US Army War College

COL Maximillian K. Bremer and Dr. Kelly A. Grieco – “Air Littoral: Another Look”

Released 8 February 2022.

Assessing threats to the air littoral, the airspace between ground forces and high-end fighters and bombers, requires a paradigm change in American military thinking about verticality. This article explores the consequences of domain convergence, specifically for the Army and Air Force’s different concepts of control. It will assist US military and policy practitioners in conceptualizing the air littoral and in thinking more vertically about the air and land domains and the challenges of domain convergence. Click here to read the article.

Episode Transcript:

Stephanie Crider (Host)

Welcome to Decisive Point, a US Army War College Press production, featuring distinguished authors and contributors who get to the heart of the matter in national security affairs.

Decisive Point welcomes Colonel Maximillian K. Bremer and Dr. Kelly A. Grieco, authors of “Air Littoral: Another Look.” Colonel Bremer is the director of the Special Programs Division at Air Mobility Command. He is a 1997 distinguished graduate of the US Air Force Academy, he has an MPP from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and an MAAS from the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.

Dr. Grieco is an assistant professor of military and security studies in the Department of International Security at the Air Command and Staff College. She received her PhD in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Max. Kelly. Thanks for joining me today. I’m really glad you’re here. Your research looks at air littoral, which is the space between ground forces and high-end fighters and bombers, and how the US military thinks about its verticality. What has changed in recent decades that makes this a priority?

Colonel Maximilian K. Bremer

Well, Stephanie, first, thanks for having us on. And thanks to Parameters for publishing this paper. It’s really a privilege. So you’re asking what’s changed? Well, in a nutshell, democratization and technological advancement have led to increased access and persistence in the space that we’re calling the air littoral. Basically, more users with more technology are driving innovation both in the military and civilian realms. Changing the way that we access and persist in any domain will alter the way we contest that domain–the way we seek dominance. The air littoral, until recently, was mostly a realm of transit to and from the blue skies. Persistent access within the air littoral was just not tenable. But it is now, and that drives a change in how we utilize the domain. Before, we could think about airspace as layered flat maps, and now we have to understand the interaction vertically and persistently from the ground all the way to the edge of space.

Dr. Kelly A. Grieco

As Colonel Bremer suggests, what has changed is increased access and persistence to the air littoral. Russia in eastern Ukraine, for example, has been able to access the airspace and deny it to the Ukrainian Air Force mainly using not manned aircraft but a combination of air defense and electronic warfare systems. And they have then been able to exploit this airspace using multiple drones flying simultaneously at different altitudes over target areas to spot for artillery rockets.

This example illustrates two important changes in my mind. First, manned aircraft are no longer essential for accessing or exploiting the airspace, or at least parts of the airspace. And second, increasingly, both nonstate actors and strategic competitors will use small unarmed systems–things like drones, low flying missiles, and loitering munitions to gain persistent access to the air littoral and then exploit it.


What is the working definition of air superiority? And where does the United States fall on this topic? Do we still rule the skies?


No. At least not the same way we did 10 or even five years ago. In joint doctrine, air control exists on a spectrum based on the degree to which an adversary can interfere with friendly military operations. On that spectrum, air superiority refers to a level of air control in which friendly forces are able to operate at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by the opposing force.

Air supremacy goes even further than that. It refers to a degree of dominance in which the opposing force is incapable of even effective interference. And that’s anywhere in the entire theater of operations. I would argue, and many others, that based on those definitions, for the last 30 years, the United States has had air superiority, if not air supremacy in all its major conflicts. Today, however, that’s no longer a given and in fairness, both the Air Force and the Army have increasingly recognized this in recent years. To emphasize that point, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Brown, has said on numerous occasions that air dominance is not an American birthright. But attempts to maintain or regain that air superiority have mainly centered on developing and acquiring sixth-generation fighters and bombers. So those aircraft that operate in the blue skies. As we point out in our article, this focus on the blue skies runs the risk of missing that adversaries are increasingly able to access the airspace between the ground and the blue skies, that is the air littoral.


So to address this new reality, we have to recognize that air control exists in a volume rather than a flat bounded plane. In the past, control the air was won or lost in the blue skies. If you obtained air superiority over a theater of operations, it was generally imparted to control over all altitudes, but that assumption no longer holds. Control of the air littoral is rapidly decoupling from that of the blue skies, which means our concept of air control has to evolve. It must account for a third dimension—that of vertical space.

