By Rex Harrison

Editorial Note: From February to April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Rex Harrison discusses the challenge of attrition during high-intensity conflicts and its implications for fifth-generation air forces.

Technology has continued to advance in both disruptive and surprising ways. It is consequently difficult to forecast the exact way fifth-generation air power will be applied in 2035, nor the precise character of future high-intensity conflict. With the benefit of hindsight, however, history proposes broad themes and continuities in the nature of war. One such example is the persistence of attrition of the force once committed to battle.

While Western air forces have been able to somewhat control their level of exposure to adversary action since the 1991 Gulf war, this may not always be the case. This level of control has been achieved through conducting operations beyond the engagement range of adversaries and behind a shield of (generally unchallenged) air defences. This technique has enabled air power to inflict significant losses without absorbing such losses themselves.

This happy circumstance has been the exception rather than the rule in human history. This is particularly the case when considering the history of air power, where few combatants have had the luxury of picking and choosing the intensity and duration of the conflict. No matter how successful fifth-generation air power is in enhancing its lethality and minimising risk to the force, it is doubtful that a combat exchange in high-intensity combat will result in a ‘0’ in the ledger of either side.

This being the case, I believe that success in high-intensity conflict will require a fifth-generation air force to ensure it can absorb and recover from the attrition of its forces. While it will be difficult to predict the outcomes of future air combat or the mix of technology and tactics that will provide the necessary advantage, history does provide a guide that may better inform our preparations for the future.

Historical Examples

An Israeli pilot, Shimshon Rozen, climbing into a McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II during the Yom Kippur War, c. 1973. (Source: Wikimedia)

The significant impact of attrition is demonstrated by the experiences of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) in the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. In this example, Israel was surprised by the new-found technical prowess of the Arab armies led by Egypt and Syria. The IAF was required to expend a sizable portion of its fighting strength to provide time for mobilisation. Surprised by the technical mastery of their opponents, in a matter of days, 102 aircraft were lost (roughly 25% of available combat aircraft), along with 53 aircrew. The crisis was only resolved by the rapid shipment of replacement aircraft from the US inventory under Operation Nickel Grass.

While certainly an example of high-intensity conflict, the requirement for Australia to fight for its existence as Israel did is unlikely or would be, at the very least, preceded by warnings such that the nation could be mobilised and prepared for such a conflict. It is partially through Australia’s preferred method of warfare, the controlled commitment of forces in expeditionary wars, that such attrition has been avoided.

A more pertinent example for Australian forces is the experience of No. 77 Squadron during the Korean War (a perhaps timely example given ongoing tensions on the Peninsula). The deployment of a single fighter squadron in June 1950 would seem at face value to match the characteristics of more recent Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) commitments; the level of attrition, however, was not comparable. Over a three-year commitment, 41 pilots died, and six were captured. At the peak of fighting the squadron replaced 25% the pilot force over an eighteen-month period. Finding the Second World War era North American P-51 Mustang to be outmatched after losing 13 aircraft, No. 77 Squadron was re-equipped in May 1951 with the Gloster Meteor. Of the 94 Meteors acquired by Australia, 30 were subsequently lost to enemy action, delivering a significant portion of the 54-aircraft lost in total over Korea and Japan.[1] The consequence of this action was that No. 77 Squadron, in effect, replaced all of its aircraft at least once, and in a handful of years, expending the bulk of the entire RAAF fleet.

Squadron Leader Ross Glassop and Flight Lieutenant Sainer Rees, pilots, serving with No. 77 Squadron RAAF chat with the crew of No. 36 Squadron RAAF which had flown from Japan with supplies of rockets and aircraft spares. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

One should hope that future deployments would avoid committing forces in obsolete aircraft. However, it should be noted that the Australian government maintained the force commitment in Korea despite these and other subsequent losses.

What Does This Mean?

In preparing for future conflict, any fifth-generation air force must ensure access to both the physical (hardware) and human resources required to replace those lost.

