Document created: 1 June 04
Air University Review, November-December 1972

Air Superiority Comes First

Major Norman E. Wells

One lesson is clear from the epic battles of World War II, Korea, and the Six Day War: To win, you must control the skies—particularly the skies over your own territory. Air power does not guarantee that you will win a war, as in the cases of Korea and Vietnam; but without it, modern armies are destined to lose. In the past, apart from the early days of World War II, U.S. ground and naval forces have usually been able to operate relatively free from enemy air attack. The future carries no such guarantee. Yet with the increasingly destructive weapons carried by modern aircraft, it is imperative that our surface forces be protected from air attack. At the same time, our offensive air power must be able to carry the war far behind the front lines without undue interference and losses. The United States, in other words, must consider overall air superiority as a prime objective.

All military leaders must understand the importance of air superiority and how it is attained. Unfortunately, not all of them do. This article will examine the three basic threats to air superiority—antiaircraft artillery (AAA), surface-to-air missiles (SAM’S), and enemy fighters—to see how they can be eliminated or neutralized.

“Counterair” is defined in AFM 2-1 as the destruction or neutralization of the enemy’s air offensive and air defense systems to gain and maintain air supremacy and thereby prevent the enemy forces from effectively interfering with friendly surface and air operations. In other words, it is whatever you do to keep enemy aircraft from interfering with your air and surface operations and to keep enemy defenses from hampering your air operations.1

importance of air superiority

Air superiority is vital in any conflict because air power has such a tremendous effect on all operations. World War II revealed a remarkable ability of people to survive sustained air attack. However, history makes it clear that most battles and wars were won by the country that gained air superiority. Indeed it is almost a modern military maxim that nations must control the air over their own territory if their forces are to survive and operate effectively. A good example of this occurred in World War II when the defenders of the island of Pantelleria (located between Tunisia and Sicily) surrendered before being invaded, after a month of unopposed bombing. Korea and Vietnam have indicated that the selective use of air power does not guarantee victory, but it may avert defeat.

To win a war, air superiority must be extended over enemy territory as soon as possible. Otherwise interdiction, close air support, and strategic bombing are likely to incur excessive losses. Even with good defensive firepower, formations of U.S. B-17s suffered losses of more than ten percent on missions over Europe beyond the range of covering fighters. The losses of B-17s to German fighters were reduced by the introduction of the P-51, which could cover the bombers all the way to the target and back. 

Prior to the projected invasion of the Continent, General Henry H. Arnold urged his commanders to take the offensive and win air superiority so the landings would be a success. He wrote: “This is a MUST. . . . Destroy the enemy Air Force wherever you find them, in the air, on the ground and in the factories.”2 Our fighters took the offensive, and their search-and-destroy tactics took a large toll of German fighters800 in February and March 1944. As a result of deception, destruction of airfields, and attrition on missions defending Germany, few enemy fighters were available to oppose the Normandy landings, and only one or two got through the fighter screen, composed of 171 squadrons, to attack the convoys. The Allies flew 14,398 sorties on D-Day to support the invasion.

Ground opposition to the landings was formidable; it might have been overwhelming had not the Germans lost control of the air. Several months later American fighter-bombers took such a heavy toll of one of the largest German columns retreating from southern France that the commander surrendered without any ground action. One of the reasons for the initial German successes in the Battle of the Bulge was the bad weather that precluded Allied air operations. When the weather cleared, air attacks helped defeat the twenty-five German divisions in the Bulge.

Allied air superiority was virtually complete by early 1945. As Germany lost her ability to defend herself on the home front, she also lost much of the ability to support forces in the field. The destruction of most of Germany’s oil production led to such a severe fuel shortage that pilots could not be given adequate training before being sent into combat. At the same time German ground attack and logistic operations were strictly limited by the amount of fuel available.

