Slife: Air Superiority, Base Defense Must Adapt to Modern War

Small one-way attack drones widely used on the frontlines of Ukraine and against U.S. outposts in the Middle East have fundamentally altered the definition of air superiority, Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. James C. “Jim” Slife said April 24.

“Our traditional conception of what things like air superiority means have changed,” Slife said at a panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“One thing that you can look at in Ukraine is the return of firepower—the reason that it has become so bloody is because of the lack of ability to maneuver,” he said. “One component of that is the inability of both sides to achieve air superiority in the face of a proliferated air threat and formidable air defenses. I think there’s some lessons that we can be learning.”

Slife cited the defense of Israel against Iranian drone attacks earlier this month as an example of an effective layered air defense, where the U.S. and its partners intercepted missiles and drones launched from Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. On April 13, U.S. Air Force F-15E and F-16 fighters shot down more than 70 drones during the attack, which involved over 100 ballistic missiles, 30 land-attack cruise missiles, and 150 drones. U.S. and Israeli officials claimed to intercept “99 percent” of the drones and missiles, with Israel taking out the majority of the threats, in part by intercepting ballistic missiles in space.

“Our coalition forces had a pretty successful weekend a couple of weekends ago against a really concerted Iranian attack on Israel,” said Slife. “Some of what was shot down was shot down with bullets. It was 20-millimeter shells coming out of the front end of a fighter. That’s a pretty favorable cost exchange right there.”

However, Slife cautioned against relying on individual platforms. U.S. fighters were already staged and ready for the attack, and Israel has an extensive network of detection methods and interceptors.

Slife noted that historically, each service focused on the set of requirements for each platform. In the case of the Air Force, that would entail things such as an aircraft’s speed or a missile’s range.

“We’re really, really good at it,” said Slife. But the U.S. must shift from a platform-centric approach to better integration among different systems to respond to a myriad of threats.

“There’s a shift underway to system-level integration where the sensor is in a different place than the shooter, [which] is in a different place from the electromagnetic spectrum effects that we’re going to generate,” said Slife. “All of these things have to be integrated at a system-level and it becomes a much less service by service, platform by platform approach to how we’re going to fight.”

This is crucial for future warfare, Slife said. In recent years, tensions in the Pacific have escalated due to China’s stance on unifying Taiwan with Beijing, which also protests American and allied operations in the South China Sea.

For regional defense, such as protecting Guam, Slife said the U.S. military’s ability to fight as one force, rather than as individual branches, is an advantage over its adversaries. He said the Army and the Air Force are working particularly closely on how to defend air bases from air attack.

“We’re not trying to build the best services on the planet, we’re trying to build the best joint force on the planet because we don’t fight as services we fight as a joint force,” he said.