Is air power the ultimate power in war?

This was an old draft, prepared months ago. It's not fully satisfactory (not the least because there's really no statistic significance available for a single variable analysis). I decided to post it nevertheless because I'm too busy and too often away for regular posting these days.


I've often read and heart the assertion (cliché?) that the decisive factor in war is air power. That's apparently one of those phrases that are not meant to provoke thought, but to channel it.

Some even insist that war can only be won with air dominance a.k.a. supremacy.

This is in my opinion wrong, and it's serious. It can lead to potentially excessive expenditures on air power and an underestimation of those adversaries who lack serious air power.

Let's look at historical examples.

I prefer to look at the post-1930 period (air "power" had little power till the 30's) and to ignore civil wars without (in this case relevant) foreign involvement.

I came up with a list of 37 major wars and categorized them. You can find the table here.

13 wars met the cliché:
The side with air superiority won the conflict (and air power was noteworthy).
1936 Second Italo-Abyssinian War
1936-1939 Spanish Civil War
1939-1945 World War II
1941 Anglo-Iraqi War
1941-1944 Continuation War
1967 Six-Day-War
1971 Indo-Pakistani War
1973 Yom Kippur War
1982 Falklands War (the Argentinians inflicted much air attack damage, British air superiority was probably just an air combat superiority)
1982 Lebanon War (I counted this as Israeli victory despite the mixed success of the later occupation)
1989-1990 U.S. invasion of Panama
1990-1991 Gulf War
1998-1999 Kosovo War

Three major wars were won/lost since 1930 without any party enjoying air superiority:
1932-1935 Chaco War
1948-1949 Arab-Israeli War

Eight major wars were lost by the power that enjoyed air superiority:
1937-1945 Second Sino-Japanese War
1939 Soviet-Japanese Border War (Japanese air superiority was probably limited to air combat superiority)
1939-1940 Winter War (I count this as a Soviet defeat)
1954-1962 Algerian War of Independence
1959-1979 Vietnam War
1964-1979 Rhodesian Bush War (much more than a civil war)
1965-1989 South African Border War
1979-1989 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

There are of course several excuses possible; Winter War - Soviets were weakened by purges/winter/poor tactics, Vietnam War: jungle/hippies, Afghanistan: Soviets were crumbling anyway/Stinger ...

These excuses can easily be met by another criterion: Was the conflict lopsided or not?

I marked the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, Winter War, Vietnam War, Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Israeli invasion of Lebanon, U.S. Invasion of Panama, Gulf War and Kosovo War as lopsided in favour of the side that enjoyed air superiority. Interestingly, even in this group it's only 6:3 for 'air power wins'.

Let's ignore the lopsided conflicts (the U.S. invasion of Panama cannot really tell us about decisiveness of air power, after all) for a while. The balance is then six wins for the aerially superior parties and a whopping five defeats.

I also looked at whether the opponents were well-equipped (at least relatively). "Fair" wars (not lopsided and not full-blown forces vs. militia) looked like five wins for the side that gained air superiority and two defeats.

The conflict between most comparable forces in the list was likely the 1939 Soviet-Japanese Border War: The Russian tank/motorization superiority defeated the Japanese air superiority. The Japanese air superiority in this case is disputable anyway, as it was probably limited to a better air combat kill ratio.

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Let's sum up:

Air power can be decisive and it's worth its expenses - up to a point. It is possible to win a war without air superiority and even against it.

History tells us that spending much on air power when fighting an enemy who does not fight alike is quite often a path to defeat than to victory.

Several successful air power exploitations have occurred over relatively simple terrain that gave little concealment to ground forces.

Air combat superiority needs to be exploited to achieve an air attack superiority to counter enemy strengths.

Lopsided conflicts and conflict over terrain that favours air/ground attacks have probably many mislead in the West about the utility of air power.

The Kosovo air war reminded us of the relevance of camouflage/concealment/deception against the effects of air superiority.

Air superiority failed most often when even boots on the ground (and in the house of the enemy) didn't suffice.

The ultimate power in warfare is in my opinion willpower, not air power.

It seems impossible to get a unquestionable compilation of wars for this purpose. It's possible to dispute "major", win/lost/draw", whether air power was relevant, whether air superiority was achieved and held and so on.
Feel free to reserve scepticism, but at least one thing should be obvious by these samples: Wars can be won without air superiority/supremacy/dominance, even against it. Many have focused too much on WW2 and the wars in the Arab World.

I did use the common meaning of "win"/"lose" in this mini survey.


  1. Sven,

    Also remember the Borneo Confrontation

    Where the British, Australians and New Zealanders defeated the Indonesians while deliberating avoiding the use of air dropped ordnance.

  2. That's quite the same league as the Suez Crisis '56 (which I omitted as well).

    Luckily, none of both would weaken my point, so I think an omission is OK.

    The relevance of wars for the investigation is a problem. Some are entirely irrelevant and need to be removed in order to avoid a distortion of the statistic, some must not be removed. I assume that most would disagree on where to draw the line.

  3. maybe not a brilliant example but the Afghan Civil War in the early 1990s showed how massive air power did very little to win the war on the governments side!