Chapter 2: Control of the Air (B-GA-403-000/FP-001, Canadian Forces Aerospace Shape Doctrine)



The only real security upon which sound military principles will rely is that you should be master of your own air.[1]

– Sir Winston Churchill

If we lose the war in the air, we lose the war, and we lose it quickly.[2]

– Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery

Gaining and maintaining control of the air[3] is an essential capability for successful military operations. Having control of the air safeguards sovereignty in peacetime, controls access in times of tension, and provides safety from air attack in war. Control of the air shapes the operational area by providing friendly forces with the freedom to conduct operations at the time and place of their choosing without prohibitive interference from an adversary. It may be thought of as the level of influence over the aerospace domain that friendly forces exert relative to the aerospace capabilities of the adversary. Achieving control of the air is a vital joint task force commander (JTFC) objective.

Establishing control of the air depends upon many factors, including the operational situation, resources available, and the capabilities of the adversary. Against an adversary with little counter-air capability, total control of the air may be established rapidly and maintained at little cost (during a counter-insurgency operation, for example). Against an adversary possessing robust offensive and defensive aerospace capabilities, gaining control of the air may only be possible for a short period of time or in a discrete area of the battlespace. In such cases, the effort required to gain control of the air must be balanced against the risks created by insufficient control. The JTFC must determine the necessary degree of control of the air required to achieve mission success, articulate control-of-the-air objectives, and then apportion sufficient resources to the task.

Determining the necessary level or degree of control of the air that can be reasonably achieved depends on understanding the threat, friendly offensive and defensive capabilities, battlespace, time available, and the strategic intent. Regardless of this understanding, the JTFC’s control-of-the-air objectives must be accurately identified, clearly articulated, and appropriately resourced.

Assuring access to space and preserving unhampered exploitation of space capabilities are essential to contemporary military operations and are an integral part of the control-of-the-air campaign. This necessitates operations to guard space assets and associated critical surface infrastructure. Operations to prevent an adversary’s use of space capabilities through denial, deception, disruption, degradation, or destructive measures may also be required.

This chapter provides a general overview of the control of the air aerospace capability and its associated roles and missions. As seen in Figure 2-1[4], the control-of-the-air capability is divided into two roles: offensive counter-air and defensive counter-air.

This figure illustrates the roles and missions of the control-of-the-air capability. The control of the air capability is divided into two roles: offensive counter air; and defensive counter air. Each role conducts missions. The two offensive counter air missions are: air-to-surface (surface attack / suppression of enemy air defences); and air-to-air (escort/sweep). The three defensive counter air missions are: area defence (air intercept / aerospace warning and control); point defence (combat air patrol); and high value airborne asset protection.End of figure 2-1.

Figure 2 1. The aerospace control of the air capability


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Counter-air operations are fundamental to achieving control of the air. They shape the physical battlespace in the vertical dimension in order to permit friendly freedom of action and deny an adversary the same. Achieving control of the air demands that the friendly counter-air capability is commensurate with the threat and has sufficient mass and resource depth. Counter-air targets include the breadth of adversarial aerospace capabilities including:

  1. aircraft and missiles;
  2. specialized aerospace infrastructure such as airfields, sensors, command and control (C2) nodes, and systems;
  3. stockpiles of fuel, munitions, special lubricants, and gasses;
  4. aircraft parts; and
  5. personnel possessing specific skill sets.

Counter-air operations are focused on reducing or destroying an adversary’s aerospace capabilities, preferably as close to the source as possible and, ideally, before they can be launched or affect friendly operations. Effective counter-air operations require:

  1. a means to survey and monitor airspace, which consists of:
    1. ground, space, or airborne active and passive sensors to detect, identify, and monitor the atmospheric and orbital battlespace; and 
    2. a combat identification capability, to include determining point of origin, alignment (friendly, enemy, neutral), type, and intent. This is particularly important in contested airspace where civil air activities are occurring;
  2. a means to exercise C2; and
  3. a force application capability commensurate with the anticipated threat, consisting of aircraft supported by space-based capabilities and capable of applying decisive, precision force against ground, airborne, and atmospheric threats.

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Vignette 2: The Two-Hour War. Southern Lebanon had been used by para-military groups, terrorists, and Lebanese ground forces as a training haven and forward base to conduct attacks against Israeli civilians throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian ground forces were building in southern Lebanon through 1981, and small-scale attacks on Israel were commonplace.

Syria was well aware of the danger posed by Israeli air power and took steps to secure the gateway to the airspace of southern Lebanon, that above the Bekaa Valley. They had positioned 19 modern Soviet-built, radar-guided surface-to-air missiles (SAMs); numerous radars; anti-aircraft artillery (AAA); and communication facilities in the valley and conducted regular combat air patrols in the area. Their intent was to deter Israel from responding to the aggression and provide safety from Israeli air power.

The Israeli Air Force (IAF) had gathered a great deal of intelligence in or near the valley. The Syrian order of battle, tactics, doctrine, operational methodology, and use of the electronic spectrum were all very well known. Additionally, the IAF had developed a training area in the Negev desert, which was nearly identical to the Bekaa Valley, and trained there frequently. By June of 1982, diplomatic efforts to ease the mounting tensions had stalled; with attacks occurring almost daily and civilian casualties mounting, inaction was no longer an option.

Operation PEACE FOR GALILEE was launched in the summer of 1982. Operation DRUGSTORE, the offensive counter-air campaign, commenced on 9 June; the aim was air supremacy over southern Lebanon. Helicopters, artillery, fighters, electronic warfare (EW) and C2 aircraft, commandos, and UAs were dedicated to the task in a well-coordinated strike against Syrian surface and air threats in the valley.

