumph and not a reliance on new technology.[10]

Berlin Airlift

After World War II, the Berlin Airlift presented further evidence that the US did not need to rely on cutting-edge equipment to accomplish unique tasks set before it. The US Air Force and British used innovative strategies to utilize air transport units and troop carrier groups to resupply West Berlin. They refined their TTPs along the way to make the airlift more effective and efficient and built new requirements for future strategic airlift aircraft from the lessons they learned during the resupply operations.[11] The Korean War did not produce any major TTP departures from World War II, even with the introduction of distinctive technology, such as the fighter jet. The military’s inability to break away from the methods it employed over Europe and Japan contributed to the war’s inconclusive results. The military’s overreliance on technology and static way of thinking, especially about airpower, grew over the next fifteen years and was on display during America’s involvement in Vietnam.

Vietnam War

During the Vietnam War, the military senior leadership, who honed their skills as young junior officers in World War II, and the introduction of more advanced weaponry, which the military saw as a panacea to combat guerrilla warfare, culminated in an ineffective use of aerial assets.[12] High-ranking officers did not attempt to formulate and wed new aerial TTPs to cutting-edge military hardware to combat the North Vietnamese. Additionally, they were not accustomed to the politically restrictive rules of engagement, which further drove them to employ familiar warfare methods. The military’s World War II way of thinking resulted in eight million tons of bombs dropped in nine years with little to show for it.[13]

Operation Desert Storm

Unlike the US’ narrow-minded, constrained, and tentative employment of airpower in Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm exhibited the full effectiveness of marrying pioneering aviation TTPs with novel aircraft, precise munitions, and space and information warfare.[14] Coalition forces struck targets in nearly every category on the master attack plan within the first night of the conflict, which maximized the air war’s shock effect and quickly degraded Saddam Hussain’s defenses. While some historians and military commentators contend that technological magic led to the lopsided coalition victory, training, motivation, leadership, and tactical expertise of military individuals were vital in making the advanced weaponry perform as flawlessly as it did against Iraqi forces.[15]

Pre-9/11 and After

The infatuation with how effectively airpower worked during Operation Desert Storm shaped the US’ use of aviation assets throughout the 1990s and heavily influenced the opening stages of America’s post-September 11, 2001 strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq. The initial US raids utilized overwhelming aerial bombardment to swiftly remove the Taliban and Saddam’s conventual forces.[16] However, senior policymakers and military leaders quickly realized that the traditional application of airpower did not correspond well with consequent actions against irregular forces. In response, US military servicemembers rapidly devised several unique aerial TTPs and later refined them to adapt to battlefield situations and increase the efficacy of air operations. The primary epiphany amongst air-minded personnel was the need to integrate ground forces, especially special force operators, to guide precision munitions to target.[17] The melding of land and air power remains the foundational element of prospecting attacks against terrorists and non-traditional targets.


From the beginning of modern-day aviation through the ongoing wars against the Islamic State, the US has employed a balanced and versatile approach to establishing and sustaining its air superiority. The argument to break away from this path and search for “silver bullet” military solutions is especially dangerous in today’s world. The US’ antiquated acquisition process and its adversaries’ hacking capabilities will likely impede the military from fielding cutting-edge equipment. Even if the US produces a novel airpower capacity, the advantage over peer competitors will last a matter of weeks or months rather than years due to the aforementioned reasons and the near real-time progression of technology. This small window is not worth the possible hundreds of billions of dollars the US would pour into research, development, and production for a fleeting strategic lead over its enemies. Instead, the US should look back on its past and garner lessons from its previous wars to ready how it will fight in the future.

Within the next five to ten years, military aircraft in the United States and China will be on par with each other. The US needs to produce equipment that fulfills a general spectrum of requirements.  Moreover, this hardware should be modifiable to adapt to any demands that arise during contingency situations and possible ensuing operations. This modular approach would enable the US to streamline the production of its primary equipment, yet diversify the platforms’ capabilities to react to ever-changing world events. The cost would also be far less than attempting to create a different piece of equipment to focus on the latest mission set or objectives. The lower price would enable the US to devote the money it saved towards additional capabilities to meet new challenges. To retain the US’ aerial advantage, the primary investment should be additional advanced training for its military and civilian personnel. They will be the main catalyst in improving airpower TTPs. Historical examples demonstrate that individuals’ ingenuity was the main ingredient in enabling the US and its allies to defeat their enemies. The US military should continue to foster and cultivate its people’s innovative ideas and meld them with its current capabilities, including the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI).

What people and countries learn from their past typifies their future. The United States should follow the examples of its aviation pioneers who established and re-engineered airpower’s employment through hard-fought lessons and original thinking. These individuals drove what was possible in the air and technology usually followed their lead. If the US shifts away from this successful paradigm and emphasizes developing disruptive military hardware, at the expense of a balanced and versatile strategy, Washington runs a dangerous risk of falling behind its adversaries and never being able to recover its strategic advantage. The United States military is best prepared by having a baseline capacity to adapt to rapidly evolving, unexpected events that will only increase in frequency as technology exponentially advances. 

Lieutenant Commander Todd Moulton
LCDR Moulton is the officer in charge at the Joint Reserve Intelligence Center in Detroit, Michigan. He is also an Information Warfare (IW) Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI). He is a graduate of the Air University, National Intelligence University, Seton Hall University, and University of Michigan.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Air University, the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.



[1.] John Morrow, “The First World War, 1914-1919” in A History of Air Warfare, ed. John Andreas Olsen (Washington: Potomac Books, 2012), 5.

[2.] Ibid., 6.

[3.] Ibid., 7.

[4.] Maurer Maurer, ed. The U.S. Air Service in World War I, vol. 2, Early Concepts of Military Aviation. (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1978), 142; Mitchell, William. Winged Defense: The Development and Possibilities of Modern Air Power, Economic and Military (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2006), XVI.

[5.] Morrow, “The First World War,” 10.

[6.] Ibid., 13.

[7.] Robin Higham, “The Royal Air Force and the Battle of Britain.” in Case Studies in the Achievement of Air Superiority, ed. Benjamin Franklin Cooling (Washington: GPO, 1994), 122.

[8.] Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995), 122-124.

[9.] Shawn P. Rife, “Kasserine Pass and the Proper Application of Airpower.” Joint Force Quarterly 20 (Autumn/Winter 1998-99): 76-77.

[10.] Timothy Gann, “Fifth Air Force Light and Medium Bomber Operation During 1942-1943: Building Doctrine and Forces that Triumphed in the Battle of the Bismark Sea and the Wewak Raid,” School of Advanced Airpower Studies paper, Maxwell AFB:AL (June 1993), 25-26.

[11.] Roger G. Miller, To Save a City: The Berlin Airlift, 1948-1949 (Washington: US Air Force History and Museums Program 1998), 115.

[12.] Mark Clodfelter, “The Limits of Airpower or the Limits of Strategy: The Air Wars in Vietnam and Their Legacies,” Joint Forces Quarterly 78 (3rd Quarter 2015): 113, 122.

[13.] Ibid., 111.

[14.] Benjamin Lambeth, “Storm over the Desert: A New Assessment.” Joint Forces Quarterly 27 (Winter 2000-2001): 31.

[15.] Ibid., 34.

[16.] Benjamin S. Lambeth, Air Power Against Terror, America’s Conduct of Operation Enduring Freedom (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2005), 336-337.

[17.] Ibid, 339.

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