In real life warfare, gaining air superiority is very important and often a deciding factor.

However, in Warhammer 40k, most ground combat is in very close range, but still all participants can freely airdrop soldiers, vehicles or other material. Actually, it is a perpetual war and the ground is a big meat-grinder, while reinforcements are constantly brought in by the millions from off-world. Do their dropships just peacefully coexist in the air or in orbit? Maybe it's just a simplification, and there is a war raging in the air, but the players are leading only the ground combat. In this case, how can it be that no one ever achieves air superiority and denies the other parties their dropships/bombardment/whatever coming from above?

I understand that this is for providing a competitive balance for the players, but was this ever addressed in canon?

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    same deal in the Mechwarrior universe. How do you take out a metric s*ton of tanks? Fast moving planes with bomb. How do you do it in every fantasy setting? Other mostly inferior tanks. Commented Jan 4, 2013 at 19:58
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    There is actually a whole separate game dedicated to the space combat. Battlefleet Gothic
    – eidylon
    Commented Jan 4, 2013 at 20:16
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    In an all out battle between two (or more) factions how do you stop the hundreds or thousands of drop pods, transport craft, asteroids, teleports, jump packs, etc that could used to deploy troops from orbit during one ground campaign?
    – Xantec
    Commented Jan 4, 2013 at 20:25
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    Are you asking more about traditional air superiority (which eidylon's answer covers) or orbital superiority? Your question seems to be confusing the two.
    – Xantec
    Commented Jan 4, 2013 at 20:30
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    In Warhammer 40k: Dark Crusade one of the critical locations you could capture was an Advanced Space Port, giving your ships a 'tactical advantage'. All this meant in-game was that you could have your dropships drop your army anywhere on the map, as opposed to leap-frogging from area to area. It also mentioned how the skies were filled with an on-going air assault, but none of the factions had an advantage over the others (stalemate pretty much)
    – Robotnik
    Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 2:49

9 Answers 9


No, air superiority was an afterthought in the Warhammer Universes. In early versions of the game, it was barely considered at all. Does it exist in the more modern versions? To an extent, but it is far less of a functional element than all of the pages spent on the ground combat aspects. The novels make a much greater effort to consider air power than the game ever has.

There is less concentration and emphasis around air superiority in the Warhammer 40K universe than there is in our universe. As a player of Warhammer and Warhammer 40K and a military man since the mid 1980s, I along with my friends have questioned the reason for a lack of air to ground combat weapons.

The reasons for this boil down to this:

  • Air combat if played with the same level of technological effectiveness as it possess in modern warfare would completely render the game and its mechanics unable to be played.

  • In modern warfare it is a truism, he who controls the (high ground) skies, controls the flow of combat. Ground troops are far too vulnerable to air to ground attacks (ATG) and ATG attacks can disrupt even the most well-entrenched troops if the bomber is not concerned about collateral or environmental damage. (See: Bunker Buster)

  • Even with advances in anti-air weaponry, controlling the air still matters more than almost any other tactic in non-nuclear warfare.

How did we get to this point where a game about futuristic warriors resembles combat between Civil War combatants lined up on the battlefield?

  • Warhammer Fantasy, which appeared in 1983 was a game concentrating on ground combat which consisted of mass troop combat, massed unit combat and some limited vehicles which functioned as tank-like substitutes. While there are some flying units (note pegasi-like units on the lower left) flying units were in short supply and did not bring the air-power paradigm common to modern warfare today.

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  • When Warhammer 40K was created in 1987, much of the game's mechanics were transferred to a "new" game with new units (but the overall game play did not change much; a player familiar with WH could play WH40K with an afternoon of training) and as a result, flying units were again just simple units on the battlefield with slightly modified mechanics.

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  • What did not transfer over (or was not included in the design) was the overwhelming superiority air power brings to the current modern battlefield. In addition to the lack of air superiority, armored vehicles, mortars, and artillery were also slighted and made far less potent than they would be on our battlefields.

