The Drone Dilemma and the U.S. Air Force


A surface-launched weapon traveling through the air struck and killed U.S. servicemembers in the Middle East, ending the decades-long streak of air dominance keeping U.S. forces on the ground safe from aerial attacks. A recent article argued that this almost-71-year streak of air dominance ended in Jordan on Jan. 28, 2024, when three U.S. servicemembers were killed in a one-way attack-drone strike, threatening the relevance of today’s U.S. Air Force. If one agrees the U.S. Air Force is approaching irrelevance on account of one-way attack drones, then perhaps the streak ended 33 years ago. For the event described in the first sentence is not from January 2024; rather, it is describing the SCUD missile attack that killed 27 servicemembers in Saudi Arabia on Feb. 25, 1991, during Operation Desert Storm.

There is certainly a consistent threat from drones, missiles, and rockets resulting in U.S. servicemember casualties, apparent from the more than 150 attacks by Iranian-backed militia groups on U.S. locations in Iraq and Syria since January 2021, as well as the missile attack from Iran in January 2020. However, the problem with the argument about the Air Force’s supposed irrelevance, voiced by Dave Barno and Nora Bensahel, is that it is missing the context of how control of the air is accomplished. To understand this, we must look beyond how air superiority is gained and maintained by the U.S. Air Force to the key role U.S. Army air defense plays in this mission, as well as the greater similarities between one-way attack drones to surface-to-surface missiles rather than traditional air-to-surface attacks. The drone dilemma ought not raise questions of a particular armed service’s relevance in the struggle for air dominance. Rather, it is a reason for leaders to revisit how roles and missions are allocated across the military services and to assess resources for air defense capabilities that are affordable, scalable, and fully integrated with the fight for air superiority.



Air Superiority or Air Defense?

To borrow from and paraphrase Miles’ Law: How you fight for control of the air depends on your viewpoint — on the ground looking up, or in the air looking out and down. Joint Publication 3-30, Joint Air Operations, discusses control of the air in armed conflict and defines three degrees of control — air parity, air superiority, and air supremacy. These degrees are not measured by the effect that the “blue force” has on the “red force,” but rather in the degree to which the latter can interfere with the former’s ability to conduct operations. Therefore, it is important to recognize that the degree to which one controls the air is more often a temporary outcome than one of permanence. Especially in areas of limited conflict, the idea that air superiority can provide complete impunity from air attack is likely unrealistic. Control of the air is accomplished through multiple missions in which the U.S. Air Force tends to focus on offensive actions to gain and maintain freedom of action, while the U.S. Army leans toward defense from air and missile attacks. The offensive culture of airmen is apparent in the choice of terminology, preferring “control of the air” over “air denial.” Air and missile defense, both active and passive, is a joint force requirement for air defense and force protection, making control of the air a truly joint mission. The understanding of air superiority and air defense is even more critical when planning for force protection during operations in the gray zone between cooperation and armed conflict.

Internal Department of Defense debates on the responsibility for air defense have generated scar tissue over the previous eight decades, dating back at least to the 1948 Key West Conference. The strife among the services for resources created the need for multiple written agreements among senior leaders to settle disputes. In November 1956, Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson signed a “Roles and Missions” memorandum designating responsibilities for air defense, with the U.S. Army as principal for point defense and the U.S. Air Force as principal for area defense. Point defense is all about protecting a specific important thing or place from immediate threats, using weapons or systems designed to shoot down or disable those threats before they hit. Area defense is about protecting a larger zone or area from enemies, using measures that can cover more ground and are not just focused on one specific target.

Wilson’s memorandum also designated responsibility for overseas areas to the air component commander, adding that an Army unit in a combat zone is responsible for its own local defense. The U.S. Army understood this to mean the field Army commander, not the air component commander, would be responsible for air defense in the airspace over a specific combat area, thereby fracturing the unity of an integrated air defense under a single commander. The Lemay–Decker Agreement in 1962 sought to rectify this disagreement and increase effectiveness with the understanding that the air component commander would designate air defense regions, the commanders of which would normally delegate authority for control of organic army air defense assets to the field army commander. Despite continued attention through many iterations of reviews and studies, the roles and missions debate over air and base defense continues as passionately and unsettled today as it did in 1947.