When the Communists attacked in Korea, the United Nations forces used air power to slow their advance and keep the defending, thinly spread troops from taking even greater losses than they did. In the first six weeks of the war, an estimated 110 enemy planes were destroyed, leaving the North Koreans with perhaps 22 aircraft. Our aircraft were then used mostly for interdiction and close support of the army. Thus, North Korea did not pose much of a threat to our air operations until the introduction of Soviet-built MIG-15s in November 1950. Since the MIG’S operated from Chinese airfields north of the Yalu River and hence were free from attack on the ground, they had to be destroyed in air-to-air engagements. At the same time, Communist aircraft did not launch large-scale strikes on our airfields from China even though our bombing kept airfields in North Korea unserviceable. The MIG’S did manage to intercept some B-29 raids and attack some fighter-bombers. Our troops and airfields remained relatively free from air attack because the United States and its allies had quickly gained and maintained air superiority. This proved essential to counter the overwhelming manpower of the North Korean and Chinese forces. We did not win this war in the classic sense, but air power probably kept us from losing it.

In North Vietnam the enemy had built up his defensive system and had much of it fully operational before we initiated attacks on it. MIG airfields were off limits until 23 April 1967, almost two years after our first losses to MIG’S. Surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites were observed in construction long before our first attack on 27 July 1965, three days after an F-4C was lost to SAM’S. By this time the SAM’S were so well emplaced that when we tried to take out the sites we lost six aircraft in the process.3 Still, despite large numbers of MIG’S, SAM’S, and AAA, we were able to carry out our missions without excessive losses because we had local air superiority over the north most of the time.

The air defense system in areas such as Eastern Europe is much better than that found in Vietnam because of improved technology, sophistication, and better integration of defenses. The U.S.S.R. and Soviet-supported countries have large numbers of fighters, SAM’S, and guns that can be expected to inflict prohibitive losses if allowed to operate freely. The Russians are very much interested in defense because of their history of being invaded. (The loss of twenty million people in World War II is a grim reminder.)

Neutralizing the defenses of a nation or target is very difficult unless, as in the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967, complete surprise on vulnerable targets is achieved. Over 400 Egyptian aircraft were destroyed on the ground during the first few hours of the war. Israeli ground forces were free to operate under an umbrella of almost total air supremacy. The Arabs and Soviets were taught a lesson by the Six Day War, and the present Egyptian defenses indicate that they do not intend to be caught with their defenses down again.

If the battle for air superiority follows more traditional lines, it may take more aircraft to protect the prime attack aircraft from fighters, SAM’S, and AAA than are actually required to bomb the target. For example, over 70 aircraft (flak suppression, fighter escort, tankers, rescue, etc.) were once used to support 14 aircraft bombing well-defended targets in North Vietnam.

The United States had to fight hard for air superiority in World War II. We quickly ruled the air in Korea. The introduction of SAM’S and new MIG tactics in North Vietnam prevented us from having complete air superiority. Control of the air in well-defended areas such as Eastern Europe would be most difficult to achieve. Since air superiority could be essential in such areas, however, it is especially important that we understand the threats and our capabilities and limitations with respect to these threats.

antiaircraft artillery

The MIG’S and SAM’S get most of the publicity and glamour, but guns get most of the kills. The AAA threat ranges from the rifles of infantrymen to the large guns specifically designed to shoot down aircraft. Sighting systems range from simple optical sights mounted on the smaller guns to sophisticated systems that use radar for tracking the target and a computer for directing fire.

Radar was first used with AAA in World War II. Combined with proximity-fuzed projectiles, it reduced the number of rounds fired per aircraft destroyed by a factor of ten. Radar, however, cannot predict the future position of an aircraft that is rapidly changing course. Moreover, radar can be degraded by electronic jamming. (When the British and American Air Forces in World War II used chaff to degrade the Germans’ radar, their number of rounds per kill jumped from 800 to 3000.) Another drawback is that the target aircraft can use an electronic receiver to pick up radar transmissions and begin evasive action or start jamming. Also, specially equipped aircraft can attack AAA radars with bombs or antiradiation missiles (ARM’S). Thus, even though radar has limitations, it does provide a night and all-weather capability to AAA systems.

