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Air Superiority

We instinctively understand that air superiority is necessary to win a war. We also have a feeling of what air superiority is, this state where your air force controls the skies while the enemy’s AF has been wiped out or at least, it rarely makes an appearance.

Even today, air theorists struggle to agree with a practical definition of air superiority. NATO has defined Air Superiority as “that degree of dominance in the air battle of one force over another which permits the conduct of operations by the former and its related land, sea, and air forces at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by the opposing force”.
But the air campaign over Malta conducted by the Italians during 1940 shows this definition to be incomplete. Air historians Webster and Frankland refined the definition by stating that Air Superiority is the extent to which it is possible for one combatant (or impossible for the other, conversely) to conduct constant and effective naval, land, and air operations in spite of any opposition. “Effective” in their definition is not only breaking through the defenses but also doing critical damage.

The Italians dominated the air over Malta, but failed to translate this dominance into a result that had any strategic/operational significance: they failed to prevent the enemy airfields or docks from operating, or the British fleet from supplying the island. Their dominance was “ineffective”.

Many factors play a role in attaining air superiority (and the method to realize it is still open to discussion):
- Anti-aircraft fire may prevent an Air Force from attacking effectively or conducting operations with low losses.
- Counterair action (destroying enemy aircraft/assets on the ground and in the air) is effective.
- Geography plays a part because the targets may be too distant. Weather may prevent identifying the targets, etc.
- Intelligence is necessary to build a good picture of what is happening.
- Organization helps to use the resources at hand efficiently.
- C3 permits decision execution.
- Interservice cooperation maximizes the effect of an action.
- Industrial capacity replaces losses and increases reserves.
- National will builds resourcefulness.
- Doctrine and tactics maximize the results of equipment and crews.
- Trained crews allow to execute the doctrines and tactics.
- Without clear goals, we cannot achieve decisive results.
- Technological advantage (aircraft, weapons, radar, etc.) generates initiative.

All these factors impinge on the ability to achieve air superiority. If the enemy has an advantage in one or more of them, this may result in the failure to attain it.

To make matters more complicated, the most effective method to achieve air superiority seems to depend on the specific situation the air force is facing. Therefore, a solution that fits all cases is not practical.

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