Research Spotlight: Air Superiority and Battlefield Victory

Is there a democratic war-fighting advantage? A significant body of research finds that democracies are more likely to win wars than non-democracies. A recent study challenges this argument. In their new publication, Dr. Souva and Ph.D. candidate, Richard Saunders, argue that the outcome of major battles and interstate wars is primarily a function of which side attains air superiority. Researchers consulted over eighty sources to create a measure of air superiority for all decisive battles in interstate wars since 1931. This paper found that the side with air superiority almost never loses a major battle. Indeed, air superiority is the best single predictor of the outcome of a major battle. Countries that hold air superiority have lost only 4 decisive battles since the inception of combat aircraft. This is true for both democracies and autocracies. In other words, just as democracies with air superiority almost never lose, autocracies also do not lose if they achieve air superiority. Democracy itself is not the major driver of battle outcomes, air superiority is. Democracies, however, are more likely than autocracies to achieve air superiority. Some autocracies, however, have achieved air superiority over democracies and prevailed. 

A telling example of the importance of air superiority can be seen in the Battle of Moscow during the Second World War.  This battle is famous for marking the turning point in the war on the Eastern front and the end of German hopes for victory in the East. German forces controlled the skies on the Eastern front during the Summer and Fall of 1941 as they advanced into the Soviet Union. This situation changed markedly in the winter of 1941/42. By mid-December mounting losses and record-breaking low temperatures had grounded the Luftwaffe while the better prepared Soviet Air Forces remained active. Describing a failed German offensive, General Veiel bluntly describes the effect of this shift in air superiority: “Throughout the whole day continuous bombing attacks on all parts of the division. Absolute Russian air superiority despite Luftwaffe activity. At the spearheads there were no German fighters observed.” As a result, the Wermacht forces were unable to maneuver without suffering major losses from air attack and surveillance. This made it impossible for German commanders to concentrate their forces for a breakthrough. The day after Veiel’s message was received by high command “Fritz Todt, the minister for armaments and munitions, bluntly informed Hitler: ‘This war can no longer be won by military means.’”

Learn more about this project here.

Richard Saunders is a PhD candidate in Florida State University’s political science department. Richard’s research uses a behavioral perspective to explain how domestic politics affects international relations. In the process, they advance knowledge of revolution, rivalry, and territorial disputes. You can learn more about Richard’s research here.

Dr. Souva is an associate professor of political science at Florida State University. Dr. Souva studies domestic institutions and foreign policy, liberal peace, economic sanctions, international security affairs. You can learn more about Dr. Souva’s research here.

The feature image is from Pexels.

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