The Russians are well aware of U.S. flak suppression efforts and have discussed counters to them in their Soviet Military Review.4 Basically, the guns are dispersed, dug in, and camouflaged. A gun is a very “hard” target and is difficult to destroy with bombs. The new generation of “smart” bombs makes gun destruction easier. However, because of the great number of guns in some target areas, it is generally impossible to neutralize all of them. According to one source, there are approximately 6000 large-calibre (37-, 57-, 85-, and 100-mm) antiaircraft guns in North Vietnam.5

Since all the guns cannot be destroyed, attackers should try to minimize their effectiveness. The basic thing to remember is that the projectile is unguided after it leaves the gun barrel. The gunner aims at a point ahead of the aircraft so that the bullets and the aircraft arrive at the same place at the same time. Since a gunner is predicting where the aircraft is going to be, the obvious counter is for the pilot to change his flight path and move away from the predicted impact point. This random variation of the flight path is called “jinking” and is very effective in evading fire at medium and high altitudes where the projectiles are aimed at a point a mile or more in front of the aircraft. Crews can also decrease losses to guns (as well as to SAM’S and MIG’S) by planning their route so the enemy is unaware of their destination. Long, straight runs at the target may be easier for navigation, but they also make it easier for the enemy to prepare for the attacker’s arrival. The element of surprise, a basic principle of war, is lost.

It is, of course, very difficult to achieve surprise with large formations of aircraft that can be detected on radar a long way from the target. Additionally, the time over target is restricted by the requirement for daylight, maintenance and rearming time, and mission length.

A generally accepted method of evading detection by the SAM’S and MIG’S is to fly at low altitude where enemy radar cannot see the target because of ground clutter (area where reflections from the ground obscure target returns). Low-altitude flight, however, does not preclude visual detection by AAA gunners. Combinations of terrain and gun site location may allow the pilot to surprise the gunner and be gone before he can open fire, but this cannot be expected in a well-defended area or over flat terrain.

There are three serious problems with flying at low altitudes: (1) the aircraft is in the effective range of all guns; (2) the time of flight of the projectile is so short that the gunners can adjust their aim from tracers very quickly and improve their chances of hitting the target, and the short time-of-flight makes jinking less effective; and (3) the projectile has a higher kinetic energy at short range and therefore does more damage when it hits the aircraft.

This does not necessarily mean that one should never fly at low altitude. It may be that low altitude is the only place to fly because SAM’s and MIG’s make the higher altitudes even more risky. The mission, ordnance, delivery procedures, previous tactics, and enemy defenses all have to be analyzed to decide on the best tactics for hitting a particular target.

surface-to-air missiles

SAM’S have had a tremendous effect on our tactics over enemy territory even though they have not destroyed large numbers of planes. SAM’S were developed in the post-World War II period because AAA was no longer effective against fast, high-flying aircraft. Early SAM systems were thus designed to intercept bombers at high altitude. They nevertheless had a tremendous impact on our fighter-bomber tactics in Vietnam, for the fighters, which are not too maneuverable at very high altitudes, were forced to fly where denser air increased the possibility of evading the missile. The introduction of SAM’S in North Vietnam initially forced the U.S. fighters to try to stay hidden in the ground clutter of the radar. Flying at low altitudes, however, resulted in the loss of many aircraft to AAA when the pilots would normally have flown above the effective range of the guns. Thus, even though the SAM’S did not receive credit for the kills, they were indirectly responsible because they forced the fighters to fly where the guns could hit them. Higher altitudes were later used when electronic jamming could be employed or aircraft were capable of evading the SAM’S.

SAM’s are sometimes misunderstood and are credited with capabilities that they do not really possess. This is not to say that they are ineffective, but there is nothing magic about a SAM. It can be defeated—if it is understood! A typical SAM engagement starts with an acquisition radar getting the first contact and telling the SAM target tracking radar where to look. The SAM radar then searches this area, finds the target, and begins tracking it. Meanwhile, the engagement tactics are determined and the missiles prepared for firing. As the target comes within range, the missile guidance transmitter is turned on and one or more missiles launched. The target tracking radar is used to determine the relative positions of the target missile so the computer can generate guidance commands, which are then sent to the missile by the missile guidance transmitter. Both the target tracking radar and the missile guidance transmitter must continue transmitting until the SAM’s have registered a kill or missed the target aircraft.

