The Air Force’s new chief didn’t waste time or mince words in his vision document, aptly entitled “Accelerate Change, or Lose.” General Charles Brown, Jr., is sending up flares, and policymakers should pay attention. The time is ripe, he asserts, while still in the early years of a new defense strategy, having just stood up a new service in the Space Force, and during a pandemic. Here are the five key takeaways.
1. The Risks Are Real
A "large and growing body of evidence" suggests America's armed forces will lose in great power competition if they fail to adapt, Gen Brown notes. If the Air Force doesn’t change, the service risks “losing a high-end fight”—and along with it, airmen, credibility and security. The consequences of failure, the chief says, are profound.Outright mission failure is very real. Capital losses are not just possible, but likely, in the next big war. In clear words targeted at an audience much wider than the Air Force, Gen. Brown says Americans cannot wish away the risks. Nor can the Air Force afford to shy away from tough conversations with key stakeholders, including the other services, civilian leaders, industry and Congress. Additionally, the service seeks a better balance of risks across these groups. What might an example of better risk sharing mean exactly? Air Force leaders keep sending up budgets that buy more strategy outcomes, as they've been directed. But Congress keeps shooting down their proposals to retire significant numbers of aircraft to free up funds to better win the competition with China. The U.S. has just 157 heavy bombers. Some should be retired, and others preserved to keep longer the ones with the most life left.
Another example of better burden and risk sharing is to quash the notion that all the services can and should pursue any means of deep attack. More long-range strike capability is worthy, but there simply isn't enough money to go around for all the services to go off in different directions.
2. Speed, Speed, Speed. In Everything: Go Faster (But Do Less)
Bringing a distinctly Asia-Pacific lens by which he sees future challenges given his most recent job before this, Gen. Brown is a man in a hurry, in part because the “warning signs have been blinking for some time.”
Resident in the National Defense Strategy’s five key challenges, he notes that four of them are in USINDOPACOM's area of operations. The region covers over half the earth’s surface and is home to 60 percent of the world’s population.
Right now, the services bring their individual platforms to bear as part of global force management. But this is like a military JENGA® puzzle where the services put in and pull out various parts without fully knowing the risks. Sometimes, this hurts the other services.
Combatant commanders and civilian defense leaders and overseers also need to be more disciplined about the use of force—for any reason, including to keep the peace. The Air Force, and all the services, must say “no” to themselves more often. Restraining the appetite for presence, assurance, and deterrence missions are essential to harvesting people, money, and risk to better focus on achieving strategic goals.
Leaders must ask themselves: Does the instinct to “do something now!” solve short-term problems but cause harm in the Future Years Defense Plan by wearing out man and machine faster? More prudent employment of forces is required. Great power competition is a decades-long effort, and the Defense Department cannot hope a series of sprints will be enough to prevail.
3. Time for a Robust Roles & Missions Review
With urgency, Gen Brown highlights that “likely future budget pressures will require the most difficult force structure decisions in generations.” He goes on to warn that “the worst outcome would be to … cut DoD funding without adjusting the strategy or priorities.” To him, this “would amount to sequestration by another name.”
He’s not wrong.
If budgets are falling, the services need to adjust downward to what they are doing and what they are buying. Gen Brown fires a warning shot, stating that "programs that once held promise, but are no longer affordable or will not deliver needed capabilities … must be divested or terminated."
The Air Force needs help from stakeholders outside the service. According to Gen Brown, the Air Force has “many constraints and restraints that could hamper our ability to achieve our objectives as originally envisioned.”
More intelligent risk-taking needs to be incentivized, the new chief notes. Stakeholders from within the Pentagon to Congress to industry must "acknowledge, balance, and share" more risk with the Air Force.
Distributing risk more equitably and honestly requires a candid assessment of each organization’s own “internal impediments to change.” Winning the long-term competition requires “ruthless prioritization,” and decisions must be framed with an enterprise-wide perspective.
How can policymakers do this? According to Gen Brown, the first step is to “rethink prior assumptions and take steps towards consolidating and reducing redundancies” across the services.
Should the Air Force take on air base defense even though the Army is also heavily pursuing counter-drone weapons? Handing it to the Air Force could “better defend the fenceline against all threats from small [unmanned aerial systems], all the way through hypersonics,” Gen. Brown has said previously.
4. People, Payload & Effects Over Platforms
The new chief also wants change to come to thinking and to processes, including the Air Force's personnel structure. He laments the multiple deployment models that need to be more standard and uniform across the service.
Trust and empowerment need to be pushed down to lower levels of service. Gen Brown wants the Air Force to develop and build a "deep institutional understanding of China and Russia" and bolster incentives and rewards for airmen who get it.
The Air Force must create “viable sustainment pathways” to incorporate “innovative ideas” from airmen, according to Gen. Brown. Decisions about what to buy must be better informed by and linked to “how they fare against our understanding of competitors’ theories of victory, ways of war, and force development strategies.”
The service is going broke based on the ever-rising costs of sustainment for old equipment, continuous operations, and long-deferred modernization, according to Gen Brown. The “Terrible 20’s” are here, and they don’t accept the same old worn out Band-Aids to work as solutions to buy more time until someone else makes the tough choices any longer.
5. The Air Force Must Work Differently With Stakeholders
Competition is interactive, and it requires a continual assessment relative to our adversaries' adaptations, Gen. Brown said. The new boss wants to throw out the old metrics of cost, schedule, and performance for more relevant metrics of acquisition success.
The Pentagon simply must conceive, develop, and field new capabilities "inside our competitors' fielding timelines." Beating China and Russia in conflict requires we beat them in development and fielding of capability, according to Brown.
In other words, “good enough today will fail tomorrow.” The chief knows that past success is no guarantee of future performance.
According to the Air Force acquisition executive, Dr. Will Roper, China is growing to scale in terms of GDP, overall population, and sheer quantity of annual STEM graduates. This means the Air Force must be disruptive, depriving China of the time to bring that massive scale-to-bear. Put another way, Air Force leaders want the service to become the “Mike Tyson of counter-punchers” to keep China regularly off balance.
The services need to be able to bring into the force in real-time emerging commercial technologies, without the traditional acquisition “Valley of death.” Faster buying must then be paired with innovative concepts of operation and a hefty amount of testing, evaluating and training.
Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.