Losing Air Superiority: A Case Study from the Second World War

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Editorial Abstract:Is the United States ready to deal with an opponent who employs asymmetric strategies in an attempt to wage a "poor man's air war"? This case study of the Luftwaffe's efforts to cope with the loss of daylight air superiority in 1944-45 shows how a military organization, faced with the neutralization of most of its weaponry and the increasing irrelevance of its doctrine, may attempt to prolong its useful life. The ability to inflict unexpected casualties on the US Air Force, its coalition partners, or friendly populations might pay disproportionate dividends to a future adversary.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN an air force loses the ability to gain and maintain air superiority? How might an energetic and resourceful air force leadership deal with this situation? As the United States prepares to face twenty-first-century adversaries, it is extremely unlikely that it will encounter an air force able to match the US Air Force in terms of technology, training, numbers, and combat power. However, the United States may well have to deal with opponents who employ asymmetric strategies in an attempt to wage a "poor man's air war."

A study of the Luftwaffe's efforts to cope with the loss of daylight air superiority in 1944-45 is of more than historical interest. It serves as a case study of how a military organization, faced with neutralization of most of its weaponry and the increasing irrelevance of its doctrine, may attempt to prolong its useful life. Since the United States may encounter such an adversary in the future, an examination of how a past foe coped with this state of affairs may enlighten contemporary air and space planners.

The Loss of Air Superiority over the Homeland

When the Anglo-American bomber offensive began seriously to threaten Germany's control of its airspace, the Luftwaffe leadership responded energetically. Gen Gunther Korten, chief of the Luftwaffe General Staff, set to the task of creating "an umbrella of fighter aircraft over the Reich." Korten belonged to a "defensive clique" that included Col Adolf Galland-the inspector general of fighters-and Field Marshal Erhard Milch-the chief of air armament. Korten beefed up the homeland air-defense organization, finally creating Air Fleet Reich-equivalent to a numbered air force-which centralized all flak, fighter, and command-and-control functions. At the same time, and in keeping with basic Luftwaffe doctrine, Korten's reforms also called for strong bomber forces in both the eastern and western theaters in order to permit the Luftwaffe to carry out strategic operations.1 Even so, Korten's program brought about an increase in the strength and efficacy of Germany's air defenses.

Korten's organizational reforms were matched by Milch in fighter production. In partnership with Albert Speer, the armaments minister, Milch minimized the inefficiency of the German aircraft industry. Through stringent measures, he was able to boost aircraft output without increasing consumption of raw materials.2 By June 1943, German factories were producing over 1,100 fighters per month. In March 1944, Milch and Speer set up a joint "Fighter Staff" with far-reaching authority over production, plant dispersal, construction of bombproof factories, raw material, and labor matters. German aircraft production finally peaked in September 1944 at just over 3,700, despite months of Allied air attacks.3 The production reflects the underlying tension between the need to strengthen the home-defense forces and the desire to retain an offensive capability. Thus, the Germans also manufactured thousands of bombers (whose production consumed far more raw materials and factory floor space than did fighter aircraft) in 1943-44.4 The quest for offensive power did its part to make the loss of air superiority permanent.

The Luftwaffe's operational response to the crisis was no less energetic. It placed great hopes in its basic interceptors, the Messerschmitt (Me) Bf 109G and Focke-Wulf Fw 190A. …