Electronic equipment in the target aircraft can receive the tracking radar and missile guidance signals and warn the crew that the aircraft is being tracked or a missile has been launched. Aircrews can employ antiradiation missiles against SAM radars and thus may force the enemy to vary the above sequence.

The exact tactical situation will determine what action is taken against the SAM’s; countermeasures can be used to decrease their effectiveness, or they can be attacked and destroyed. Electronic jamming can be used to prevent accurate tracking by the SAM radars. This is generally the tactic used when other targets, such as enemy airfields, have a higher priority than the destruction of SAM sites. It is worth noting, however, that the Soviets have made it very difficult to jam their radars by transmitting on widely different frequencies. Aviation Week and Space Technology reports that one version of the SA-2 transmits in the E frequency band and another in the G band, while the SA-3 transmits in the I band.6 The SA-4 transmits in the H band.7 This means that in areas where all four of these threats are found, an aircraft must have a jammer that puts out significant power on each frequency to protect against them all.

A missile obeys the same laws of aerodynamics as an airplane and therefore can be outmaneuvered. Its speed—approximately Mach 3—can be a disadvantage when maneuvering because it must be able to pull more g’s than its slower target. If a missile is fired at the predicted impact point in front of the target, a sudden change of course by the target can force a drastic change in the predicted impact point. This forces the missile to make a hard turn to continue tracking the target.

Missiles also have a certain reaction time. The radar must determine that the target has changed course. The computer then computes the new intercept course and transmits the appropriate commands. The missile then must maneuver to the new trajectory. Even though this time is only a fraction of a second, it may be enough to cause a miss because of the high speeds involved (a 2000-feet-per-second missile against a 900-feet-per-second target, for example). Fighter pilots and engineers have devised evasive maneuvers that capitalize on the limitations of missiles.

Since SAM’S cannot always be jammed effectively and a pilot may not accomplish his mission if he has to evade large numbers of them, SAM sites may be attacked and destroyed. A bomb in the radar antenna has been called the ultimate jammer—its effects are permanent! But bombing SAM sites is a hazardous occupation because they are well defended by AAA and the sites are arranged in such a way that they protect each other. Experience has shown, however, that the sites can be successfully destroyed by bombing, which, besides destroying the radar equipment, missiles, and crew, has the effect of intimidating other SAM sites. It takes courage to fire missiles at fighters knowing that they will attack the source of the missiles.

A less hazardous method of suppressing SAM sites is to shoot antiradiation missiles at them. When a SAM site radar comes on the air prior to firing, the commander of an aircraft equipped with ARM’S attempts to shoot the SAM radar with an ARM before the SAM can be fired.  If this is not possible, he can still try to hit the radar with an ARM before it can go off the air. Best results are usually obtained by following up and ARM attack with bombs to destroy as much of the site as possible. ARM’S have forced the enemy to keep his transmissions to a minimum so that the SAM’S themselves will not be destroyed. When a SAM site is not transmitting, it is not a threat and some degree of air superiority is gained, at least temporarily.

The introduction of SAM’S by the North Vietnamese in 1965 increased U.S. losses, and the threat clearly had to be neutralized. Our initial loss of the six aircraft lent urgency to the need for new tactics in attacking SAM sites. The Air Force Chief of Staff formed a study group to develop a counter to the SAM’S, and out of this committee came the Wild Weasel concept. Several two-seat F-100Fs were modified with special electronic equipment to receive SAM transmissions and locate the site for attack. The initial Wild Weasel aircraft arrived at Korat RTAFB, Thailand, on 26 November 1965 and soon proved that the system would work. The F-100Fs led flights of F-105s on missions where they provided SAM warnings and attacked active SAM sites. Since the F-100F was slower than the F-105, two-seat F-105Fs were modified to the Weasel configuration. The F-105 Weasels killed many SAM sites in North Vietnam and forced the SAM operators to change to less effective tactics. There are currently F-105F/G and F-4C Wild Weasels operational with specially trained two-man crews consisting of a pilot and an electronic warfare officer.

