An Air Force Strategy Stuck in the Future

USAF Misses Daunting Problems of the Present (Like the F-35)
An Air Force Strategy Stuck in the Future
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Alex Ward of the Atlantic Council thinks the world of the Air Force’s new strategic white paper, A Call to the Future, suggesting that the document is the best of its kind. Contra Ward, I think that the white paper concentrates so much on the future that it ignores the present problems that will inevitably structure how the organization moves forward.

Addressed to “Airmen and Airpower Advocates,” America’s Air Force: A Call to the Future sounds a lot of familiar notes. It hypes the concept of “strategic agility,” a worthy contribution, but ends up defining the service’s contribution in reactive terms.  A Call to the Future tackles procurement failures and speaks to the need for partnerships, but fails to contribute seriously to the most gripping procurement problem the Air Force currently faces – the F-35 – or to provide a framework for thinking about the failure of airpower partnerships in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Service strategic papers often amount to boring “bumper sticker” accounts of what an organization does, intended to sell the current leadership line to the members and to the wider public.  But the process writing these bumper stickers can be brutal, upending careers and setting the terms for how an organization’s leadership views the future.

A Call to the Future sees technological change and instability as the drivers of changes in the Air Force’s mission in the future.  Strategic agility (defined as flexibility, adaptability, and responsiveness) provides an answer to the problem of rapid, unexpected change, which has become the hallmark of the post-War on Terror world.  Technological innovation and the geopolitical instability drive this change.  According to the document, air power makes a unique, irreplaceable contribution to strategic agility.

Fundamentally, however, the document indicates an organization focused on response and reaction, rather than on shaping.  There’s an unusual humility to this, in that it grants limitations to the ability of the United States to structure the international environment, but it does suggest a limitation to the Air Force’s vision, especially with respect to the management of the commons. 

By contrast, the Navy’s 2007 Cooperative Strategy saw much more of a “shaping” role, arguing that certain approaches to the commons (sea, air, space, and cyberspace) could help shift national attitudes, interests, and motivations.  The Air Force has long struggled with the idea of the “commons” as a special international space, rather than as an avenue for commerce and force projection.

The white paper talks about a few new technologies, including hypersonics, unmanned aircraft, autonomous systems, and directed energy weapons.  It also works through some of the problems with the existing procurement process, calling on the Air Force to increase the number of “pivot points” at which it can dispose of expensive or unworkable tech.

Many (perhaps most) readers will see that as an implicit indictment of the F-35 program.  What we don’t see is an effort to deal with the damage that the F-35 has already done. Given that A Call to the Future identifies procurement policy as a problem, it makes sense to think that this problem has had negative effects.  We’re left to guess at what these effects are, and how the Air Force plans to solve them, which is a problem given that the service is struggling with what amounts to its biggest ever fighter acquisition.

A Call to the Future also has a partnership problem.  The document talks a lot about partnerships, including those with industry and Congress (although it’s not really appropriate to describe this relationship as a “partnership”), and with foreign organizations. The Air Force has come under criticism, some deserved and some not, for its work with the Afghan and Iraqi air forces.  Many of the problems with those partnerships lay outside of the Air Force’s control, but the complete failure of the Iraqi Air Force to accomplish anything useful in the war against ISIS has weighed against the USAF’s partnership potential.

In this context, you might expect A Call to the Future to have a more complete vision of how to handle partnerships.  You’d be wrong. A Call to the Future briefly discusses relationships with foreign air forces, but doesn’t talk much about how to develop partner capabilities. The Air Force’s vision of partnership with foreign orgs seems highly transactional, rather than permanent or constitutive on either side. This again stands in contrast with the Navy’s 2007 white paper, which focuses strongly on developing cooperative relationships with foreign organizations.

Like a lot of government documents, the language of A Call to the Future can evoke groans (“our current capability development paradigm is inadequate”).  Also, no document can answer every criticism, or provide a pathway to solving every problem.  However, A Call to the Future seems so defiantly focused on the future that it doesn’t pay enough attention to the problems we’ve identified today with how the Air Force does business. This document is worth reading, but it suggests an organization that’s still struggling to figure out the way from present to future.

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