The procurement of aircraft and their associated supporting hardware may be the most straightforward requirement to meet, assuming access to global markets. While contemporary production rates are much lower than those of the Second World War, they are still significant for those aircraft in full production. While the Israeli losses in 1973 were substantial, production of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, the mainstay multi-role aircraft of the period, averaged 19 aircraft per month, over the life of production.  Israel’s losses of this aircraft type (32 of the 102 total), while critical to the IAF, were only the equivalent of less than two months production out of the Fort Worth factory.

The replacement of human resources, specifically aircrew, will be determined by a combination of the resources allocated to training (rather than fighting), and the desired quality of the resulting product. Given our resource-constrained environment, it may well be that ‘great’ is the enemy of ‘good enough’. In this context, a fifth-generation air force will need to accept that its workforce may not have not quite mastered the full spectrum of fifth-generation fighting techniques; however, it will need to employ them regardless.

A fifth-generation air force will also need to incorporate these replacements within the chosen operational approach. Concerning hardware, it will be rare that the exact aircraft lost from the inventory will be in production. With platforms potentially being fielded for decades, it is to be expected that subsequent variants will be produced, or entirely new platforms created in the decades following acquisitions. As such, while a replacement platform may be found, the capabilities are unlikely to be identical to that it replaces.

More critically to the networked fifth-generation force, it is unlikely that replacement assets will be fitted with the exquisitely detailed set of combat data and information exchange systems specified as part of the fifth-generation force structure. This will particularly be the case if the preferred supplier of our platforms is otherwise occupied. Returning to the example of No. 77 Squadron, when the Mustang was determined to be unsuitable for the Korean conflict, the RAAF initially sought the North American F-86 Sabre from the United States, however, as production was already committed to US customers, the British Meteor was chosen instead. While this aircraft was first flown in 1944 and was far from the cutting edge of technology, the war marched on, and Australia could not wait until it was ready to fight on its terms.[2]


While the aim of the technologically and professionally-advanced fifth-generation force is admirable, planning and foresight cannot overcome the uncertain nature of war, precisely the inevitability of loss. At its heart, a fifth-generation force requires flexibility to adapt to any environment. In this context, the squadron must become less of an exquisite implementation tool, and more a delivery mechanism through which aircraft and aircrew are ground against the enemy at the point of friction. In such a situation, ‘good enough’ may quickly become the new normal.

Rex Harrison is an Air Combat Officer in Royal Australian Air Force officer. He can be found on Twitter at @spacecadetrex. The views expressed are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.

Header Image: An Israeli Air Force F-4E Phantom II at Tel Nof, c. 2013. This type of aircraft was used by the IAF during the Yom Kippur War. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Alan Stephens, Going Solo: The Royal Australian Air Force, 1946-1971 (Canberra: AGPS Press, 1995), p. 241.

[2] Ibid, p. 240.

2 thoughts on “Attrition in Fifth-Generation Air Forces during #highintensitywar

  1. Good article. I think that this is one of the areas that regional air forces struggle with and most larger nations’ just overlook. The days of “We’ll take some 19-year-old kids, slap them in training for 90 days, and send them off to war…” are long past, yet it seems like there’s no solid plan for developing resiliency in the total force. Especially when one considers the threat of a modern IADS during ingress/egress and precision TBMs back at home station. Not saying it’d be Torpedo 8 for the jet age, but there is definitely a case where bad things can happen.

    Were the issues with the Meteors due to their unsuitability versus MiGs? It seems to be implied with the F-86 comment. I’d like to know more information on what caused the losses, as the USAF postwar studies indicated all jets had a significant higher survivability rate than piston engine fighters. Therefore, it follows that the RAAF’s losses should have dropped off somewhat. I’ve never read anywhere that the Meteor was more susceptible to ground fire than, say, F-80s or F-84s, so I’m curious as to the background.


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