Assessing How Limited Will Inhibits Air Supremacy

By: Kathryn Hillegass, Columnist

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The debate on implementing a no-fly zone in Syria begs the question: how much is the US willing to invest in a conflict that has no clear national interests or a compelling existential threat? Limited political will means US ground forces need to prepare to operate in environments without air supremacy.

In an unprecedented move on September 30, 2015, a Russian general gave US officials stationed in Baghdad an hour’s notice of the pending Russian aerial campaign into Syria.[i] This brazen act left defense planners scrambling, particularly when Russian air strikes appeared to more heavily target Syrian opposition as opposed to Islamic State (IS) strongholds.[ii] If the US had a more robust presence in Syria, this action would have forced US decision makers to consider significant escalatory measures to prevent further Russian aggression.

What happens when the Iraqi government, dissatisfied with current US military commitment to fight IS, invites Russia to launch air strikes within its borders as well? The U.S. has a significantly larger footprint in Iraq, particularly in the form of military advisors and a sizeable contingent of US aircraft. Russian air strikes into Iraq would leave these 3,000 plus troops, already deployed with limited force protection, increasingly vulnerable.

The US faces limited options: it can use diplomatic or even coercive measures (such as implementing a no-fly zone) to halt the Russian air campaign; it can cooperate and actively coordinate with Russia as part of an increasingly muddled international coalition against IS; or it can accept the risks associated with Russian and American aerial assets operating in the same air space with no coordination and competing strategic objectives.

Diplomatic pressure from the US and NATO to convince Russia to pull its forces out of the region remains the most palatable option, although the likelihood of such an accord decreases day by day. While there is little doubt the US would win in a kinetic confrontation against Russia, the costs may not be worth the prize. Risking escalation against one of the world’s greatest nuclear powers over a conflict zone where the US is minimally invested makes no strategic sense. Conversely, further cooperation with an increasingly hostile adversary seems unpalatable. Lastly, accepting the risks of a pseudo-proxy war poses challenges at both the strategic and tactical level. Strategically, it sets a dangerous precedent for what the US is willing to tolerate. Tactically, it means US ground forces will have to quickly adapt to operating in an environment without complete aerial supremacy.

US vulnerability to Russian air strikes is not a matter of capability but political will. The US could impose aerial supremacy if it so desires in Iraq and Syria. However, as the US continues involve itself in situations where there are no clear national interests or a compelling existential threat, Russia will use its status as a nuclear superpower to test the limits of American resolve.

Although allowing Russia to operate with impunity in Syria is risky, it may not be catastrophic. Russia has more to lose than it stands to gain in the unlikely scenario that it attacks US or coalition positions in Iraq or Syria. However, its precarious targeting of rebel positions and its recent violations of Turkish air space may indicate that Russia is purposefully provoking a response from the American-backed coalition. Incursions into Turkish air space test more than just American will, but also NATO’s determination to respond to a potential Article 5 violation along the Alliance’s southeastern border.[iii] This deliberate prodding, coupled with the risk of Russian warplanes inadvertently attacking an American coalition element, has the potential to escalate this conflict beyond the scope of what the US or NATO is willing to invest.

Does insufficient political will to impose a no-fly zone imply US ground forces should be better trained to operate in environments without air supremacy? Russia’s air strikes in Syria are not the only indicator that US ground forces should be prepared to fight in an environment of contested air space. Russian anti-stealth and electronic warfare capabilities constitute a credible threat to US air supremacy within Russia’s borders. [iv] China’s expanding anti-access/area denial capabilities in the South China Seas may also foreshadow a great power conflict in which the US cannot achieve aerial supremacy. Additionally, the proliferation of low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles presents security challenges for ground forces operating near borders or in vicinity of enemy-controlled territory.

Arguably, the most elite US Special Forces may be more accustomed to conducting surgical strikes in denied areas where air supremacy is not assured. However, conventional forces, after decades of taking air supremacy for granted, will be hard pressed to train for these types of contingencies. Conducting joint exercises at the National Training Centers is already difficult enough due to resource constraints and conflicting priorities among the military services. Adding hostile or non-cooperative aerial assets to the exercises would be logistically and fiscally challenging.

How likely are any of these scenarios for US ground forces? Military analysts question how long Russia will be able to sustain operations in Syria without overextending its reach.[v] There are no immediate indications the US plans to substantially increase its boots on the ground in either Syria or Iraq. However, if the US continues to use its military in places where there is limited political capital to be gained, this issue may resurface again. The US military consistently evaluates training and readiness against the worst case scenario rather than most likely scenarios. Sending ground troops into an environment of contested air space surely rates among the military’s most dangerous scenarios.

[i] Jon Sopel, “How Putin blindsided the US over Syria,” BBC News, September 30, 2015, accessed October 6, 2015,

[ii] Susannah Cullinane, “Russia intensifying Syria airstrikes,” CNN, October 4, 2015, accessed October 6, 2015,

[iii] “How NATO’s Article 5 works,” The Economist, March 9, 2015, accessed October 7, 2015,

[iv] Andrew Tilghman and Oriana Pawlyk, “U.S. vs. Russia: What a war would look like between the world’s most fearsome militaries” Military Times, October 5, 2015, accessed October 6, 2015,

[v] Ishaan Tharoor, “Why Russia’s Syria war is bad news for the U.S. (and why it isn’t),” Washington Post, September 30, 2015, accessed October 6, 2015,

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