The United States experience in North Vietnam has proved that surface-to-air missiles can be defeated. However, the SAM’S have caused a drastic change in our tactics and, in conjunction with the MIC’S, still pose a formidable threat.

enemy aircraft

Enemy aircraft are the greatest threat to our operations. They can attack surface and airborne targets in or over territory controlled by our forces or those of our allies, intercept our strike aircraft a long way from their targets, and generally pose more varied threats than other offensive or defensive systems. The threat of enemy fighters can also force many of our aircraft to be committed to a defensive role, which reduces the number of bombs that can be delivered. On some missions over North Vietnam, approximately one-third of the strike force was used to protect against enemy fighters. Even then, MIG’S could concentrate and penetrate the fighter screen. It is preferable, of course, to destroy enemy aircraft on the ground, but this is not always possible, as when the airfields in North Vietnam were off limits for several years. Even if well-defended airfields are approved targets, the aircraft are difficult to destroy when dispersed or protected by hardened hangarettes. Some of the MIG’S can operate from sod fields or highway segments. The Soviets are also developing fighters with a V/STOL capability.

The older aircraft in the Soviet inventory (MIG-15, 17, 19, and 21) are primarily day fighter-interceptors, although there are a few all-weather versions. These aircraft are light and maneuverable, but their short range restricts their offensive capability and makes them basically defensive.

The newer Soviet fighters, such as the Su-9 and 11, Foxbat, and Tu-28, have longer range which gives them an improved offensive capability. These aircraft are heavier and less maneuverable than their forerunners, but they have air-intercept radar and therefore an all-weather capability.

U.S. aircraft are capable of performing more missions than Soviet aircraft, which means ours are more sophisticated and thus heavier. In the event of war we might expect to be opposed by superior numbers of Soviet-supplied aircraft in some parts of the world. It is important, therefore, that our aircraft and crews be superior to those of any potential enemy. If we were to lose the air battle, our bases and ground forces would be subject to air attack that could lead to loss of the war.

For all the sophistication of modern fighters, guns remain the basic air-to-air armament. The Soviets use large-caliber (23-, 30-, or 37-mm), low-velocity guns with a slow rate of fire. For example, the 30-mm gun on the MIG-21 fires at a rate of 600 rounds per minute.8 This makes it difficult for them to achieve a hit because of the long lead required and the low density of the bullets, but their projectiles produce more damage than ours when they do hit. We rely on the 20-mm Gatling gun that has a higher muzzle velocity and much higher rate of fire (6000 rounds per minute) than the Russian guns. The high bullet density makes it easier to hit an opposing aircraft, especially one with a better turn capability like the older MIG’S. It is still difficult to hit such a fighter, however, because normally it is necessary to stay close behind and track (fly so that the gunsight aiming reference is maintained on the enemy aircraft) for several seconds. This is almost impossible against a highly maneuverable aircraft flown by a competent pilot.

Even with the limitations of guns, professional fighter pilots insist on a fighter with a gun because of its flexibility, reliability, invulnerability to countermeasures, and exclusive capability for close-in kills. The 25-mm gun being developed for the F-15 will remove some of the problems with the 20-mm system and provide a more lethal round.

All fighters, both day and all-weather, are more effective with a good ground-controlled intercept (GCI) capability. With this system, a radar operator tracks the target and directs the fighter into the optimum firing position. In both Korea and North Vietnam, we were in the enemy’s GCI system, which meant that his fighters knew exactly where we were while we had to search for his. We do have some airborne GCI capability with the EC-121 Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft in Vietnam. The USAF is presently flight-testing an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) to give us an airborne GCI and command and control system. The Soviets already have an operational AWACS in their Tu-114 Moss aircraft. The Moss and the Tu-28 Fiddler interceptor work closely together and are active in the Arctic monitoring SAC B-52 operations.9

