Corbett regarded total command of the sea with skepticism

Sunday, October 2nd, 2022

Ukraine’s success in contesting the skies turns the West’s airpower paradigm on its head, because it offers an alternative vision for pursuing airspace denial over air superiority:

In rethinking America’s approach to airpower, pundits should look to Mahan’s contemporary, the British naval theorist Sir Julian Corbett. Corbett regarded total command of the sea with skepticism, arguing the “most common situation in naval warfare is that neither side has the command.” He favored a relative, rather than an absolute, interpretation of command of the sea, calling for a “working command,” delimited in time or space — “sea control” in today’s parlance. Similarly, Douhet’s absolute rule of the skies may be desirable, but air forces may get by with more limited control of the airspace, or temporary and localized air superiority.

For Corbett, the corollary of sea control is sea denial. If a navy is not strong enough to gain command of the sea, he argued, it could still attempt to limit or deny the other side ability to make use of the sea. He referred to this concept as “disputing command,” and offered two main methods: a “fleet in being” and “minor counterattacks.” He envisioned an active defense, in which a smaller navy could avoid battle but still remain threatening as a “fleet in being” by staying active and mobile. “The idea,” he explained,” was “to dispute control by harassing operations, to exercise control at any place or at any [opportune] moment … and to prevent the enemy from exercising control in spite of his superiority by continually occupying his attention.” Additionally, an inferior navy could conduct minor counterattacks, or hit-and-run strikes, to try to take undefended ships out of action.

Corbett’s strategy of denial in the naval realm is pertinent to the air domain as well. Ukraine has used mobility and dispersion to maintain its air defenses as a “force in being.” Operating a mix of Cold-War era, Soviet-made mobile surface-to-air missile systems Ukrainian defenders on the ground have kept Russian aircraft at bay and under threat. To do so they have used the long range S-300 family, medium range SA-11s, and short range SA-8 Gecko systems. Exploiting dispersion and mobility, as Corbett advised, Ukrainian air defenders have used “shoot and scoot” tactics, firing their missiles and quickly moving away from the launch site. “The Ukrainians continue to be very nimble in how they use both short and long-range air defense,” a senior Pentagon official concluded. “And they have proven very effective at moving those assets around to help protect them.”

Mounted on tracked vehicles, Ukraine’s surface-to-air missile systems are fleeting targets. Given the danger of flying over Ukraine, Russia relies largely on standoff sensors to find radar targets, lengthening the time required to engage Ukraine’s mobile systems. After firing, the defender can turn off the radar, pack up and drive away to hide in the ground clutter — forests, buildings, etc. During the Gulf War in 1991, the U.S.-led coalition hunted Iraq’s truck-mounted Scud missiles, but even with the advantage of air superiority, it still failed to achieve a single confirmed kill. In the skies over Ukraine, Russian aircraft are not only the hunter but also the hunted, further complicating the task of finding and destroying them.

As a result, there is a deadly “cat-and-mouse” game between Russian aircraft and Ukrainian air defenses. The Oryx open-source intelligence site reports that, since the start of the war, 96 Russian aircraft have been destroyed, including at least nine Sukhoi Su-34 and one Su-35 — equivalents to the American F-15. Ukraine started the war with a total of 250 S-300 launchers, but 11 weeks later, the Russians have only managed to knock out 24 of them, at least so far as Oryx has confirmed with photos and videos. Given how Ukrainian officials carefully manage information about their losses, caution is needed in drawing conclusions from our limited information about them. Still these figures suggest that the Russians are only able to attrite a small portion of the threat, and, compared to radar and battery command vehicles, the less important part at that. The best evidence may be Russian behavior itself. As a senior Pentagon official argued, “And one of the reasons we know … [Ukraine’s air defenses are] working is because we continue to see the Russians wary of venturing into Ukrainian air space at all and if they do, they don’t stay long … And I think … that speaks volumes …”


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    So called obsolete weapons systems have their uses. The Serbs shot down one F117A and so severely damaged another that it had to be scrapped. They did using off the shelf obsolete Soviet SAM’s and radars.

  2. Gavin Longmuir says:

    “Given how Ukrainian officials carefully manage information about their losses, caution is needed in drawing conclusions from our limited information about them.”

    Saya it all, doesn’t it? In addition to the expected Fog of War, the Kiev crew are deliberately filling the internet with half-truths & lies. The consequence is that none of us know what is really happening there — including whether or not weapon systems are effective.