  • Explanations varied widely, from, the knowledge to build certain types of weapons were unavailable due to the periods of darkness which occurred during the Empire of Man to the effects of such weapons would be limited due to the robustness of the soldiers on the field during their time.

A bolter is the standard issue weapon of the Space Marines. Armed with this weapon which has a round larger than a .50 caliber rifle, they are unable to slay the common Orc with less than three rounds at any range other than point blank. With that said, munitions of our world might prove far less effective against even a small Orc invasion (which would never be less than a million units).

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E.G. Bolter ammunition (a bolt) is primarily a solid .75 calibre slug. Conventional solid slugs utilise a propellant charge contained in a casing that, when ignited, forces the bullet out of the barrel. In contrast, a bolt is self-propelled; it features its own integrated solid propellant that propels the bolt at high speeds, essentially acting like a miniature rocket. The propellant itself is shaped to control the bolt's direction and speed.

  • Considering the nature of the threats, there may be some truth to the statements but as an ex-military person who has seen the devastation wrecked by flying war machines such as bombers and attack helicopters, I might question the validity of such statements. But I have to concede the destructive potential of the weapons of the 40K universe mean aircraft would need to be incredibly tough to survive any sort of retaliation from the ground. (Even our hardened and armored vehicles would be ripped to ribbons in seconds.)

Since Warhammer 40K was first developed the developers have slowly tried to shoehorn in real military tactics, weapons, tools, ideas and the like with varying levels of success.

  • Some things unbalanced gameplay and were removed, others escalated powers and required entire factions to be redesigned from scratch. Though it can be frustrating to see a game being redesigned before your eyes, some of the additions are well worth the effort when they are seen in play.

  • Considering what the game was trying to portray (an age of heroic combat) this may have been a design decision since nothing disrupts massed combat like a cluster bomb dropped from orbit.

  • The other mindset is the battles in the Warhammer and Warhammer 40K events are supposed to be separate moments in space and time where in this particular instant, there is no artillery raining down death, there are no bombers available for YOU to call for fire support. It's just you and the never-ending, slavering legions of Orcs (Tyrannid, Eldar, Necron, etc) between you and your objective.

  • Battles played in the game are a moment where there is no superior technology only superior grit and fortitude which will win the day against an unstoppable enemy. No cluster bomb can give you the opportunity to play out a battle like that one. So for the length of a particular battle, they simply don't exist. I'm okay with it.

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There are most definitely aircraft involved in the 40K universe. For examples of the Imperial Guard ones, see this article, and here are some examples of the Space Marine ones.

They actually were involved in one of the Dawn of War video game expansions. The Soul Storm expansion introduced air-to-ground attacks (albeit in a very limited fashion). They were also added to the Warhammer 40,000 table top game.

So they definitely are in the universe canon.

As for what they do, the descriptions of the various craft will shed light on that. For example, the Lightning's role is described as an "air superiority and reconnaissance fighter". The Thunderbolt is also listed as an air superiority craft.

There is also a heavy bomber, carrying "thousands of kilograms" of ordinance, which should theoretically be able to take out or cripple even a Titan or Baneblade tank.

Many of the craft are equipped with lascannons and autocannons which would make them good for strafing ground targets as well.

So they seem to cover pretty much all the roles you would expect them to. There probably isn't a lot of attention paid them though, because the focus of the franchise is really on the ground troops and combat.

There may be more focus on them in the massive extended universe of novels and stories. I certainly haven't read all or even most of those.

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    While I appreciate the answer, I don't think it really answers the question. I was not asking "are there aircrafts in WH40k?" (it's stated in the question that there are, and are used mostly for transport and a bit rarely - but used - for bombardment) but about gaining air superiority. The question is not whether they exist, but what they do.
    – vsz
    Commented Jan 4, 2013 at 20:13
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    See the updated answer.
    – eidylon
    Commented Jan 4, 2013 at 20:25

There are many mentions of air attacks in the Gaunt´s Ghosts novels:

The Drop in "The Guns of Tanith" from the Airships are one large example.

Double Eagel as a Spinoff is completly about an thunderbold aces squad.