The first strikes occurred at 1410 local time; 17 of the 19 SAM installations, most AAA, all of the sensors, and some C2 facilities were destroyed. The Syrians responded by sending fighters to regain the airspace, but 29 were shot down without a single loss to the IAF. Two hours after it had begun, the IAF had achieved control of the airspace over the Bekaa Valley. Over the next two days, further sorties were carried out to consolidate this success. Both remaining radar-guided SAMs were destroyed, along with all remaining C2 facilities and sensors. Fifty-three additional Syrian fighters were shot down.

Over two days, IAF losses were less than 10 aircraft of all types. Syria lost 82 fighters (over 30 per cent of its air force) and its entire surface-based anti-air capability in Lebanon, a loss from which it has never recovered. Without the counter-air protection, Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian ground forces were thereafter savaged by Israeli air power and eventually routed completely. Lebanese-based attacks posed no serious threat to Israeli civilians for the next 18 years.[5]

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Counter-air operations may be categorized as either offensive counter-air (OCA) or defensive counter-air (DCA) missions; competency in both disciplines is essential for effective control of the air. OCA and DCA differ in where and when the counter-air missions occur:

  1. OCA missions are conducted in hostile or contested territory and at the initiative of friendly forces. OCA operations prosecute both air and surface targets; are heavily intelligence reliant; and employ air-to-air, air-to-surface, and surface-to-surface fires and capabilities.
  2. DCA missions are conducted in neutral or friendly territory and are generally reactive to an adversary’s capabilities, operations, or intent. DCA targets are exclusively airborne; DCA operations may be active or passive, are heavily reliant upon surveillance and warning, and employ air-to-air as well as surface-to-air fires and capabilities.

OCA and DCA missions must be coordinated and integrated at all levels; they draw upon resources across the joint force and include the use of aircraft, surface-to-surface and surface-to-air fires, as well as information operations. OCA and DCA operations are conducted across the entire battlespace and range from seeking out and destroying the adversary’s ability to conduct air and missile attacks to simply minimizing the effectiveness of these attacks while maximizing attrition. The overall situation and friendly campaign plan determine when, where, and how these operations are used to gain and maintain the desired degree of control of the air.

The flexibility of modern aerospace power is such that aerospace platforms may swing from OCA to DCA missions and back with little or no advanced planning. Though OCA and DCA are distinct and separate, they utilize similar assets and personnel; synchronization of these operations from the earliest stages is vital.

The requirements for OCA and DCA operations will vary as a military campaign progresses. During the initial stages, OCA and DCA apportionment will be balanced in accordance with the threat and an adversary’s capabilities. As intelligence and understanding of the adversary’s aerospace order of battle grows, a comprehensive OCA campaign can be planned and executed. A successful OCA campaign will, over time, lessen the required DCA weight of effort.

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In a domestic setting, control of the air is considered the capability to monitor and influence the security of friendly airspace and its approaches, activities that primarily fall under the DCA role. Domestic control-of-the-air / air sovereignty operations are "all military measures conducted across the spectrum of conflict to control sovereign airspace. Such an operation does not need to have aircraft airborne. The airspace is being controlled, not protected."[6] Control of Canadian domestic airspace is the responsibility of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). Creation of the mutually beneficial North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD—a bilateral agreement between the United States and Canada) has significantly increased the overall effectiveness of North American air defence. These efforts are closely coordinated with both countries’ civilian aviation controlling and regulatory agencies. Domestic control-of-the-air operations are the area defence missions of aerospace warning and aerospace control. While these are presented here in the domestic context, both aerospace warning and aerospace control can also be conducted in an expeditionary setting:

  1. Aerospace warning is "a warning based on the detection, assessment and validation of an impending or actual intrusion into an airspace of interest by aircraft, missiles or spacecraft."[7] This includes capabilities for maintaining awareness of all civil and unknown activity within the designated airspace. This mission is primarily carried out by a robust ground- and space-based system of sensors and communication links, supported in specific circumstances by airborne assets.
  2. Aerospace control is "the implementation and coordination of the procedures governing airspace planning and organization in order to minimize risk and allow for the efficient and flexible use of airspace."[8] Aerospace control is underpinned by the aerospace warning mission and includes the capability and authority to monitor, control, and prosecute all unauthorized activity approaching and operating within the designated airspace. The aerospace control mission involves a number of related air operations and a range of aerospace capabilities (ground-based, space-based, and airborne). Aerospace operations can be:
    1. Air surveillance operations, which are "conducted to monitor designated airspace by detecting and tracking operations or intrusions";[9]
    2. Air enforcement operations, which are conducted in a permissive environment to support law enforcement operations and exert control over designated airspace; and
    3. Air defence operations, which are "conducted to nullify or reduce the effectiveness of hostile air action through active measures."[10]

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In an expeditionary context, and principally in the context of hostilities, the friendly aerospace power available determines the degree of control of the air that can reasonably be achieved. The degree of control of the air achieved is categorized as unfavourable, parity, air superiority, or air supremacy.[11] These terms, used to clarify the overall situation and can be used as goalposts when the JTFC establishes the objectives of the air campaign, are:

  1. Unfavourable. The condition of the air battle where friendly aerospace capability is unable to gain or maintain control of the air in the face of the adversary’s aerospace capability.
  2. Parity. "In air battle, a condition of the air battle in which one force does not have an advantage over other forces."[12]
  3. Air superiority. That degree of dominance of one air force over another which permits the conduct of operations by the former and its related land and sea forces at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by the opposing air force.[13]
  4. Air supremacy. "That degree of air superiority wherein the opposing air force is incapable of effective interference."[14] 

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Vignette 3: Control of the air. Prior to hostilities in Operation DESERT STORM (1991), Iraq had the fourth-largest standing army in the world; a sophisticated, integrated air-defence system; and a large and capable air force. Freedom of action for friendly aerospace and surface operations was a vital condition for military success. The control of the air objective for Operation DESERT STORM, therefore, was to establish air superiority over the battlefield, and this was a precursor for surface operations.

