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Air Superiority Is Essential To The Combined Arms Revolution In 1918 And 2023
Historical perspective on long, hard battles
This post will be locked for two weeks. Academic historiography is not free.
Victory on the Western Front in the final ‘Hundred Days’ campaign was a complex military endeavor. Tanks, a million fresh American allied troops, and even the derided cavalry arm all played a role. However, “at the heart of the new form of warfighting was a combination of artillery and aircraft,” Gary Sheffield and Peter Gray write in the introduction to their 2013 history anthology, Changing War: The British Army, the Hundred Days Campaign and the Birth of the Royal Air Force, 1918.
“It was air power that allowed the British Expeditionary Force to deliver overwhelming kinetic effect through predicted artillery fire” using new radio technology, Peter Dye says in the chapter on aviation logistics. Air-ground coordination with tanks proved decisive at the Battle of Hamel. British squadrons tried out a variety of interdiction and close support missions, learning what had an effect on the enemy, learning the limitations of their technology to affect battle.
As a result, David Jordan explains, “by the end of the First World War, the RAF had developed all the major air power roles that are recognized in doctrine today, demonstrating the vital importance of control of the air and of close air-land cooperation to achieve success.” Neither side in the current war has quite mastered the skies of Ukraine the same way.
Air superiority is still the fundamental state of battlefield art, the current revolution in military affairs (RMA). “Without the ability to operate in the third dimension there can be no three-dimensional warfare,” Dye writes. A human pilot can find a target on the ground and attack it directly, or else guide artillery to attack it, while drones can only fill these same roles to a limited degree. Even in 1918, an airplane could deliver more explosive power to a target than any artillery shell.
Ukraine never had an air force to equal Russia’s in the current war. Progress in counteroffensive operations has been quite gradual for the last five weeks because Ukrainian pilots are unable to support mine clearing or assault operations with attacks of opportunity from the air. Put simply, the F-16s should have been in Ukraine already. Anyone who tells you that F-16s would not be making a difference if they were already there, right now, is not speaking from military history.
Of course, there are alternatives to the F-16, such as the JAS 39 Gripen or the F-18 Hornet, both of which may appear in the skies of Ukraine by the end of 2023, too. Numbers will matter more than design. Ukraine needs lots of pilots flying lots of planes, putting bombs and gunfire on lots of Russian targets, as soon as possible, in order to make rapid advances on the ground.
For air power to work, “the processes from the acquisition of aircraft, engines, weapons and trained personnel to their employment in what by 1918 had become high-tempo warfare could not be left to accident,” Dye writes. Procurement and supply require management and oversight: “a single serviceable front line aircraft required over 240 personnel (uniformed and civilian) to support, maintain and operate it” in 1918. Air forces have struggled to rationalize their ‘teeth to tail’ ratios ever since.
The term ‘military revolution’ is usually contested in reference to any tactical development before the modern era. There was nothing gradual about the rise of air power, however. Fixed wing aircraft had existed for only 11 years when the war began. A great deal of technological innovation, doctrinal innovation, and organizational adaptation — an evolution — had taken place by the 15th year of powered flight. Air power in 1918 is recognizable as the ancestor of all air forces today.
Drones are the 21st century continuation of that revolution. A profusion of small and medium UAVs is doing the reconnaissance and artillery spotting work of the Royal Flying Corps. “Nearly all (90%) counter-battery observation was done by airmen using wireless and, as a result, ‘the success of the artillery battle had come to depend on the weather being suitable for flying,’” Gray writes. Weather still matters to the small drones in Ukraine and the enemy guns are the primary target once again. Recent coverage from Zaporizhzhia and Bakhmut has emphasized a spike in both reported and visually confirmed losses of Russian artillery systems. Gaining superiority of fire is the key to restoring movement to a deadlocked battlefield.
Armies developed a number of ways to find and target enemy artillery during the First World War. “As significant as flash spotting and sound ranging were in identifying enemy batteries and vital points,” Gray writes, “these techniques were limited (particularly in the mobile battle) and depended on large-scale accurate mapping which itself relied on aerial photography and air reconnaissance.” Ninety-five percent of the German guns had been located before the attack of 7 August.
Arguably, it took the RFC until 1917 to develop the necessary equpment and consistently provide the map makers with the quality they needed. The 1/20,000 and 1/10,000 maps covering the entire Western Front, produced by the Royal Engineer (RE) Survey Sections, together with daily air photography, provided the accuracy needed by the garrison and field artillery to neutralize enemy batteries in the short, intensive preliminary bombardment that was the foundation for British success in 1918.
British airmen were “able to provide a more comprehensive, detailed and timely picture of the battlefield than had ever been achieved before” thanks in part to breakthrough technologies which allowed voice communication by radio: the heterodyne and the thermionic valve, or vacuum tube.
Morse code nets were jammed with traffic — so many messages and repeats — that the average transmission time was still 55 minutes in 1918, whereas pigeons usually arrived within 40 minutes of release. As mobility returned in the final battles of the war, the new radio technology made pursuit of retreating German armies possible.
To those who lived through it, progress still seemed slow. “The Hundred Days campaign of August-November 1918 was no Blitzkrieg,” Jonathan Boff writes. “For instance, the average daily advance made by Sir Julian Byng’s British Third Army, one of the most active attacking formations, was about three-quarters of a mile. The most it moved forward in a single day was just six miles.” As I explained three weeks ago, casualties in these battles were among the highest of the war, with apparent progress so slow that allied commanders thought a trench stalemate had resumed.