Critically, conceptualizing air control as a volume calls attention to key differences between the blue skies in the air littoral. Compared to blue skies, the air littoral is becoming much more highly dynamic, threat-intensive in a more important environment. In Iraq, as General Raymond Thomas noted, the adversary was able to operate, quote – right overhead and underneath our air superiority – unquote.

If the enemy is in the air above us, do we actually have air superiority?


Here’s a quote from your article. Most worrying for the United States is the potential curtailing of the military’s ability to provide effective support to US, Allied, and partner ground forces from the skies above. Can you expand on US adversaries contesting control of the air littoral and your answer to it?


In the US military, the services are aligned with the physical domains, the mediums through which they primarily operate. They’re charged with the duty to organize, train, and equip forces to be experts in and dominate those domains to the benefit of the joint force. Yet the fuzzy border between physical domains creates a seam. And this seam is where services contest with each other for authorities and funding. Our adversaries are watching, and they could potentially exploit that seam. What is the airspace? Who has responsibility for control of the airspace, and what does control mean? These are some fundamental challenges that the democratization of the air littoral creates. For example, you know, a bullet fired from an M-4 is traveling through the air. Is that in the airspace? What about a mortar that travels up to 1,500 feet and then comes back down? Or HIMARS? Or what about a small loitering drone that doesn’t go above 400 feet but sticks around for several hours?


And currently, the focus is really on counter-system ideas–counter UAS, counter mortar, counter cruise missiles, counter aircraft. But these all operate in the same physical realm and only vary by propulsion, systems speed, persistence, and range. And those characteristics, especially speed, persistence, and range are converging. And our adversaries are very aware of this and responding to these developments. And as they innovate their capabilities and operational concepts, the Air Force is increasingly at risk of failing in his primary job—winning in the air to allow the army to occupy and win the ground.


How does vertical reciprocity play into this?


The air littoral, like the maritime littoral, is fundamentally a trans domain environment. This requires vertical reciprocity between air and ground forces. It also means more interactions and interdependencies between the air and ground. And the Army, for example, plans to exploit this vertical space with joint all-domain operations, emphasizing presenting the enemy with multiple dilemmas. The Army has an emerging vision of simultaneously, both horizontally and vertically, enveloping the enemy. Of course, US adversaries also seek the same advantages.


Yes, but bringing the air war close to the ground will also lay bare the differences in the army in the Air Force’s concept of control. Control of the land domain has traditionally been a function of the persistent occupation of territory. Armies, as Clausewitz said, can stand fast, as it were, rooted to the ground. In contrast, the Air Force concept of control in the air domain centers on responsive presence, not persistent occupation. Air Forces may occupy airspace for a time but it’s ephemeral. What it offers instead is a rapid but not necessarily persistent presence, the ability to quickly mass and deliver fires. The growing mission overlap will cause a clash of these air-centric and land-centric concepts of control. Closing this seam is critical to the future success of the joint force. The Air Force will need to address control the air literal from the blue skies just as the army will have to address it from the ground. Each service is going to have to support the other in this evolving trans domain environment.


In conclusion, is it technology that’s going to be the answer here?


No, I don’t think technology is going to be the answer, not in the general way that we use the term. The artifacts, the things that we create, are simply part of the environment. But the art and craft of understanding how to employ those things, which is the original Greek meaning of the term technology, that will play a significant role. The democratization and innovation that created access and persistence in the air littoral is also driving a significant maturation of the domain. We have to adapt to this new environment by understanding it differently–no longer as planar maps stacked one atop another statically, but rather as a fluid with temporal, vertical, and horizontal dimensions. Then we can apply technology, the craft of employing our tools, to the contestation and dominance of the air literal.


I agree wholeheartedly. And I would just add that the answer is really doctrinal innovation. The technology is hardware, but doctrine is the software. It’s that application piece. And as we argue in our article, gaining a competitive advantage in the air littoral requires the joint force to develop a new conceptual framework, and it’s one that needs to be grounded in both horizontal and vertical spaces. And if we don’t, America might not just lose this technological advantage, but its operational edge.


This has been great. It was very enlightening.


Thank you for having us. And it was a pleasure to do this.


Thanks, Stephanie.


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