The coalition control-of-the-air campaign began on January 17, 1991, and was largely concluded by February 23. During this time, more than 100,000 coalition offensive and defensive counter-air sorties were carried out. This campaign was utterly successful and resulted in the total destruction of the Iraqi air force, the integrated air defence system, and the Iraqi command and control network. Total air supremacy had been achieved.

The ground invasion of Kuwait and Iraq began with the ground war that lasted only 100 hours. Coalition ground, maritime, and air operations were unopposed by Iraqi air power for the entire campaign, and the Iraqi command was unable to relay any timely information to the field units.

The results of the conflict were the decimation of the Iraqi military and a convincing coalition victory based significantly on the initial success of the control-of-the-air campaign.[15]

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Find the enemy and shoot him down! Anything else is nonsense.[16]

– Manfred von Richtofen, April 1917

OCA operations support the control-of-the-air objectives by preventing the launch or employment of adversarial aerospace capabilities. The aim of OCA is to disrupt, neutralize, or destroy those aerospace capabilities as close to their source as possible, ideally before they are launched or can affect friendly operations. OCA operations range throughout neutral and contested battlespaces, are executed at the initiative of friendly forces, and are categorized as either OCA air-to-surface (A/S) or OCA air-to-air (A/A).

Effective OCA requires a comprehensive understanding of an adversary’s aerospace doctrine and a detailed assessment of their aerospace capability. Additionally, OCA missions depend upon timely and accurate intelligence. This is particularly true where unanticipated, mobile, or time-sensitive targets are concerned.

Detailed and thorough planning is vital to an effective OCA campaign; adherence to key principles of war is also critical, specifically selection and maintenance of the aim, concentration of force, and economy of effort. These planning steps include:

  1. Set objectives. OCA objectives must relate directly to the commander’s stated control-of-the-air objectives and higher commander’s intent.
  2. Determine targets. OCA targets must encompass all adversarial aerospace capabilities that could adversely affect friendly control of the air.
  3. Allocate resources. OCA targets must be within the realistic reach of friendly capabilities, and missions must be appropriately resourced and prioritized.

The success of OCA operations depends on the availability and the capabilities of the systems assigned to the OCA mission. The choice of a particular system depends on target characteristics, threats, environmental conditions, intelligence, and the potential for fratricide and collateral damage. OCA joint resources include but are not limited to:

  1. fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft;
  2. specially equipped suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) platforms;
  3. UA;
  4. ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and other surface fires such as artillery;
  5. special operations forces, including direct action, terminal guidance (for precision weapons), special reconnaissance, and target marking;
  6. EW capabilities; and
  7. satellites for surveillance, reconnaissance, navigation, and communication. 

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Vignette 4: OCA failure equals campaign failure. Following the defeat of the Allied armies in mainland Europe during the Second World War, the Germans contemplated an amphibious invasion of England (Operation SEA LION). Air superiority was required if this invasion was to be successful. Operation ADLERANGRIFF (eagle attack) was launched in July 1940; this was a Luftwaffe OCA campaign, the aim of which was the destruction of the Royal Air Force’s (RAF’s) fighter capability and subsequent control of the air.

By early September, conditions were desperate for the RAF; Fighter Command’s back was to the wall, as 11 Group’s personnel, airfields, and radar sites were being decimated by Luftwaffe bombers, and their pilots and fighters by Luftwaffe escort fighters. 11 Group was within mere days of being withdrawn north to consolidate resources with 12 Group; this would have left the Luftwaffe largely unopposed in the airspace above the English Channel and southern England, giving them local air superiority and paving the way for invasion by sea.

In mid-September (arguably in response to the British bombardment of Berlin), the Germans shifted priority from aerospace capability targets to British civilian, industrial, and political targets. This shift away from aerospace infrastructure staved off certain disaster for 11 Group. Fighter Command rapidly regained its strength during this respite and successfully fought off the Luftwaffe raids for the remainder of September.

With the initiative lost and the level of attrition untenable, German air superiority was no longer a realistic goal. Operation SEA LION was postponed indefinitely by Hitler in October of 1940, ending the period known as the "Battle of Britain" and marking a pivotal turning point in the Second World War in Europe.[17]

As stated by historian Richard J. Evans: "Irrespective of whether Hitler was really set on this course, he simply lacked the resources to establish the air superiority that was the sine qua non of a successful crossing of the English Channel." [18]

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Air-to-surface. While it is perhaps difficult to envision that an offensive counter-air campaign includes striking surface targets, OCA A/S missions, which destroy an adversary’s aerospace capability on the ground, are actually the most effective use of available OCA resources. This is a far more efficient use of the limited aerospace Shape capabilities than engaging an adversary’s air power after it is airborne. Surface attack and SEAD are the two OCA A/S missions.

OCA surface-attack operations differ from traditional counter-surface operations in that they are directed exclusively at an adversary’s aerospace capability on the surface; this includes aircraft on the ground as well as specialized aerospace infrastructure (including personnel). The aim is to prevent an adversary from employing their aerospace power. By destroying key infrastructure, particularly airfields, significant degradation of an adversary’s aerospace capability may be realized. This infrastructure can be targeted by weaponry and fires of all types; even a minor amount of damage can have a significant impact on an adversary’s ability to generate, control, and sustain aerospace operations.