The Drop of the Imps in "Sabbat Martyr" on the occupied City on Herodor.

In "Only in Death" is the first Tanith cut of because of the Air supporiority of the Cultists, or at least because they shoot every flying thing down.

I think the biggest problem with normal planes are they took a lot of space in some Cargo ship to get them arround the Galaxy. Dropships with more Armor and capacity as well as the ability to fly in to space are the nr. 1 choise of every Regiment. There is not a Single one i come across in all the books that said "we have 1000 thunderbolds" but "we have 1000 Dropships".

Most of the time the fact that the Space battle is already won adds up: When a World is attackt the first Fight is most of the Time in Space between the mighty Starships. Most Dropships are launched after the initaial attacks as soon as possible, so if the starship is destroyed at least the grunts made planetfall. In a hot battlezone is no time to build a Landingstrip and supply strucktures for the conventional Airplanes.

And as said above: the sure mass of Enemys makes the most attacks meaningless.

Tyranids are the one Exeption with thier Gargoyls. They have very often Air supporiority by mass.


I have never played the tabletop but reading most of the novels, I have come to understand that air power is, while essentially great, is not useful as in expense/performance case because in most fiction when something that can be described as an attack occurs, it does so with a large fleet in orbit battling another large fleet in orbit while at the same time pumping troops to the planet. The air support elements only seem to cover ground troop advances and retreat back to a regional planetary base of the operation. In almost all novels, the aircraft only support minimally or die by the lot in advances.

If, on the other hand, the space power around a planet is final, then air superiority means something where each faction fights for the airspace but with the advantage clearly on the side of the one with space superiority. Also I remember reading about the ships being in orbit but in different parts of the planet. Hence, minimal confrontation.

Also, if I remember correctly, in eisenhorn air power failed remarkably causing some situation I don't want to spoil for other people.

To sum up, in the novels at least, air superiority is a much lesser arm of space superiority. I don't think it is a relevant factor in w40k universe(novels). Unless space is not considered of course. Maybe it's the same idea for the tabletop as well.


My players answered this really well in my Rogue Trader game.

First, war is expensive. It's a huge commitment of troops and material. So at the end of the day, unless you absolutely MUST do it, it's best to only start a ground war if the payoff is there. If you are using soldiers in the first place (not orbital bombardment) it means you want to capture the objective. Aeronautica don't capture things. They just blow them up and run away. If you want to take a city intact; prometheum refineries, industrial manufacturing complexes, etc. then you won't be blowing them up with Aeronautica all the time.

Second, the 'power' of Aeronautica is that they move super fast and are hard to attack. Slaved gun servitors with advanced targeting equipment using lascannons that don't need to lead the target because the laser moves at the speed of light can shoot down Aeronautica all day long. And they are cheaper to field than the Aeronautica. Initially the Aeronautica will do super well because nobody can fight back against them, but enemy officers worth their salt will quickly set traps and counters that wipe them out if that's what the enemy general is "spamming".

Third, Aeronautica need to land somewhere. If you spam them all the time the enemy will figure out where they launch from and use missiles or orbital weaponry to destroy the launch sites. So unless you have TOTAL void superiority, you have to be sneaky and hide where you're sending them out from. There is no "We're safe out here on our aircraft carrier" situation.

Fourth, they take up a ton of space and require vast resources to service. If you're going to reserve space in your voidship for big planes they are going to be sub orbital craft that can act as bombers and ferry troops and material to the surface. Fighters are only good for fighting, and it takes a lot of resources to capture a planet. So there's a space constraint.

These are my reasons.


In Epic (which is the large scale version of WH40K) there are Titans which are huge fighting machines the size of skyscrapers and also airborne attackers (mostly planes). In this game air superiority is very important, and there are ATG as well as ATA craft. The mechanics of air combat would not translate well to the scale of WK40k, since the craft would never be on the battlefield for any duration and having huge aircraft which never actually stayed on the tabletop would probably not be a well selling item!

