“The changing character of war is coming upon us,” said Gen. David W. Allvin, the Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, warning, “The theater of war is going to require us to fight different. This will be part of the reinvention of our Air Force and airpower into the future.”

That reinvention should include thinking smaller and embracing small drones. Other services employ airpower in support of land and sea operations, but it is only the Air Force that is charged with gaining air control as its primary focus. If the service is to accomplish this mission, it will need to operate in the air littoral — the airspace from the Earth’s surface to about 15,000 feet, below the level where high-end fighters and bombers typically operate. Airpower has always had innate strengths — unmatched in its maneuverability, speed, and range. But it has also always faced limitations: air forces, unlike armies, cannot live in their primary domain, and the aircraft they fly are expensive, limiting the size of the fleet even for the wealthiest of nations. As a result, the occupation of the airspace could occur for a time, but it was ultimately ephemeral. Once friendly aircraft left the airspace, any surviving adversary aircraft could return to access and exploit it.

Today, continuing technological advancement and falling costs have opened new possibilities for occupying the air domain. Air forces can now operate large numbers of small, relatively cheap drones in the air littoral. A single system cannot persist indefinitely in this airspace, but large numbers of them can achieve persistence indirectly, by continually rotating in and out of the air littoral. To date, however, the Air Force has focused mainly on countering the small drone threat to its air bases, both at home and overseas. But this approach misses the broader point: the air littoral is becoming increasingly central to air warfare, and if the Air Force fails to prepare for this future, other services may fill the gap, but they lack what General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold called “airmindedness” — the specialist expertise and distinct perspective of airmen — to employ it to maximum effect.

Take the contest to control the air littoral in East Asia: China recognizes that air superiority is essential to a successful amphibious invasion. Saturating the air littoral over landing beaches and nearby waters with continuous waves of small sensing, decoy, and weaponized drones would deny China control of the air littoral and create numerous hard-to-solve and time-consuming dilemmas for the People’s Liberation Army. Drones cycled fast enough into the airspace could overwhelm China’s targeting process and in turn inflict significant losses on its invasion forces. Chinese commanders would have to decide how much “clearance” is needed in the air, and for how long, and risk depleting their anti-air missiles in the process. It would also put them on the losing end of the cost curve, as destroying enough of these cheap drones will only grow harder and costlier still as rotational persistence continues to increase in the air littoral.

As Gen. Allvin warns, the U.S. Air Force is not currently structured or equipped to make the air littoral a combat domain, but it should move quickly to close this gap. Both the Ukrainian and Russian military have established specialized drone units, with the Ukrainians even recently unveiling plans to create a separate drone service. Yet the entire Joint Force — including the United States Air Force — is still operating without small-drone units. The US Air Force ought to fill this gap and can bring an air-minded perspective to operating in the air littoral.

To start, the U.S. Air Force should create and incorporate low-end, close-in air occupation elements and capability in its restructuring for great power competition. In designing the Air Force for both deterrence and, if deterrence fails, defense against revisionist powers, the service should simultaneously embrace the concept of air denial, despite the historic cult of the offensive, and the small-drone revolution.

With no significant history of either at-scale, small-drone operations or air-denial tactics, the next critical step will be to cultivate innovation and creative new ideas and tactics. This will likely not come from today’s legacy pilot force — instead, the Air Force needs a fresh dose of airminded thinking from “digitally native” airmen, who are intuitively much more capable than senior pilots of understanding the non-linear, and one-to-many interactions of humans and machines. Development of that airmindedness, then, is the critical foundation, and one which should be laid from the ground up. From basic training onward, airmen should be as familiar with small drones as Marines are with their rifles.

Gen. Allvin is fond of quoting Maj. Gen. Hugh J. Knerr, one of the pioneers of American airpower: “Do not get trapped in paradigms of the past,” Allvin recently reminded his service. “Whatever it is, we need to understand this is a unique capability, unique opportunity for us to understand how to best employ, deploy, and integrate this into the invention of the Air Force,” he added. The US Air Force should take that spirit of invention to the air littoral.

Col. Maximilian K. Bremer, U.S. Air Force, is the director of the Special Programs Division at Air Mobility Command.

Kelly Grieco is a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy Program at the Stimson Center, an adjunct professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University, and a nonresident fellow at the Brute Krulak Center of the Marine Corps University.

This commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Defense Department, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Marine Corps, or Marine Corps University.

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