  3. Altitude Zero says:

    It’s probably important to note that Germany actually tried Corbett’s program in both world wars, and it failed in each, although it was a near-run thing in both.

  4. VXXC says:

    Can we define air superiority?

    I don’t think the Ukrainian air force is flying? But lets not quibble, they may not have an air force anymore.

    Are the Ukrainian air defenses such that Russian Air Operations are ‘prohibitive’? see below. USAF definition of Air Superiority.

    “Air Superiority is that degree of control of the air by one force that permits the conduct of its operations at a given time and place without prohibitive interference from air and missile threats.

    o Historically, air superiority has proven to be a prerequisite to success for an operation/campaign

    o Prevents enemy air and missile threats from interfering with operations of friendly air, land, maritime, space, and special operations forces, thus facilitating freedom of action and movement. [I'm going to interject this is rather a high bar "

    It can be said perhaps with fairness that neither side perhaps has air superiority, as one side [Russia] is we are told not flying as much and the other side [Ukraine] is not flying.

    I’m not sure I’d trust Oryx or articles that use them as a source, unless you’re a Turkish Drone salesmen.

  5. VXXC says:

    I’m constrained to note the following…the Ukrainians are holding we’re told a MASTERCLASS on Air Denial, holding Russian aircraft at bay with…Russian Air Defense systems.

    “Ukrainian defenders on the ground have kept Russian aircraft at bay and under threat. To do so they have used the long range S-300 family, medium range SA-11s, and short range SA-8 Gecko systems.”

    I do hope the USAF and NATO Air forces are paying attention.

    The Russians are the Master Class at Air Defense, as this article bears witness. The Russians knocked the entire Ukrainian air force from the skies in 2014 all with their air defense weapons.

    We gutted ours over the last generation , and what was left we sent to Ukraine.

    Now if this denial about denial about who denied who with what helps us rebuild our US air defense systems – most of the Stingers are in the National Guard you know…then I suppose it’s worth a click.

  6. Adar says:

    Most of those Stingers in the NG gone by now? Sent to the Ukrainian? Gonna be hard to get the assembly line up and going again so stockpiles can be replenished. Also the active electronic components are hard or impossible to obtain now, older designs. You will have to redesign the guidance mechanism? And cost going to not cheap.

  7. VXXC says:


    The first problem is the gutting of Air Defense and sending most of it to the National Guard as like insurgents don’t like have air forces n stuff.

    The second problem is despite popular misconceptions most of the Industrial part of the MIC – Military Industrial Complex – went the way of the Warsaw Pact in the 1990s and no longer exists. You see.
    Sure it’s there, nothing like Cold War, and with outsourcing of everything including the I in MIC in the 90s it will be a decade at least to get the base back. As it happens we are reshoring, but we’re really in the position of Russian in 2009 when they realized the West was coming to ‘regime change’ them and carve them up and we need to start getting the base for war now. Russia began rebuilding it’s military in earnest in 2009 and was ready for war in 2019. We need to continue reshoring and may be ready for war in 2030-2032.

    There’s nothing like swatting at phantoms though, right? MIC! MIC! MIC!

    Saying MIC is like saying Soviet or NAZI or Confederacy but ok. If you live in online movies or video games then these are valid concerns !

    The Third problem is an unknown number of all our weapons including from line units and Stingers have been shipped to Ukraine. The one thing that may be happening is the Russians aren’t using much air on Ukraine. Then again with missiles, rocket and Tube artillery being their mainstay the Russians don’t have to use air. The people who need Air support are the masses of Ukrainian infantry advancing over open ground into artillery barrages. < this being the American style, by the way. It works with insurgents. It's not working so well in Ukraine, except for the Ukrainian gravediggers.

    So Adar is correct, it's not like you go to Amazon and order an industrial base to actually rebuild your military with…

    Now we're in 'discussions' amongst our elites to restart the production line. This means every palm must be greased and every ring kissed as our government is essentially academic faculty with nukes and other nice toys and toy soldiers to play with but the academic faculty palm greasing [see Peer Review for another example with less money] is the essential dynamic. The answer to what would happen if wise academics ruled the world [or at least the American Empire] has been answered, the results lie before us all.

    You can take the faculty out of academia but can't take the academic out of the faculty.

Leave a Reply