“Nonetheless, the return of relative mobility confronted commanders with a new series of challenges,” Boff writes. For example, a series of hasty attacks at Bapaume from 23 August to 3 September were mostly conducted without thorough reconnaissance. “Many of the 39 brigade attacks undertaken were, in themselves, unsuccessful. The cumulative impact, however, was a factor in the German decision to withdraw to the Hindenburg Line during the night of 2/3 September.”
Germany was out of reserves, out of money, out of key raw materials, out of time. “All higher commanders could, and did, achieve in this kind of warfare, was rotate units in and out of the line, and provide ‘ginger’ to help maintain momentum,” Gen. Erich Ludendorff admitted later. As long as his enemies had air superiority, he could not stop them.
Successes of German air power in the middle of the war — the “Fokker scourge,” when they had an edge in the fighting over France, as well as the Zeppelin raids on England — inspired parliamentary questions about “maladministration” and inferior aircraft. For Jan Smuts, the South African general brought in to fix the situation, the “whole question of air expansion was really one of fundamental policy,” Boff says. The reforms were so expensive that they drove the decision to make the RFC an independent force, the RAF.
“By the Armistice, the total cost of the RAF to the nation, in material and human terms, amounted to £200 million per year — or 4 percent of Gross Domestic Product. Daily expenditure had reached over 0.5 million, or 7 per cent of Britain’s total daily war expenditure,” Dye writes.
Moreover, “the ability to sustain mobile warfare during the Hundred Days campaign was as remarkable as the ability to meet the Western Front’s unprecedented material demands in the previous four years.” Logistics were vital, for “it was aviation that demanded the most comprehensive and sophisticated support arrangements.”
It was the unexpected scale and complexity of these tasks that provided the greatest challenge. The tempo of air operations and the key logistic drivers were quite different from all that had gone on before. Attrition was extremely high — as a result of accidents and low reliability as much from enemy action — demanding a constant supply of new aircraft and aircrew. For example, between March and October 1918 over 6,500 aircraft were struck off the strength of the front line squadrons, of which 4 per cent was attributed to poor airfields, 29 per cent to forced-landings, 36 per cent to enemy action, 6 per cent to time expiry and 25 per cent to pilot error.
For all that destruction of fragile airframes, the RAF lost more engines than airplanes in 1918. Records show that squadrons maintained 90 percent of their aicraft as serviceable at any given time despite the attrition. Contemporary military jargon refers to this as readiness, and the British performance would still be considered a superb one. This is all the more remarkable considering that squadrons of R.E.8 aircraft like the one in the photo above changed airfields an average of three times a month between June and September 1918 just to keep up with the changing situation on the ground.
Of course, the Ukrainian Air Force (UAF) operates modern jets with far greater range than a World War I biplane. As an organization, however, they have survived this long by using ‘jump airfields’ to disperse their planes and keep them moving around so that Russian satellites cannot locate them for destruction with missiles or bombs. A legacy of the Soviet system, the long, straight concrete highways of Ukraine are perfect for this purpose, and often have forest cover to help conceal aircraft from ground observation. Despite being outnumbered several times over and badly outgunned, the UAF managed the chaos of the first days of the Russian invasion using roadways as runways. They will continue using the same tactics with whatever planes the west sees fit to provide.
And provide they must. During the first days of the war in 2022, when Russian air defense crews seemed unable to perform their jobs, TB-2 Bayraktar drones duplicated the close air support (CAS) role of loitering in search of juicy targets, such as Russian air defense systems. Like the UAF, those happy days for the TB-2 lasted far longer than observers had expected — about six months — but they are indeed long over now. Attrition to their old Soviet-Russian airfleet has been heavy. Engines and airframes wear out even when they land safely. Ex-Soviet satellite states, such as their Polish and Baltic allies, have provided replacement ‘spare parts,’ including whole planes labelled as spare parts, but Ukraine has largely exhausted the market.
Ukrainian independence will require a new air fleet. The new fighter planes must be numerous, with well-established supply chains outside of Russia, so that replacement planes and parts are easy to obtain. For a variety of reasons, the F-16 fits the bill better than its alternatives. Thousands already exist, the suppliers are still making parts, and a smorgasboard of compatible weapon packages is already available — assuming that political will exists to send them.
Incrementalism in foreign capitals has been the bane of Ukrainian victory. Fear of escalation by a cornered Vladimir Putin has led to overcaution. However loud he barks, his actual bite has been minimal every time another western weapon system has arrived. Piecemeal delivery of a complete combined arms package has allowed Russians to adapt to each increment in turn rather than all at once.
Rather than wonder whether to send cluster munitions, or ATACMS, or F-16s, or now sending each thing at different times, history suggests the United States should deliver all of these things together now, at the same time, soon enough to matter. Ukraine has not committed the great majority of their offensive strength yet. Nor should they as long as the combined arms package remains incomplete.
The UAF needs the various combined arms kit of an F-16, such as long-range air-to-air missiles, jamming pods, targeting pods, and radar-homing missiles, along with the planes. If each item requires the same tortured process of decision-making in Washington to deliver it where it can be used to defeat Russian forces, it further delays any counteroffensive aimed at retaking territory.
Right now, Ukraine is able to bite and hold with infantry, making tactical gains to then hold off Russian counterattacks, inflicting heavy casualties on formations in the open. Similar to the Kherson offensive last year, this ‘force directed offensive’ is degrading Russian combat power. With a foothold on the southern bank of the Dnipro and the heights around Bakhmut retaken, Ukraine has stretched Russia’s available forces thin along a very long front.
Rather than a breakthrough, this strategy aims to break armies. But if this phase of “shaping operations” is to result in liberated territory, Ukraine will need the means to follow through once mobility is restored. In a fluid battlefield, they will need airplanes with teeth — as well as the long logistical tail attached to those teeth. This has been the precondition of victory since 1918. We sitll live in this military revolution.
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