As the Biden administration and the Pentagon discuss the formulation of a new National Defense Strategy and a revision of the Joint Warfighting Concept, the U.S. Air Force is preparing for a re-imagination of air superiority and the conduct of warfare in the coming decades.

“I know of no concept of the United States joint force where there is not some degree of air superiority required,” Air Force Lt Gen. Clinton Hinote, the service’s deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements, told a Center for a New American Security “mission brief” forum on Nov. 16. “That being said, it is much more challenging, especially as you get closer and closer to China’s borders. When we start thinking about what does air superiority require, it is going to require us to think differently than we have in the past. This idea of ‘air dominance’ or ‘air supremacy,’ I have a lot of trouble with that. I don’t see that as being a viable thing to try to establish, but for certain times, for certain operations and certain geographies, I absolutely believe that air superiority is attainable and a prerequisite to do the most important things.”

“That means we have to think different about how we’re going to penetrate into those contested areas and how we’re going to create that effect of air superiority,” he said. “At the very same time, our country and our airspace is going to be increasingly challenged, and we’re going to have to also think about defensive ‘air superiority,’ how do we protect the United States from attack.”

Penetrating Chinese or Russian airspace likely will involve stealthy, unmanned drones, and the Air Force is looking to jettison its reliance on a small, fixed number of bases and instead disperse forces, including large numbers of relatively inexpensive drones, across hundreds and possibly thousands of bases, austere locations, and short landing strips. In the future, rather than a sequential campaign, platforms in the land, air, sea and space domains are to link to delegate a given mission to a system best suited to perform it, Hinote said.

“It is clear that the autonomous, collaborative platforms–unmanned systems–are going to be a major part of the future of warfare,” he said. “We are really looking to, ‘What does a unit of combat power look like, if they’re flying all of these small, unmanned aircraft around, and they’re all swarming to go accomplish different things?’ I don’t know what that looks like yet, but we have some pretty good ideas, and some good work has been done. We need to go experiment with that and figure out how we want to build those units.”

While Congress and the Air Force have not divulged an unclassified version of the service’s ISR 2030 Modernization Plan, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown has said that the current U.S. Air Force inventory of non-stealthy ISR drones, including the Northrop Grumman [NOC] RQ-4 Global Hawk and General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, will not be of much use in a conflict with China or Russia.

Brown has told lawmakers that he wants to ensure a smooth transition between the Block 40 Global Hawks, set to retire in 2025, and an unspecified classified follow-on system. That system may be akin to the classified Northrop Grumman RQ-180 or  Lockheed Martin [LMT] RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drones.

On the “defensive air superiority” side of the house, Alaskan Command said last spring that it may consider intercept alternatives to the  Lockheed Martin F-22, which the command used to shadow more than 60 Russian aircraft last year, including Tupolev Tu-95 Bear bombers (Defense Daily, Apr. 28).