First, an agile Air Force must cultivate an intellectual environment that fosters critical thinking, open-mindedness, and creativity. Clausewitz famously said that the supreme act of a commander is to “establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking.” Unfortunately, the Air Force has traditionally been oriented towards one kind of war and has resisted adapting to others–or even recognizing that they are different. It lagged years behind the Army and Marines in exploring COIN theory, and there is still a strong institutional bias towards using conventional aircraft to wage strategic air campaigns against states. A decade into a long war against unconventional foes, the ACSC capstone war game in late 2011 still entailed allocating strike sorties to static, unthinking targets until their percentages reach zero. The Air Force is heavily invested in AirSea Battle (ASB) for major combat operations against China, but has given less attention to partner capacity building and the management of low-level disputes we are actually seeing in the Pacific. A scathing 2012 “Dear Boss” letter published on Small Wars Journal, which reflects common sentiments among the Air Force, lambasts senior leadership for selling out the USAF in order to support the joint force in Afghanistan and Iraq. These examples illustrate how deeply entrenched this institutional culture is, and how slow the organization has been to adopt lessons from ten years of continuous war. Preparing for great power conflict is vital, and the Air Force must retain its unique canon of airpower doctrine, but it also needs to institutionalize more thoughtfulness about war in its entirety.
Visionary officers must be empowered to make meaningful change across the entire organization. The traditional channels for “reprogramming” the Air Force are official doctrine and PME, but both develop extremely slowly by today’s standards. Adaptive, networked enemies who are unconstrained by bureaucracy can easily get inside this OODA loop. PME lagged several years behind current events in institutionalizing COIN knowledge; by 2011 it was heavy on COIN and Iraq, but almost totally silent on tomorrow’s most likely threats: a highly unstable Pakistan, an ascendant China, war in the Koreas, criminal insurgency in Mexico, and the huge ramifications of debt and budget cuts on the Department of Defense. Cyberwarfare is still glaringly absent; even the new Chief of Staff recently admitted he doesn’t understand it and is reluctant to commit resources until he does. Formal channels for institutionalizing such knowledge must be accelerated and supplemented with new real-time channels like blogs and discussion forums.
A second challenge for creating a more agile Air Force is overhauling an industrial-age personnel system. The current pyramid system rigidly enforces narrow career paths, punishes deviations, and limits the ability of commanders to match talent to requirements. When urgent new manning requirements arise, personnel who fill them are often gambling with their careers. A crucial requirement like the CJCS-priority AfPak Hands program has thus gained a reputation as a career-killer. Perhaps the most significant recent example of institutional reprogramming is the Air Force’s expansion of ISR platforms. Countless pilots were pulled from their Major Weapons System to become RPA operators or MC-12 pilots, but the rigidity of the personnel system put their futures in question. This has damaged morale, eroded service culture, and driven personnel out of the force. The USAF should anticipate further revolutionary changes such as miniaturization, swarming, and expanded roles for robots and cyberwarfare. To be truly agile the Air Force needs a personnel system that rewards instead of punishes those who usher in such change. It must attract and retain talent in emerging fields, and create more flexible career paths that allow personnel to deviate from formulaic progressions. The Air Force should also expand opportunities for higher education and decentralize assignment matching by giving both subordinates and commanders a greater voice in the process.