Drones, the Air Littoral, and the Looming Irrelevance of the U.S. Air Force

MAWTS-1 Marines Conduct an RQ-21 Launch

Today, the U.S. Air Force faces an almost-existential crisis. During the past several years, the service has been battered by the loss of its prestigious space mission to the nascent U.S. Space Force. It has also struggled to balance the continued acquisition of stunningly expensive new manned aircraft with the rapid developments in unmanned technologies, which are making pilots increasingly superfluous.

What a difference a few years makes. In 2016, we published a column entitled “The Catastrophic Success of the U.S. Air Force,” which argued that the service had completely dominated the air domain for so long that it was not fully prepared to fight a bloody war for control of the skies. But those days are long gone, thanks to the drone revolution.

The biggest problem facing the Air Force is that masses of uncrewed drones have now wrested command of the air away from manned aircraft in the skies above the modern battlefield. The drone revolution means that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for the service to achieve air superiority in future conflicts — which has been the centerpiece of its mission for decades. Drones, not manned airplanes, now dominate the skies above ground forces fighting in Ukraine. The contested air littoral has emerged as a critical new subdomain of warfare. It stretches from the earth’s surface to several thousand feet, below the altitudes where most manned aircraft typically fly, and is now dominated by masses of drones. This is a paradigm shift of epic proportions, which will require the Air Force to fundamentally transform itself in a very short period of time.



For almost 70 years, the U.S. Air Force maintained unbroken air superiority over every battlefield on which U.S. troops fought. Yet that long streak suddenly ended on Jan. 28, when three U.S. Army soldiers were killed by an air attack — conducted not by an enemy bomber or fighter strike, but by a one-way suicide drone that attacked a U.S. base in Jordan called Tower 22. Although these soldiers undoubtedly thought that U.S. air superiority would protect them from aerial attacks, subsequent reports indicated that the base had only limited defenses against drones.

But why now? Drones have been around for decades, of course. Yet the war in Ukraine has dramatically accelerated the military use of drones in ways few of us could have predicted. Today, they fill the skies above the battlefields in numbers that were simply unimaginable two years ago, conducting vital missions in surveillance, intelligence gathering, early warning, and precision strike. They are so crucial to Ukrainian operations that President Volodymyr Zelensky has called upon his country to produce one million new drones in 2024, and he hopes to receive another million drones from NATO allies and partners this year. Ukraine flies an incredibly wide variety of drones — as many as 10,000 different types, according to one estimate. And they have to be expendable, since Ukraine reportedly loses thousands of drones each month.

The U.S. military is woefully unprepared for warfare in this newly contested subdomain of the air littoral. Needless to say, the U.S. drone inventory looks nothing at all like Ukraine’s. It is a fraction of its size and scale, focusing on small numbers of highly advanced systems. (Even the Pentagon’s highly touted Replicator initiative aims to develop only “thousands” of attritable autonomous systems in the next two years —  and right now, it is far from clear that the initiative will ultimately succeed.) But even more importantly, the U.S. military today does not possess reliable counter-drone systems that can effectively protect U.S. forces against small drone attacks, much less the massed level of strikes seen daily in Ukraine. Technologies that protect against drones have failed to keep pace with the proliferation and rapidly evolving capabilities of offensive drones (reflecting a problem that we once called the U.S. military’s protection deficit disorder). As a result, U.S. ground forces have now essentially lost the protective top cover that the Air Force provided through air superiority for decades.

Countering drones in the air littoral is therefore one of the most pressing tasks facing the U.S. military, and all of the services will need to be part of the solution. Yet, as the principal service responsible for the air domain, the Air Force is arguably doing the least to address this burgeoning threat. Why? Countering inexpensive drones that can pummel U.S. forces from the air at will simply does not fit into the service’s future vision. Moreover, defeating this new aerial threat would require the service to transform much of its doctrine and platforms. Yet the Air Force remains firmly wedded to exorbitantly expensive crewed platforms that reflect its 20th-century roots and legacy — especially the F-35A fighter.

The F-35A certainly remains an important platform for high-intensity conventional warfare. But the Air Force is planning to buy 1,763 of the aircraft, which will remain in service through the year 2070. These jets, which are wholly unsuited for countering proliferated low-cost enemy drones in the air littoral, present enormous opportunity costs for the service as a whole. In a set of comments posted on LinkedIn last month, defense analyst T.X. Hammes estimated the following. The delivered cost of a single F-35A is around $130 million, but buying and operating that plane throughout its lifecycle will cost at least $460 million. He estimated that a single Chinese Sunflower suicide drone costs about $30,000 — so you could purchase 16,000 Sunflowers for the cost of one F-35A. And since the full mission capable rate of the F-35A has hovered around 50 percent in recent years, you need two to ensure that all missions can be completed — for an opportunity cost of 32,000 Sunflowers. As Hammes concluded, “Which do you think creates more problems for air defense?”

Ironically, the first service to respond decisively to the new contestation of the air littoral has been the U.S. Army. Its soldiers are directly threatened by lethal drones, as the Tower 22 attack demonstrated all too clearly. Quite unexpectedly, last month the Army cancelled its future reconnaissance helicopter — which has already cost the service $2 billion – because fielding a costly manned reconnaissance aircraft no longer makes sense. Today, the same mission can be performed by far less expensive drones — without putting any pilots at risk.  The Army also decided to retire its aging Shadow and Raven legacy drones, whose declining survivability and capabilities have rendered them obsolete, and announced a new rapid buy of 600 Coyote counter-drone drones in order to help protect its troops. As Army Chief of Staff Gen. Randy George noted, “We are learning from the battlefield — especially Ukraine — that aerial reconnaissance has fundamentally changed. … Sensors and weapons mounted on a variety of unmanned systems and in space are more ubiquitous, further reaching, and more inexpensive than ever before.”

The Air Force needs to learn that air superiority has fundamentally changed as well. Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall recently announced a major reorganization effort to reoptimize the force for great power competition, and has repeatedly warned that the Air Force is “out of time” to prepare for the growing threat from China. But that is simply not enough. It has also run out of time in the air littoral, where it can no longer provide effective air superiority to protect American troops on the ground.

The breathtaking advance of drone warfare in ongoing conflicts is changing the meaning of air superiority and challenging traditional notions of airpower. In Ukraine, drones have largely displaced manned aircraft in the day-to-day fighting over the front lines, and they are actively contesting the brand-new subdomain of the air littoral. The U.S. Air Force has been slow to digest the epic changes in air warfare that these new rapidly expanding capabilities foretell. Facing similar disruptions to land warfare in the late 1990s, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki told his generals: “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” Today’s Air Force leadership would be wise to heed those candid words.



Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (ret.), and Dr. Nora Bensahel are Professors of Practice at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and are also contributing editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears periodically. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Adaezia Chavez