Air-intercept (AI) radars assist in target acquisition and are a prerequisite for some air-to-air missiles. The United States has long been superior to the Soviets in this area, but they are improving their systems. AI radars generally have a long-range search mode for target acquisition and a shorter-range track mode for launching missiles. Some aircraft also use radar ranging to compute the necessary lead for firing guns. This lead is displayed on the windscreen in front of the pilot in the form of a circle with a dot (pipper) in the center. If the pilot can fly his aircraft so as to keep the pipper on the enemy aircraft for one or two seconds while he fires the guns, his bullets should hit the target. Of course, the enemy aircraft will try to keep from being tracked. In the missile mode, symbols on the radar display tell the pilot how to fly the aircraft to get in position to fire the missiles. AI radars are necessary for intercepts in weather or at night, but they can be jammed or deceived. Also, targets at a low altitude are hard to see because of the ground clutter on the interceptor’s radar.

Air-to-air missiles have made kills possible from other than the rear of the target and have increased the range at which attacks can be made. The best-known type of guidance is infrared, as in the AIM-9 Sidewinder. A seeker in the missile detects and homes on infrared radiation emitted by the engine of the target aircraft. A semiactive radar homing missile (e.g., AIM-7 Sparrow) homes on the radar signals bounced off the target by the firing aircraft. These missiles can be employed from the front, side, and rear of the target and have a longer range than infrared missiles.

Missiles have many advantages, such as long-range and all-aspect attacks, ease of employment, and the ability to kill an enemy without being seen. Indeed, many newer Soviet aircraft rely solely on missiles and have no guns. The gun remains an essential part of a fighter’s armament, however, because of the following missile limitations:

    (1) Air-to-air missiles can be outmaneuvered, especially when radar warning systems indicate that an aircraft is being tracked.

    (2) Countermeasures can be employed against the missile or the aircraft radar. It is possible, for example, to build air-to-air missiles able to home in on the radar carried by enemy fighters.

    (3) The inherent complexity of missiles makes them less reliable and more expensive than guns.

    (4) The long-range capability of missiles cannot always be utilized because of the necessity to identify the target as hostile before shooting at it. If it is done visually, the MIG can sometimes see us first because our aircraft are often larger and some leave a trail of black smoke. The MIG’S thus may have the advantage of either attacking us first or evading our missile attacks by running for home. This problem is magnified if an attacker is not identified until he is in the midst of or attacking his targets. Missiles must be used with care here—if they are used at all—because of the possibility that the missile will shoot down a friendly aircraft. Missiles cannot tell friend from foe and may home on the wrong target.

    (5) A missile shot may warn the enemy that he is under attack, which, in turn, may allow him to escape. Or he may take advantage of the fact that you have compromised your position in firing the missile. The best plan is to maneuver for a gun attack and shoot missiles if the opportunity presents itself. If the missiles miss, you should still be able to make a gun kill.

Missiles certainly have their place in aircraft armament systems, but they must be supplemental to a gun system. A proficient and determined pilot making a gun attack is much more difficult to defend against than a missile doing only what it has been programmed to do.

Maneuverability and power are important requirements in a fighter aircraft. Maneuverability provides the capability to defeat a missile or gun attack or to stay behind another maneuverable fighter. Power is necessary for rapid acceleration, high rate of climb, and the ability to sustain hard turns and maneuvers. An air superiority fighter must have a high thrust-to-weight ratio (engine thrust relative to aircraft weight) and be maneuverable, even at low speeds. The F-15 air superiority fighter will be able to turn hard and still accelerate or climb in most parts of its flight envelope.

In the past, enemy tactics have been limited by the defensive nature of their aircraft. Their older aircraft had guns, and their short range forced them to be used mostly for defending the homeland by making close-in gun attacks. GCI-directed MIG-21 attacks on our aircraft in Laos and North Vietnam indicate that the Communists can be expected to make hit-and-run missile attacks from long ranges, where they will be difficult, if not impossible, for the defenders to observe visually. An infrared missile needs no radar lock-on. Therefore, the defender has no warning of the attack other than to observe the attacker or missile visually.

