Air Supremacy II: Re-learning Asymmetry

[This is a continuation of a previous article in a series]

There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still.
Franklin D. Roosevelt


B-17 Flying Fortresses Over Germany in April 1945
(USAF Photo)

The founding fathers of military aviation had an uphill battle in advocating the value of airpower to their doubtful Army and Navy counterparts. Though their approaches (and successes) varied, all of these advocates shared a common underlying theme: airpower, operating in the third dimension, provides an asymmetric advantage in warfare. Almost a century later, have we forgotten this keystone principle?

Joint US doctrine defines asymmetric as “the application of dissimilar strategies, tactics, capabilities, and methods to circumvent or negate an opponent’s strengths while exploiting his weaknesses” (JP 3-15.1). Doctrine covers all types of warfare: nuclear warfare, conventional warfare, irregular warfare, and even hybrid warfare. Interestingly, the only references to asymmetric warfare in current doctrine deals with fighting an asymmetric enemy, not the application of it by friendly forces. In this context, it is time to critically analyze air power in terms tactical and strategic asymmetry.

Tactical asymmetry is probably the most familiar and easily identified; it’s “being tactical.” Sound tactics and counter-tactics based on exploitation, testing, and evaluation permit Airmen to maximize airpower capabilities with the resources they are given. Contrary to most young fighter pilots’ beliefs, “being tactical” is not a desired-end state; it’s a near-term perishable goal at the tactical level. As John Boyd warns us, there is no perfect tactic, and attempts to present a standardized system as a way to gain a winning edge will reveal weaknesses and necessitate another tactic, creating an endless flawed cycle.

There is an important history lesson in tactical asymmetry that every American airpower steward should know. The Korean War marked the last time an American soldier was attacked by an enemy in the air. On April 15, 1953, a U.S. Army position on Cho-do (Cho Island) off the Korean mainland was attacked, killing two U.S. servicemen and wounding 22 more. While the event itself is nothing more than an historic footnote, the real lesson for airpower is derived from the aircraft that attacked this position, an oft-overlooked obscure detail. First built in 1929, the Russian-built Polikarpov Po-2 biplane looked like a World War I relic. Despite its appearance, it had achieved tremendous success on the WWII eastern front. Operated by the Russian 588th Night Bomber Regiment, the two-person biplane carried bombs and a gun, flying at night with a top speed of 94 mph. Attacking from a low-altitude glide profile by shutting the engine off, they achieved complete surprise on enemy forces. The pilots of this all-female regiment were nicknamed the “Night Witches” by the Germans who suffered their relentless attacks.


Polikarpov Po-2 at the Shuttleworth Military Pageant in June 2013
(Photo by Airwolfhound)

The North Koreans employed the Po-2 in this exact same manner against UN forces on the Korean Peninsula. By flying this 20 year-old antique at extremely low (treetop) altitude, it was able to evade air defenses. Despite US fighters having radar and also flying at night, the Po-2’s wood and fabric construction made it comparable to a low-observable F-22 or F-35 today. Combined with its slow airspeed, it was extremely difficult to detect, intercept, and engage. The Po-2 was even credited with a kill during the Korean War when a USAF F-94 was lost while slowing to complete the intercept, stalled, and subsequently crashed. The Po-2 attacked exclusively at night, without notice, and well inside friendly-occupied territory. Though they often attacked parked aircraft ramps (and are credited with numerous P-51 and F-86s destroyed), Po-2s achieved their greatest impact by targeting troop sleeping quarters. US forces nicknamed the Po-2 “Bed-Check Charlie” for the psychological effect it had. The US never developed a meaningful counter-tactic against the Po-2 and it continued to harass UN forces on the Korean peninsula over the entire conflict. The Po-2 and its tactical asymmetry should serve as a reminder to all Airmen.

Whereas battles are fought at the tactical and operational levels, strategic asymmetry ensures wars are won and national interests secured. Recall that preparation for air supremacy prevents air parity and enables the desired end-state: air superiority. Continuously pacing the threat and remaining conscious of asymmetric trade-space should define how to invest and modernize the force. Sometimes good intentions and investments are derailed by a lack of strategic asymmetric vision. Other times, asymmetric vision is stymied by good intentions and lack of investment. The F-22 provides a cautionary tale as to what happens when strategic asymmetric vision is hindered by external influences.

The F-22 is commonly referred to as “game-changing,” and I would agree in the context of tactical asymmetry. Indeed, there is no other fighter that can match its performance or capability in side-by-side, force-on-force comparisons. The original vision for the fifth-generation F-22, exploiting radar vulnerabilities by building a low-observable counter-air fighter force with sensor fusion, was well-intentioned. From any viewpoint, a force of fully-capable 750 F-22 Raptors would have changed the paradigm of counter-air warfare for a generation.


F-22 Raptors on the Flightline at Langley AFB
(USAF Photo, SrA Austin Knox)

Alas, today there are more WWII-era P-51 Mustangs flying than there are F-22s in the world. The F-22 end-strength, less than 190, is also less than the number of USAF VIP aircraft (and A-10s, C-17s, F-15Cs, F-15Es…), relegating them to be yet another low-density, high-demand asset to be managed. Due to this, F-22 units often deploy in small 4-6 plane increments whereas more plentiful fourth-generation fighters deploy in groups of 12-18. F-22 four-ship tactics gave way to more realistic two-ship formations, reducing the formation missile armament by half. This led to a plethora of second-order efforts (and funding requirements) to reinforce this niche fifth-generation force, to include new integration requirements and potentially massive fourth-generation service life extensions/upgrades to augment the fifth generation until the sixth-generation platforms arrive. Alas, the strategic asymmetry of the F-22 has long been lost.

There are many tough decisions ahead for the USAF as the need to modernize becomes more and more imperative. Remaining mindful of the strategic asymmetric advantage is crucial to validating the investments and requirements. Funding for strategic asymmetry should always be prioritized over funding for tactical asymmetry. Are there programs being funded today that have lost most of their original asymmetric advantage (strategic and tactical) due to program delays and issues? Absolutely. Likewise, are there programs that should be funded but are not? Probably.

Relearning asymmetry is critical for Airmen in order to stay mindful of why airpower is a critical enabler of the Joint force and to continue advancing airpower today and in the future. With a foundation of air supremacy and airpower asymmetry, one can begin to comprehend force structure modernization concepts that will ensure air superiority for the next generation.

To be continued in Air Supremacy III: Force Structure Modernization Theory…

Major Mike “Pako” Benitez is an instructor Weapons System Officer in the F-15E Strike Eagle with over 1,000 combat hours spanning multiple deployments. A prior-enlisted Marine and graduate of the US Air Force Weapons School, he has been involved in operational-level crisis action planning in both CENTCOM and EUCOM and has recently completed a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) fellowship.


One thought on “Air Supremacy II: Re-learning Asymmetry

  1. Reblogged this on Defense Issues and commented:
    This recalls my old post, but more detailed and better explained:

    War is all about counters and counter-counters. It is fought by people, not machines, and people will do everything to avoid being killed. As a result, any kind of attrition-based, symmetric warfare scenario is flawed. Training is paramount, to allow soldiers knowledge necessary to adapt to changing circumstances.


Leave a Reply to picard578 Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s