Tomorrow’s Challenge: Building an Agile Air Force

October 3, 2012 — Leave a comment
For those who might care, this is my admissions essay for SAASS, which is supposed to explore challenges facing tomorrow’s practitioners of air, space, and cyberspace power.

The greatest challenge for air, space, and cyberspace practitioners is building an organization agile enough to meet threats across the spectrum of conflict in a dynamic, fast-changing environment.  The USAF has superior hardware, training, and overall competency in warfighting and should theoretically be able to dominate any and all enemies.  In practice, however, the USAF has had a difficult time adapting to different types of conflicts and translating its tactical dominance into strategic success.  Because it is impossible to predict the exact nature of tomorrow’s conflicts, it is futile to prepare for one hypothetical future; a much better approach is to shape the USAF into an agile learning organization that can rapidly adapt to new threats and missions.  Air Force leaders need the capability to rapidly “reprogram” the institution to meet emerging challenges.  Developing this agility will require reforming the service’s intellectual climate, personnel system, and acquisitions process.

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.


A third challenge for agility is reforming the DOD’s acquisitions process, which is slow, expensive, and suited primarily for small numbers of high-technology weapons systems.  The Air Force inventory is badly aged, and cutting-edge weapons systems like the F-22, F-35, new tanker, and replacement bomber are essential.  However, an acquisitions system built primarily for such weapons systems has inherent weaknesses. These programs are vulnerable to mismanagement, extravagant cost overruns, and a slow pace of development.  The Air Force has lost much of its moral capital in Congress, has had to pare down future aircraft orders, and now risks losing some of these programs entirely.  The service needs to get its acquisitions processes in order or risk losing the very programs that it needs to survive.  There is also a risk that with this much money and this many jobs at stake, acquisitions programs will drive strategy rather than the other way around.  The Air Force needs sound processes and constant Red Teaming to ensure that rigorous strategic thought and valid assumptions drive acquisitions.  Small fleets can also be uniquely vulnerable to asymmetric attacks.  American airpower owns the skies, but a few low-tech insurgents in Afghanistan destroyed 7% of the Marine Corps’ Harrier force in the recent attack at Bastion.  Copycat attacks could be devastating.  The USAF is already bracing itself to face anti-access/area denial weapons, but it should anticipate many other types of asymmetric attack.  Imagine hijacked RPAs, a virus in the F-22 or F-35 flight control software, or even Bastion-style attacks on US soil.  High-tech, low-quantity weapons systems are vital to tomorrow’s Air Force, but to mitigate risk Air Force leaders should simultaneously explore alternative lines of development, such as swarms of low-cost robotic aircraft or cyber weaponry.


This leads to another acquisitions requirement: an agile Air Force needs better processes and streamlined regulations to facilitate the rapid adoption of new technology.  Today Air Force members have better Internet access at Starbucks than they do at work, are issued iPads they aren’t allowed to take online, and must cope with clumsy military imitations of popular social media sites.  If the Air Force still wrestles to adopt technology as prolific as social media and mobile devices, how will it possibly be on the cutting edge of nanotechnology, biotechnology, 3D printing, or augmented reality?  The Air Force needs to anticipate such technologies, lay the legal and regulatory groundwork for their adoption, and experiment with their use.


It is impossible to predict the exact nature of America’s next conflict, but the Air Force should expect to face myriad threats across the spectrum of conflict in a rapidly changing world.  The primary challenge for air, space, and cyber practitioners will be ensuring the Air Force is sufficiently agile to meet these threats.

Mark Jacobsen

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A U.S. Air Force officer, C-17 pilot, Middle East specialist, and writer... a lifelong student dedicated to building a better world.

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