As aerospace power is vital to military success, it is expected that adversarial aerospace surface infrastructure will be heavily defended. A surface-attack operation against such targets is one of the most demanding, high-risk, and resource-intensive objectives of the OCA campaign. These operations, therefore, demand a high percentage of friendly resources and require detailed operational- and tactical-level planning. OCA planners must utilize the full range of OCA missions and their associated tasks to ensure friendly success. In addition, special operations forces and joint fires (artillery, cruise missiles, naval bombardment, etc.) must be integrated, and coordinated, where applicable.

Outright destruction of an airfield may not be possible or practical. Purposely leaving an airfield partially intact may also be desirable to allow for future operations by friendly forces or for humanitarian or civil reasons. Airfield attack objectives must, therefore, be synchronized with strategic and operational aims during planning and execution. Total destruction of an airfield is rarely necessary to achieve the desired level of degradation; simply cratering a runway or disabling other critical infrastructure may render an aerodrome unusable for the required period of time.

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SEAD operations are missions targeting an adversary’s surface-based air defence weapons, surveillance, and C2 capabilities. SEAD is "that activity which neutralizes, degrades, or destroys an adversary’s air defences by a destructive and/or disruptive means."[19] These include conventional weapons (such as bombs and cannons), specialized weapons (such as anti-radiation missiles [ARM]), and electronic attacks (using chaff, jamming, and/or deception).

Effective SEAD operations against sophisticated surface-to-air threats or integrated air defence systems (IADS) require highly specialized equipment, weapons, and specially trained crews.[20] In areas where a significant surface-to-air threat exists, SEAD assets will be assigned as escorts to those platforms with little or no capability to defend themselves from surface-to-air threats. Such SEAD escort missions allow the opportunistic suppression of threats, as known threats would have been previously targeted or avoided. Specialized SEAD platforms include the ECR Tornado, F-16 CJ, and EA-18G Growler.

SEAD requirements vary widely according to the level and complexity of the threat and available resources to counter it. Against a more dispersed or less sophisticated threat, SEAD missions may be conducted by a wide variety of platforms, including armed helicopters and UA. Surface component commanders may also contribute fire support elements using field artillery, mortars, naval surface fire, EW, and surface-to-surface missiles (SSM). To ensure unity of effort and avoid interference, close coordination is required between the planning staffs of surface component commanders and the joint force air component commander (JFACC).[21] SEAD operations require high-fidelity intelligence, real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) cueing, detailed planning and integration, a rapid and free exchange of precise targeting information, unity of effort, and close coordination. EA operations[22] must also be thoroughly deconflicted from friendly usage of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Destroying an adversary’s entire air defence capability may not be necessary (or even realistically achievable). Simply creating a temporary gap or degradation in coverage and capability may be sufficient to enable the success of other missions. SEAD operations may be broadly categorized are defined as:

  1. Area suppression. Disables an adversarial air defence system over a wide area of the battlespace. Area suppression is achieved through kinetic and non-kinetic (electronic) means and is generally achieved by destroying critical command and control nodes rather than specific threats. Area suppression is desirable but is very resource intensive.
  2. Localized suppression. Focuses on a specific portion of the battlespace and may be defined in terms of physical proximity of threats; impact on adversarial detection abilities; or the destruction of a specific, high-priority threat. Localized suppression is less resource intensive in the short term than area suppression but commits friendly forces to maintaining a SEAD capability throughout a campaign.
  3. Opportune suppression. SEAD assets target pop-up surface-to-air threats (often mobile threats) and may be conducted either as self or strike-package protection or as a result of "hunting" for threats. 

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Vignette 5: A tale of two SEAD campaigns. The DESERT STORM SEAD campaign was a resounding success, easily one of the clear successes of the war. In 1991, the City of Baghdad had the most dense air defence coverage of any city in the world except Moscow, and throughout the country, highly interlinked and integrated air defence weapons, facilities, C2 nodes, and sensors made up the world’s second-most comprehensive IADS.

By the commencement of hostilities, the IADS had been well mapped and SEAD missions were the first sorties flown. Radar jammers, ARM, and conventional bombs were used to devastating effect on key IADS components, preventing centralized control of the defensive effort. Devoid of integration and fearful of being targeted by anti-radiation weaponry, air defence operators resorted to using visual sensors and operating independently (which was not doctrinally practiced); all air defence sites were eventually destroyed.

The DESERT STORM SEAD campaign planners were targeting a very well-mapped IADS operating within a well-understood doctrinal framework. The campaign was given a high resource priority, a great deal of operational flexibility, and tactical freedom at the crew level. Four days after the conflict began, Iraqi air defence emissions had decreased 95 per cent from pre-war levels, and coalition aircraft enjoyed near complete freedom of action above 10,000 feet (3,050 metres). Total area suppression had been handily achieved.

By contrast, the Serbian air defence system in the Balkans was much smaller than the Iraq IADS and had only a limited number and type of threats. The SEAD campaign during Operation ALLIED FORCE (Kosovo), however, was not nearly as successful as that during DESERT STORM.

The ALLIED FORCE SEAD campaign had to contend with numerous constraints, tactical limitations, and a highly mobile threat which was not well defined prior to hostilities. Significant operational restrictions were imposed (mainly for political reasons), and the confined airspace made SEAD efforts very predictable. Restrictions on the use of force with respect to opportune suppression were strict, and each target had to be approved by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) combined aerospace operations centre (CAOC) prior to engagement, effectively negating opportune suppression possibilities entirely. Early warning of inbound strikes was also being provided to an adversary by states not engaged in the hostilities (therefore, not targetable).