Also in the WH40K universe if a planet is lost to an invasion, there is the option to deploy Exterminatus which wipes the entire planet clean. Presumably this requires space superiority to use.

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    I agree with your answer, but puzzlingly enough, these days there are many flying vehicles for WH40K. And yes, they look godawful and totally out of place for that wargaming scale. Then again, scale is a minor consideration for WH40K :P
    – Andres F.
    Commented Jan 17, 2013 at 18:57

I have an imperial guard army but I don't really play the game, no one to play against.

I hate the aircraft models they just look weird, but I have a few smaller ones from random model companies, most look like the snow speeders from Star Wars, with slight differences (you can see the similarity though) I also have some ground units from different companies that I've shoehorned in for some uniqueness, and chimera tank analogues and even my own deathstrike made from a rhino and an old rocket with cage armour, looks like a small ICBM vehicle but I digress..... It's nice to actually see the aircraft even if there just sat there, I like to imagine that they'd have superiority through manoeuvrability over bulky pieces of crap, although there armed more realistically(except my drop ship which is bristling with las cannons, twin linked las cannons, bombs and missiles, and it's only a 20 person drop ship.
But there are rules to include aircraft, either the ones produced by gw or proxy

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    I think there is some relevant stuff in this answer that actually answers the question. Could you edit out some of the chat to make this stuff more prominent?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 18:52
  • Air superiority does not mean that a certain aircraft is superior to a certain ground unit. It means a control over the airspace in such a manner that enemy air activity is severely or completely limited. it meas that you control the skies in such a manner that you can make bombing runs, troop movements, reconnaissance etc. and the enemy can't, because you dominate the skies for this battle.
    – vsz
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 20:19

I read the novels and the lack of air superiority akin to our modern warfare is very annoying. But I realized, those doctrines would break the lore. Aircraft would be too fast and capable of delivering devastating ordinances, given 40k tendencies, unexpectedly. I can see lvl of 40k destructive weaponry can be an extremely effective tactic against WWII air doctrines. But more contemporary doctrines are far more stealthy and rapid for the advantage of 40k to come into play.

Another problem is the orbital tactics really isn't varied. So it can't really help with the air superiority either.


Okay, you didn't like my comparison with reality and deleted the answer. It looks a bit funny. You may not have noticed, but many events and wars in Vahrammer have counterparts in history, so the comparison was natural. But if you don't want to see it then fine. We simulate the scenario of a planetary invasion. Forces of Chaos vs. PDF. So the attackers will have much less aircraft, which is understandable, they need a LOT of transports to land infantry, space in the fleet is limited. There is much more aviation in the PDF, but part of their infrastructure may be known to the enemy. That's why an orbital strike makes a BANG. And in general, not every planet can allow a decent number of planes, even without these strikes, the number of planes of the defenders can be the same or less than that of the attackers. In general, their number is not as important as the strength of ground air defense. We see in the Imperial Guard "Hydra", which is a close-range military air defense system that takes direct part in battles. In our world, these are systems like "Shilka" or "Gepard". But there should also be a more powerful, strategic air defense system. Yes, we we don't see it on the battlefield, but we also don't see antispace batteries, but that doesn't mean they aren't there. But apart from that, we know for sure that the Imperial fortresses are littered with lasers and autocannons (see Fall of Cadia from Battlefleet Gothic 2). Maybe it and there is an analogue of strategic air defense from reality (they can easily shoot for hundreds of kilometers, GW does not reveal the details). Given such saturation of air defense, it is quite likely that, as in modern times, the command uses aviation only for careful strategic strikes. Because it is simply unreasonable to kill hundreds of machines and pilots for a powerful echelon defense. People who think aviation is omnipotent forget that we are talking about a universe of total war, not a second-rate shelling of a terrorist base. Sometimes it's just impossible to win air superiority, that's all.

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    This is better, but if you can't use air power because the defenses are too strong, how can you land troops? Obviously the latter happens... And you discount sending airborne attack forces because they would require space that could be used for infantry, but you wouldn't need so much infantry if you had air superiority...
    – DavidW
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 21:08

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