Surface-to-Surface or Aerial Attack?

A one-way attack drone operates similarly to a surface-to-surface missile in that they are both launched with the intent of striking a target in the opposing forces’ area. Detection of such launches can be difficult as radar and other passive capabilities try to distinguish between ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and one-way attack drones — all with different flight paths, speeds, and ordnance capacities. That detection, designation, and ultimate disposition are normally accomplished under the area air defense commander’s authority. Today, missions for control of the air tend to allocate the defense against aerial threats, surface-launched missiles, and rockets to ground-based U.S. Army air defense assets. This is not to argue that fighter aircraft could not or would not defend against one-way attack drones. In fact, they are doing just that over the Red Sea. But the primary responsibility of fighter assets remains dealing with enemy aircraft, not just the weapons they carry.

Drones have expanded the definition of aerial threats, but they should not simply be considered aircraft because they fly. When an adversary launches an unmanned aerial system, it is often difficult to ascertain whether it is carrying weapons, is acting as an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance asset, or is a one-way attack drone. U.S. Army air defenders are being called upon to identify, categorize, and react to unmanned aerial systems at an increasing rate due to the sheer volume of drones in contested airspace, recently earning one air defender the moniker “Ace of Syria.” Understanding how to classify unmanned aerial systems in the airspace above battlefields will help ensure militaries are prepared to defend against incoming threats to ground forces and therefore should be addressed soonest.

The Drone Dilemma

To be clear, the expanded use of drones recently in the sub-domain that some call the “air littoral” presents a dilemma that requires a review of how the U.S. military gains and sustains air superiority and conducts effective air defense. The current division of air defense responsibilities across the armed services may no longer be appropriate when faced with swarms of unmanned aerial systems, some of which are more of a direct threat to ground forces than others. The ubiquitous nature of drones on today’s battlefields is a technological advancement that is changing the character of war. Due to the low cost and commercial availability of their components, these unmanned aerial systems are increasing in number across the world — but their capabilities are not new. Notably, drones can also create dilemmas within the borders of the United States and are not solely an overseas battlefield issue, as Langley Air Force Base recently experienced. Developing a joint solution that synchronizes both active and passive air defense capabilities and accounts for increased ambiguity in targeting is the first step in gaining control of the air. Once that is accomplished, the next step would be to produce a scalable version of that capability to account for mass in war and for limited-scale operations in strategic competition.

Whether or not the decades-long streak of air dominance is over does not portend the impending irrelevance of the U.S. Air Force. The future battle for control of the air against peer and near-peer adversaries will require the capabilities of all of the armed services operating closely together. It is not a “reinvention of the U.S. Air Force,” but a reimagining of joint efforts to gain control of the air. Adversary air forces have certainly paid attention to how the U.S. military approached drone use during the previous two decades. Accounting for mass in war when facing swarms of unmanned aerial systems — as either sensors or weapons, or both — requires hard conversations that will generate implementable solutions for air defense and air superiority. Decisions on roles and missions that drive resourcing strategies should enable the joint force to better understand and prepare for the feasibility of air superiority and air defense now and in future threat environments. Force protection of servicemembers in forward locations remains a high priority for commanders at all echelons, and the solution to the air and missile threat will require a multi-service effort that enables both air superiority and air defense as a holistic objective of joint air dominance.



Clifford Lucas is an Air Force officer and a non-resident fellow with the Irregular Warfare Initiative, a joint production of Princeton’s Empirical Studies of Conflict Project and the Modern War Institute at West Point. Lucas is a special operations aviator with over 1,800 combat hours in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, the College of Naval Command and Staff, and the Secretary of Defense’s Strategic Thinkers Program. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent those of the Irregular Warfare Initiative, the Modern War Institute, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

Image: Midjourney