For their part, the Serbs had learned a great deal from the ARM threat. Through a combination of low-technology tactics, swift learning, and astute improvisation, they rapidly operationalized their lessons learned, significantly reducing the effectiveness of coalition SEAD tactics and ARMs. The situation was further complicated because an adversary’s IADS operations were not doctrinally aligned with recognized methodology, and a great deal of tactical freedom was given to lower-level commanders.

While NATO aerospace forces enjoyed relative freedom of manoeuvre, area suppression was by no means achieved, and NATO was forced to commit SEAD assets to each strike mission. The Serbian radar-guided SAM threat remained a real and viable threat throughout the campaign and after cessation of hostilities.[23]

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Air-to-air. OCA air-to-air includes escort and sweep missions. If it is not possible to destroy the capability on the ground, adversarial aerospace capabilities have to be dealt with in the air. This reality demands a robust ability to counter any real, perceived, or potential airborne threat. Traditionally, these missions have been flown solely by fighter aircraft. More recently, however, other platforms, including armed helicopters and UA, have also been equipped with significant OCA A/A capabilities.

OCA escort and sweep and DCA missions are often executed by the same assets. Though the missions are mutually supporting, competing priorities and resource demands must be carefully balanced with consideration of the larger aim in mind. Additionally, there is often pressure for close escort missions to take precedence over sweep or detached escort missions. Over-apportionment of OCA assets to the close escort mission may decrease the chances of successfully engaging an adversary’s aircraft, thereby increasing and prolonging the risk they represent.

OCA escort missions use A/A capable aircraft to protect friendly aircraft. Escort can be considered a DCA mission when flown in friendly airspace or where the escorted aircraft is a high-value air asset (HVAA). In the context of offensive action in hostile airspace, the escort mission is clearly OCA.

Escort formations may be tied to a single aerospace asset or strike formation from friendly or neutral airspace into contested airspace and back, or the escort may join the escorted force at any point during the mission. The escort force may also be positioned within hostile airspace and provide protection for successive waves of friendly formations. Platforms requiring dedicated escort could include fighters or fighter-bombers, air mobility aircraft, or helicopters. While many different force application platforms can be assigned the escort mission, the escort force must be capable of countering the expected air threat in both mass and capability. OCA escort[24] may be:

  1. Attached (or close) escort. The escort formation is tied, in terms of proximity and/or time to the escorted formation or platform. Detailed tactical-level integration is necessary both between the escort and the escorted force and with the controlling air C2 organization. Attached escort is less resource intensive from an enabler (air-to-air refuelling (AAR), air C2, etc.) standpoint but places much greater demands on OCA resources.
  2. Detached escort. The escort formation is not directly tied to the escorted formation in terms of distance, but it remains within effectual proximity for a specified period of time. Detached escort formations are often staged well along the anticipated threat axis or may be assigned an operating area from which they may provide support to more than one formation. Detached escort requires less-detailed tactical integration and increases the survivability of the assigned OCA assets due to increased tactical freedom.
  3. Organic escort. Many current aerospace platforms have both A/S and A/A force application capabilities (multirole fighters such as the F-15E Strike Eagle and CF18A/B Hornet); armed appropriately, they can protect themselves. A significant drawback of this organic escort capability is the high probability that A/S stores will have to be jettisoned, in the event of an A/A engagement, in order to maximize A/A manoeuvrability. If such an engagement occurs prior to the intended target, the aim of the strike mission will not be achieved. Additionally, most multirole fighters have a limited number of stores stations; therefore, configuring aircraft with both A/A and A/S weaponry limits the numbers of each type of ordnance the aircraft may carry. Multirole platforms capable of organic escort include the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, the F-15E Strike Eagle, the Su-30 MKI Flanker, and the Eurofighter Typhoon.

OCA sweep operations are often more effective than the escort mission in defeating an adversary’s aerospace assets. Aircraft are launched over hostile territory to seek out, engage, and destroy all adversarial fighters, electronic warfare (EW), reconnaissance and collection, C2, AAR, and mobility platforms. The sweep force, though it is usually synchronized with other operations, operates independently of other friendly formations and, if a fighter force, is ordinarily assigned a fighter area of operations/responsibility (FAOR) for a period of time or proceeds along a specified route of flight.

Sweep is a very flexible and dynamic mission. Sweep formations may originate as sweep and then remain in an area to become detached escort for follow-on formations. Effective sweep operations require strong air C2, comprehensive battlespace awareness, a combat identification capability, and clearly defined rules of engagement (ROE). Autonomous sweep operations are possible with aircraft using integral sensors and tactical data-link systems. Sweep operations are less resource intensive than escort and require little planning or coordination at the tactical level; however, comprehensive operational-level planning and strong aerospace control is essential both for mission effectiveness and fratricide avoidance.

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Fighter aircraft are the watchdogs of our sovereignty. They are primarily designed to safeguard our airspace so friendly forces—both military and civilian—can freely use the area thus protected. Not only are fighters the best tool that a military force has at its disposal to accomplish this task, fighters, because of their strong ability to "act," also represent a strong deterrent to any threat that might potentially enter the airspace—domestic or deployed. As no other weapons platform is yet available or mature enough to provide the range of capabilities that fighters provide, Canada will continue to need fighters and their pilots for at least another generation of aircraft.[25]

DCA operations protect friendly forces, equipment, personnel, infrastructure, and vital interests from an adversary’s aerospace power. The aim of DCA operations is to detect, identify, intercept, nullify, and/ or destroy aerospace threats, ideally as far from friendly forces and/or their intended targets as is possible. Pre-emptive, proactive OCA is the preferred method of securing control of the air over reactive, resource-intensive, around-the-clock DCA. However, air forces may be forced into a DCA posture because of political, legal, operational, or resource limitations. Even with an aggressive and successful OCA campaign, the requirement for at least some level of DCA must be anticipated.

