Across a large swathe of the world, from Libya and Yemen to Afghanistan and the tribal regions of Pakistan, western airpower is almost continually engaged in combat. In an attempt to bring the Libyan civil war to a successful conclusion NATO has increased the intensity of air strikes against Gaddafi’s forces. According to published reports, last week, the RAF conducted its first massed salvo attacks with precision weapons against both armored formations and military infrastructure targets. Over the past five months, NATO has conducted some 23,044 total air sorties of which 8,645 were strike sorties. In the same period, according to the Washington Post, the Obama Administration has significantly increased its use of drone and air strikes against al Qaeda targets in Yemen and Somalia. This ratcheting up of the air campaign in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula comes on the heels of several years of intensified use of drones against Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Afghanistan.
What do all these operations have in common? It is a permissive air environment. Of course, in the cases of Yemen and Afghanistan this is the result of the absence of meaningful air defense threats. But in the case of Libya, the current air war was preceded by a devastating assault led principally by U.S. air and naval assets to suppress Libyan air defenses. The initial strikes against air defense radars, command centers, airfields and missile batteries has been complemented by ongoing operations by U.S. electronic warfare aircraft, both the venerable EA-6B Prowler and its modern successor, the EA-18G Growler.
The ease with which the U.S. has been able to operate its drones over Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan has led some observers to conclude, erroneously, that the era of manned aircraft is ending and that the future belongs to unmanned systems. In truth the expanded use of the current generation of unmanned aerial systems is due in large part to the absence of air defenses in those countries. As evidenced by the Libyan campaign, in the face of even modest air defenses, the free use of otherwise hostile air space is an advantage for which the United States and its allies will have to fight.
It would be a strategic mistake of enormous consequence to assume that air superiority will always be readily available to the U.S. military. Many nations are acquiring advanced air defense capabilities. Some, such as Russia and China, are even investing in indigenously-designed fifth-generation fighters. If the United States wishes to enjoy the advantages associated with air superiority in the future, it will need to invest in the next generation of stealthy aircraft, advanced air-to-ground munitions and electronic warfare systems.
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