Since some new long-range Soviet aircraft rely exclusively on missiles, we may assume that these aircraft will make missile attacks from beyond visual range. They will probably be directed by GCI and can be expected to avoid close-in (less than one-half mile) engagements. The MIG-23 is reportedly so vulnerable at low altitudes that it is given an escort by MIG-21s as it climbs to altitude for missions over Israel.10

United States tactics must be designed to counter the close-in gun attacks from the enemy’s older, more maneuverable aircraft as well as the long-range missile attacks by newer interceptors. We must also be able to fight in the enemy’s air defense system, where, historically, we have had to face AAA and SAM’S in addition to hostile aircraft. Therefore, we must devise tactics and formations that can defeat all three categories of threats simultaneously.

The basic USAF fighting unit is an element of two fighters. The leader is the primary shooter, and the wingman tries to keep both aircraft from being shot down from behind while the leader is attacking. Since fighters are made of very opaque material, visibility directly behind and below the aircraft (six o’clock position) is poor, and the two aircraft must be separated laterally so each can see behind the other. Two elements are combined into a flight of four for missions into enemy territory. The four aircraft are spread both horizontally and vertically so that each element can clear the vulnerable area behind the other and be in a position to support the other if attacked. (Figure 1) 

Figure 1. The "fluid four" or "tactical patrol" formation enables defense against both gun and missile attack coming from any quadrant.

Figure 1. The "fluid four" or "tactical patrol" formation enables defense against both gun and missile attack coming from any quadrant. As the aircrew cannot see the hatched area behind its aircraft, the four aircraft are spread horizontally and vertically so that each element can clear the vulnerable area behind the others and be in position to support if attacked. Aircraft 3 and 4 may fly 1000 feet low to 3000 feet high on aircraft number 1.

This formation, known as “fluid four” or “tactical patrol,” can defend against both gun and missile attacks, since the aircraft on opposite sides of the formation can see each other’s vulnerable areas. In an actual fight, the flight would split up into two mutually supporting elements. Splitting an element, so that each aircraft is by itself, is not recommended except in special instances, since a single aircraft is extremely vulnerable to MIG’S and SAM’S. Because of the necessity for mutual support against MIG’S and SAM’S, a flight of four is the smallest unit normally used in an area where these threats are likely.

AFM 2-1 lists the types of counterair missions:11

    (1) Counterair strikes. The most effective way to destroy enemy air power is to hit it on the ground. Therefore, strikes on enemy airfields and related facilities should receive first priority. SAM sites and other defenses, such as GCI and command and control systems, should also be attacked early in the conflict. Surprise is paramount in an attack of this sort to keep the enemy fighters from getting airborne. Concentrated attacks on the defenses as well as on offensive aircraft bases can have a tremendous impact on future operations. Follow-on action will be much easier if enemy air offensive capability is wiped out and his defenses weakened. Large losses can be expected if enemy defenses remain intact.

    (2) Fighter sweeps. If the enemy cannot be knocked out on the ground, fighter sweeps can be used to seek out and destroy his aircraft in the air. This tactic can be inefficient and yield nothing if the enemy does not want to fight and uses his GCI to keep his aircraft away from our sweeps. When the enemy takes advantage of sanctuaries and political restraints, however, fighter sweeps may be the best way to destroy enemy aircraft. The most famous fighter sweep of recent times was one conducted by the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing in Thailand on 2 January 1967. Seven MIG-21s were destroyed without any USAF losses in this well-planned operation, which took maximum advantage of surprise.

    (3) Screen. A screen is one or more flights of fighters patrolling the airspace between the threat and an aircraft or area being defended. The fighters are to keep enemy aircraft from interfering with friendly operations. Screens are used when operating on the periphery of hostile territory where the enemy must fly through the area of the screen to get to the defended area or aircraft.

    (4) Combat Air Patrol (CAP). CAP’S are employed to protect a certain area or friendly aircraft in an area. Fighters patrol the airspace (which can be either friendly or hostile) and try to keep enemy aircraft out of it. CAP differs from screening in that screens are imposed anywhere between the threat and the area or force being defended, whereas combat air patrols are positioned over or near the area or force being protected.