By nature, DCA operations are reactive to adversarial OCA, strategic attack, and counter-surface operations. They usually take place in closer proximity to friendly forces than OCA. DCA is primarily surveillance driven, while OCA is intelligence driven. Effective DCA demands a C2 structure and process specific to this mission; DCA C2 processes must be centralized, streamlined, and agile in order to permit timely and appropriate responses to airspace incursions.

DCA is the air combat element of the larger air defence (AD) effort, forming only one part of an integrated air defence system. Given the lethality of modern weaponry, the immediate consequences of unsuccessful DCA can be severe and the effects disproportionate to the actual physical damage inflicted. DCA is a high-risk, no-fail mission which must be resourced appropriately and executed effectively.

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Vignette 6: DCA failure equals strategic failure: The battle of Midway was a Second World War (WWII) naval battle fought in the Pacific theatre in June 1942 between the Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States Navy (USN). Though known as a naval battle, the engagement was fought entirely with air power.

When the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) fleet was located west of Midway Island by USN reconnaissance aircraft, strikes were launched using both Midway-based bombers and carrier-based air power. The carrier-based strike aircraft had to cover a much greater distance, and the two attacks were not synchronized. The land-based strike was tactically ineffective, but it did serve to alert the IJN that they had been located; they subsequently launched their own strikes on Midway Island. The Japanese strike aircraft had just returned to their carriers when the fleet was spotted by the USN carrier-based strike force.

The first to attack were torpedo bomber squadrons VT-8 and VT-6. The torpedo attack aircraft were slow and vulnerable during their attack runs and, without fighter support, both squadrons were obliterated by the superior Japanese fighters. The attack did, however, draw the Japanese DCA combat air patrol (CAP) to low altitude and away from the carriers. VT-3 arrived shortly after the first attack, and the remaining Japanese fighters descended to engage. At that moment, USN dive-bombers, alerted to the Japanese location and linked-up with their escort fighters, closed in at high altitude. The American fighters surprised their Japanese counterparts and attacked with an altitude advantage; the dive-bombers were, therefore, unopposed during their attack.

The coordinated dive-bomber attack began at 1022, striking the carriers Kaga, Soryu, Akagi and Hiryu, their decks laden with the reconstituting strike aircraft. By 1028, only six minutes after locating the enemy, the dive bombers had reduced the IJN carriers to burning wrecks, all of which eventually sank.

Had the Japanese DCA followed a more disciplined game plan or had they been in position to engage the dive bombers, the result may have been different. As it was, the IJN was never able to recover from this strategic loss. This battle is largely viewed as the pivotal engagement between the belligerents in the Pacific war and was critical to the eventual victory over Japan.[26]

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The DCA contribution to the overall air defence mission can be broadly divided into active and passive measures:

  1. Active air defence measures engage, destroy, nullify, or reduce the effectiveness of an adversary’s aerospace power, including air and missile threats. Active air defence may be further separated into air and missile defence. These are complementary but involve vastly different weapon systems as well as tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP). Surface-to-air weaponry and DCA aircraft have individual strengths and limitations and must be arrayed in overlapping, mutually supporting, defensible positions to create a layered defence in depth. Domestically, given the vast and austere nature of the Canadian land mass, the RCAF primarily uses DCA fighters supported by ground- and space-based assets to carry out the air defence of Canada.
  2. Passive air defence measures minimize the effectiveness of hostile air and missile threats. They encompass several categories which span the breadth of force protection, including but not limited to:[27]
    1. detection and warning;
    2. chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defence;
    3. hardening, battle-damage repair and reconstitution;
    4. mobility and dispersal;
    5. redundancy;
    6. EW;
    7. cyber defence;
    8. camouflage; and
    9. countermeasures, decoys, and deception.


Control of the air from a DCA perspective involves a mix of sensor, communication, and force application means, which, when linked, form an IADS. An effective IADS will be commanded and controlled through a unified chain of command centrally reporting to a single authority, ostensibly the area air defence commander (AADC). An IADS must be flexible and robust and have redundant systems, as it will be the first target of adversarial OCA activity. DCA force application platforms, as part of the IADS, are commanded by a single authority. The Shape portion of an IADS is its weapon systems.

The coordination and functioning of an effective IADS is very complex and resource intensive. NORAD is an excellent example of the potential size and complexity involved. Each defensive system and capability has different advantages and limitations in terms of range, reaction time, and flexibility of operation. The disadvantages of one system must be balanced by the advantages of another. Effective air defence requires a mix of capabilities, which can include:

  1. fixed- and rotary-wing aerial interceptors; and
  2. ground-based air defence (GBAD), including:
    1. mobile and fixed, tactical and strategic SAMs;
    2. AAA;
    3. directed-energy weaponry (DEW); and
    4. shipborne AD weapons (SAMs and AAA).

Effective DCA operations require positive control of the affected airspace through an integrated and centralized C2 system. The variety of surveillance, tracking, and weapon systems involved require detailed planning and coordination to allow rapid AD warnings, effective C2, and timely weapons employment. A large air defence area may be divided into sectors for more effective operations. As an example, a maritime task group, aircraft carrier battle group, or amphibious task force within an area of operations (AOO) may require the establishment of a locally coordinated AD area within which the anti-air warfare (AAW) commander or supporting arms coordination centre is responsible for the coordination of AD operations.

Most aerospace force application assets are capable of DCA operations to a limited extent,[28] but to be capable of the full spectrum of DCA operations, the asset must have specialized A/A sensors and weaponry, be manned by highly proficient crews, and be controlled by experienced and well-trained air-defence controllers.

Interceptor aircraft are the most flexible weapon systems available to the AD commander. These aircraft are designed to fly at high altitudes and employ A/A weaponry at long ranges. They rely primarily on area surveillance systems such as long-range radars and airborne C2 but also have integral C2 and sensor systems that allow them to conduct limited autonomous operations. Contemporary DCA interceptors become a node in the broader air-defence network of systems and can contribute passively and actively to the common operating picture. Air interceptors are often capable of both the DCA and OCA A/A role. Purpose built A/A interceptor aircraft include the F-22A Raptor, the MiG 31 Foxhound, and the Mirage 2000 F-5.

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DCA missions vary greatly but may be broadly categorized as area defence, point defence, and HVAA protection. These missions can be staged on ground alert or may be airborne, which is more resource intensive but also more reactive to threats:

  1. Ground alert. Aircrew and aircraft are brought to and maintained in a state of launch readiness tailored to the situation. Alert aircraft will be launched (scrambled) by their controlling agency based on triggers determined by the area air defence commander. Where possible, fighters will remain under the control of air surveillance and control systems. Alert postures vary principally according to the threat but also in accordance with other factors such as aircraft type, crew experience, location, weather and resources; readiness postures can be tailored from minutes to hours.
  2. Airborne alert. Interceptors are airborne and either proceed to a point where a threat is anticipated or are assigned specific patrol tasks. DCA assets may also be ordered airborne to provide gap coverage should another air defence sensor or weapon system become unavailable or inactive. Airborne alert enables the most rapid reaction to adversary intrusion or otherwise unauthorized entry into a designated airspace.

Area defence missions are conducted for the defence of a defined area of operations, theatre, or even continent. Interceptors conducting wide-area air-defence DCA missions are normally staged on ground alert but, as in the case of an established no-fly zone, may also be airborne. In the ground-alert model, DCA aircraft are launched at a predetermined time, cued by intelligence or surveillance, to intercept a known or anticipated threat. In the airborne model, interceptors are assigned to patrol along predetermined routes (notably along or adjacent to political borders) or in a defined FAOR. This may be used to maintain a desired level of control of the air or enforce no-fly restrictions over friendly territory. This mission is akin to OCA sweep; however, it occurs in friendly airspace and is reactive to an adversary’s operations, intent, or capabilities. Air policing interceptors will ordinarily have tight restrictions on their use of force and will generally operate overtly (presence being one of the desired effects).

Point defence missions are undertaken for the protection of a defined area or location (normally a specific installation, facility, or concentration of friendly forces). Point defence DCA missions involve interceptors either on ground alert or established airborne as a CAP in a fixed orbit. Interceptors remain proximal to the protected area in space or time and will not normally be available for other missions. Regardless of specific employment, maintaining a continuous CAP is very resource intensive. When CAP assets are committed to a target, replacements may be required to launch if available. CAPs operate in fixed orbits or along a route when the area or force being defended is large or dispersed. Interceptors operating in fixed orbits fly legs of a determined distance or time, anchored in a tactically relevant location and oriented to the anticipated threat axis. Point defence assets may operate covertly or overtly as determined by the threat.

Point defence is often executed with a combination of GBAD and interceptors using defence in depth and separate missile and fighter engagement zones (FEZ). Highly accurate combat ID, disciplined execution, a dynamic C2 framework, and clearly defined engagement criteria are necessary to both protect the facility and reduce the possibility of fratricide.

HVAA Protection. Airborne interceptors are assigned to protect HVAA assets which are so important that the loss of even one could seriously impact friendly warfighting capabilities or have broader strategic consequences. While any aircraft could be declared an HVAA and assigned DCA protection, typical HVAAs include specialized airframes such as C2, AAR, EW, ISR, and air-mobility assets carrying designated special persons. The interceptors are ordinarily tied to the HVAA for the duration of its mission and remain proximal in space, time, and effectiveness. HVAA protection missions place significant resource demands on enablers as well as interceptors and require detailed tactical and operational planning and coordination. The lines between OCA and DCA blur with respect to the HVAA protection mission; the principal differentiation being where the HVAA protection occurs (in friendly or hostile airspace). The aim, however, remains the same: defend the designated platform against air attack.

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Control of the air is vital to achieving the JTFC’s objectives. The level or degree of control of the air that can be realistically achieved depends on many factors including resources, relative military capabilities, and the physical environment. The JTFC must accurately articulate control of the air objectives and then apportion resources accordingly. The degree of control of the air achieved may be categorized as unfavourable, parity, air superiority, or air supremacy.

Control of the air allows for friendly freedom of movement, friendly freedom to execute operations, and friendly freedom from air attack; it denies an adversary the same. Control of the air shapes the physical, moral, and informational domains in favour of friendly operations.

The control-of-the-air capability is divided into two roles, namely OCA and DCA. The two are complementary and draw upon similar resources and aerospace capabilities. They must be fully integrated and synchronized at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels.

OCA operations are intelligence driven. The aim of OCA is to seek out and destroy an adversary’s aerospace capabilities as close to their source as possible, preferably before launch. OCA has air-to-surface and air-to-air missions and draws upon resources across the joint force. The air-to-surface portion of OCA includes surface attack and suppression of enemy air defence. The air-to-air missions include escort and sweep missions. In cases where an adversary has a credible aerospace capability, the OCA campaign will be the JTFC’s first priority. OCA missions are pre-emptive, conducted at friendly initiative, and take place principally in non-permissive or hostile environments.