    (5) Air escort. Fighters escort other aircraft by flying with them on their mission. Escort must stay close to intercept any type of attack and insure that the mission is completed without interference. The escorts, which are configured and ready for an air-to-air engagement, usually engage the enemy fighters and let the aircraft that are less able to defend themselves continue on their mission. Escorts must be careful not to be lured away from their charges by decoys or false attacks prior to the main attack. A sweep may occasionally be combined with escorts to run down and destroy enemies acting as decoys or feinting attacks. The enemy can be considered successful if he gets through the escorts and forces the strike aircraft to jettison their bombs short of the target or keeps the other kinds of aircraft from performing their mission. Friendly GCI can be a big help on an escort mission by warning our aircraft of the approach of enemy fighters. Escorts such as Wild Weasels can also be used to engage ground defenses that are threatening strike aircraft.

    (6) Air intercept mission. Fighters or interceptors can be put on air or ground alert to defend against attacks by enemy aircraft. GCI is almost essential for the success of this mission.

The war over the North Vietnam has not had the air-to-air combat that occurred in Korea. The USAF is credited with 109 kills in Vietnam (as of 29 August 1972) compared with 900 in Korea. Even though the enemy has not used his fighters as much as he could, he still maintains the capability to do so, as indicated by his hit-and-run attacks on our aircraft in Laos in January 1972. We must remember that the enemy has and will continue to have a capability for aerial attack. It would thus be a serious mistake to neglect air-to-air training and development of ordnance during periods when aerial engagements are not taking place. This could only lead to heavy losses when a determined and proficient enemy is again encountered in air battles.

The USAF must continue to control the air as we have in the past to keep our surface forces from being subjected to enemy aerial attack. This could be disastrous in those areas where they are outnumbered on the ground. We also must insure that friendly air forces can complete their missions without large losses due to enemy defenses. Failure to control the air over friendly or enemy territory could well mean the loss of a war. That is why air superiority comes first.

Alexandria, Virginia


1. Air Force Manual 2-1, Tactical Air OperationsCounter Air, Close Air Support, and Air Interdiction (Washington: Department of the Air Force, 2 May 1969), p. 5-1.

2. Alfred Goldberg, ed., A History of the United States Air Force 1907-1957 (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Co., Inc., 1957), p. 66.

3. “Chronology of the War in SEA,” Air Force and Space Digest, vol. 50, no. 3 (March 1967), p. 141.

4. Lieutenant Colonel V. Mikhailov, “Firing at Low-Flying Targets,” Soviet Military Review, October 1970, p. 20.

5. “The Military Balance 1971-1972,” Air Force Magazine, vol. 54, no. 12 (December 1971), p. 98.

6. “The Growing Threat-4,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, vol. 95, no. 17 (25 October 1971), p. 42.

7. Aviation Week and Space Technology, vol. 95, no. 19 (8 November 1971), p. 11.

8. John W. R. Taylor, ed., Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, 1970-1971 (London: Jane’s Yearbooks, 1971), p. 496.

9. “The Growing Threat-2,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, vol. 95, no. 15 (11 October 1971), p. 40.

10. John W. R. Taylor, “Jane’s Aerospace Review 71/72,” Air Force Magazine, vol. 55, no.1 (January 1972), p. 31.

11. Air Force Manual 2-1, p. 5-3.

This article has been adapted from a paper prepared by Major Wells as part of his academic work while a student in the 1972 class of Air Command and Staff College.


Major Norman E. Wells (USAFA; M.S., Purdue University) is a staff officer in the Southeast Asia Projects Branch, DCS/R&D, Hq USAF. His six years of flying the F-4 included a tour with the 8th TFW, Thailand, when he flew 100 missions over North Vietnam and was credited with two MIG kills. Major Wells has taught Wild Weasel operations, enemy defenses, and penetration aids at the USAF Fighter Weapons School and has written a textbook on these subjects. He is a Distinguished Graduate of the Air Command and Staff College.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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