DCA operations are surveillance driven and resource intensive. The aim of DCA is to detect, identify, intercept, nullify, and/or destroy adversarial aerospace threats in order to protect friendly equipment, operations, interests, and installations; in other words, to minimize the damage done by an adversary’s aerospace power and maximize attrition. DCA draws upon air, space, and surface-based capabilities. DCA is reactive in nature and demands centralized, streamlined, flexible command and control procedures as well as agile force application means. DCA fixed- or rotary-wing interceptors may operate independently or as part of a larger IADS and may be staged from ground alert or established as airborne patrols. They may be used to defend defined areas (area defence) or specific locations (point defence) or to protect HVAA. DCA is a no-fail mission which must be resourced appropriately.

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##MCECOPY##intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR)


1. Richard M. Langworth, ed., Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations (United Kingdom: Ebury Publishing, 2008), 205.  (return)

2. See Canadian Forums "Fighter aircraft: Characteristics and roles," (accessed August 20, 2013). (return)

3. This chapter is based, to a large extent, on information found in the NATO Allied Joint Publication (AJP) 3.3.1(B), Allied Joint Doctrine for Counter-Air, July 2010. (return)

4. This categorization of the control-of-the-air missions is presented from the doctrinal perspective in order to link concepts logically and generate learning. These missions do not necessarily equate to the aircraft mission management codes as used by 1 Canadian Air Division (1 Cdn Air Div) in the coordination and tracking of Air Force flying activities. See 1 Cdn Air Div Orders, Volume 1, 1-617, "Mission Management Codes," http:// (accessed August 20, 2013). This applies equally to the missions identified under both the air attack and information operations aerospace capabilities. (return)

5. For additional information on this conflict see T. N. Dupuy and P. Martell, Flawed Victory: The Arab-Israeli Conflict and the 1982 War in Lebanon (Fairfax, VA: Hero Books, 1986). (return)

6. Air sovereignty operations, DTB record 44195. (return)

7. DTB record 44191. (return)

8. Aerospace control is synonymous with this DTB record 3422 definition for airspace control. (return)

9. DTB record 44196. (return)

10. DTB record 44192. (return)

11. One should note that the degrees of control of the air do not apply exclusively to friendly forces, and these terms are simply measurements of the level of control within the air battle and not objectives. Control-of-the-air situations could exist where an adversary may, either temporarily or on a continuing basis, have air superiority. The negative impact that this would have on friendly surface operations is clear; ergo, establishing friendly air superiority (at a minimum) should be a fundamental priority. (return)

12. DTB record 44208. (return)

13. DTB record 3364, modified. (return)

14. DTB record 3366. It must be understood that achieving air superiority or air supremacy does not imply that an adversary’s aerospace power and counter-air capability will be completely impotent, nor that friendly land, sea, or air operations will be unopposed by adversarial aerospace power. Rather, these terms describe an adversary’s ability to use their aerospace capabilities to influence or interfere effectively with friendly operations. Friendly air and surface losses to adversarial aerospace capabilities can still be anticipated in conditions of both air superiority and air supremacy. (return)

15. For additional reading, see B. S. Lambeth, The Transformation of American Air Power (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000). (return)

16. See "," (accessed August 20, 2013). (return)

17. See Peter Fleming, Operation Sea Lion (London: Macmillan, 2002). (return)

18. Richard Evans, "Immoral Rearmament," The New York Review of Books 54, no. 20, (December 20, 2007): 76–79. (return)

19. DTB record 5469, modified. (return)

20. While the SEAD mission could include any aircraft engaging a surface threat with conventional weaponry, dedicated SEAD platforms are fitted with sensors purpose-built to detect and identify threat systems and optimized to feed such information to specialized weaponry. One example is the high-speed anti-radiation (anti-radar) missile (HARM) targeting system (HTS) and the AGM-88 HARM fitted to the F-16CJ. SEAD aircraft may develop, perfect, and employ distinct flight profiles that have been designed to reduce threat effectiveness. (return)

21. This position and role are further explained in Chapter 5 of this manual and in B-GA-401-000/FP-001, Canadian Forces Aerospace Command Doctrine. Throughout this document, the terms JFACC, CJFACC, and ACC are used. The intent in each instance is to refer to the senior aerospace authority within the context of the setting (domestic, expeditionary, joint, or combined). (return)

22. Electronic attack operations involve the use of electromagnetic energy for offensive purposes (see DTB record 30833). For further explanation of this term and electronic warfare (EW) in general, refer to B-GA-403-002/FP- 001, Aerospace Electronic Warfare Doctrine. (return)

23. For additional reading, see Lambeth. (return)

24. It should be noted that "escort" or "armed overwatch" of a surface formation (such as a naval surface group or vehicle convoy) is not escort in the OCA context; this is a counter-surface mission and will be expanded upon in Chapter 3. (return)

25. See Canadian Forums "Fighter aircraft: Characteristics and roles." (return)

26. C. L. Symonds, The Battle of Midway (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). (return)

27. Passive air defence measures are expanded upon in B-GA-405-001/FP-001, Aerospace Force Protection. (return)

28. CH124 Sea Kings were used in the DCA role during the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, and CH146 Griffons were used during the 2002 G-8 Summit in Kananaskis, AB, and 2010 G-20 summit in Toronto. CP140 Auroras have also been used for DCA intercepts in the Arctic. While not equipped for traditional air-to-air force application, these aircraft were effective in visually identifying slow-moving or compliant targets of interest (TOIs). In the case of the Griffon examples, in particular, both door guns and snipers provided the ability to engage other aircraft. (return)

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