Air Force pins its future on ‘strategic agility’

The Air Force’s latest strategy document calls for a service that’s more agile in just about everything it does. It also acknowledges it may take a few decades to achieve that.

The strategy, “A Call to the Future,” released Wednesday, is the latest in what officials say is a trilogy of documents that will guide how the service operates in the coming years. This one tries to set a path to the deep future — 30 years out — and asserts that the single biggest challenge it will face over that period is the ability to adapt as quickly as potential adversaries will.

“The basic premise is that we never ever seem to accurately predict the future. We never get it right,” Deborah Lee James, the secretary of the Air Force told reporters at the Pentagon. “And so therefore we’re going to have to continue to be able to step up to the plate and do a range of missions and we need to get ahead of the curve when it comes to the enormous and very rapid change that we’re seeing in our world. And I’m talking about changes in technology, changes in different nations and groups acquiring weapons, changes in how we communicate with one another. Whoever saw Facebook and Twitter 10 years ago? These are all enormous changes in a short period of time.”

James said the concept of “strategic agility” applies to everything from how it trains and deploys its people to how it acquires new technology to how it organizes its own management structure.

On acquisition, James said the strategy demands a shift away from monolithic, single-purpose platforms to more modular systems that can rapidly adapt to changing realities on the battlefield. The changes she wants to see, she said, start at the very front end of the acquisition process when requirements are first developed.

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“We need a more agile structure that accommodates more frequent pivot points,” she told a meeting of the National Contract Management Association earlier in the day. “That more modular approach means we ought to be able to open competition to a broader group rather than solely relying on large programs which don’t allow us the ability to adapt in the face of changing threats. We feel like if we get this right, it ought to maximize the bang we get for each buck by making it easier to integrate the best technological advances more quickly, and similarly to slough off elements or technologies that either aren’t producing what we wanted, or if the world changes and we don’t need it any more, we would be able to more easily get rid of it.”

Building in adaptability

The Air Force said it’s already begun the process of building adaptability into its systems. For example, James said the classified Long Range Strike Bomber program is being designed with requirements that are achievable right now, but that the system will be adaptable enough to plug in new hardware and software in response to changes in technology without having to design an entirely new airplane.

Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said the service will also look for ways to build in more adaptability to its existing weapons systems, not just new ones.

“Let me use the example of propulsion. If the advanced engine technology demonstrator program proves that you can in fact create systems that save you anywhere between 30 and 45 percent of fuel costs, then we should be building into every fleet we have decision points for implementing that new technology in engine competitions to replace existing engines, because it will pay for itself very quickly,” he said. “I just think we have to be able to take advantage of things as they change. It may not be a major mission area change overnight, but we should look for it at every level of our activity. The problem on the acquisition side of the house is that we aren’t the only ones involved in the process, and the process has to become more agile. How you get there from here is the problem, and that’s why this is a 30-year document. This isn’t going to change overnight.”

With respect to Air Force personnel, the new strategy notes that that the boundaries between its active component and the Air National Guard and reserve have become “more permeable,” and calls for those lines to be blurred even further. For budget reasons, the Air Force has already picked 14,000 active-duty service members for early separation this year, including 6,000 who are leaving the force involuntarily. So service leaders see themselves relying more heavily on the reserve components. James said the budget picture demands a personnel system that lets airmen move more easily from one component to another.

“You’ll see us embed into policies and decisions the concepts of more empowerment for our airmen, more continuum of service, the flow between active, guard and reserve and back in a more seamless way, more live virtual constructive training so that we can train in different ways than we train today, diversity of thought, critical thinking skills for airmen. These are all the things that you can expect to see us work on when it comes to people and training,” she said.

James said the strategy will also drive the Air Force to a series of examinations about its overall organizational structure, and, there too, it’s already begun to make changes. The service has undergone a significant restructuring of its organizational chart within its corner of the Pentagon within the last year, and it’s launched a buyout and early-out program to accelerate Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s instruction to cut military headquarters spending by 20 percent. Instead of making those reductions over five years, the Air Force wants to get them done in one year.

Taking a play from Navy’s playbook

And James said service contractors make up the next round of the Air Force’s effort to right size its organizational structure.

“We’re setting up a process, taking a page form the Navy’s playbook, in which we’re going to go through very deliberately, office by office, and ask them to come in and justify to a senior team why it is that they continue to need these services,” she said. “And through that process we’ve already found some reductions.”

The strategy also calls for the Air Force to take a more holistic examination of all of the elements of its arsenal — not just airpower — and how they might apply to the future of warfighting.

“So often in the Air Force, if we come across a new challenge, our answer is to say, ‘Well, we need a new airplane for that.’ We think a lot about airplanes, that’s our heritage,” James said. “But increasingly, we need to be able to open our minds and say, ‘Maybe that challenge isn’t necessarily met by a new airplane or a new munition. Maybe we can get it done through cyber effects or maybe we can leverage our assets in space.’ So it’s that multi-domain approach. If you’re trying to put steel on a target, what are the various ways you can get it done? Because there’s implications on costs.”

Officials made clear Wednesday that while they don’t quite know how much money they will have to spread around to their service’s five key mission areas, there are a handful of categories that won’t be sacrificed due to budget cuts. James said the Air Force’s nuclear weapons mission will be staffed at 100 percent, even if it’s at the expense of other functions. And spending on cyber operations is also very unlikely to be sliced back under any budget scenario.

“What it really calls for is for us to get our act together with what we’re going to do in the cyber domain in the future,” Welsh said. “We are making a big change in cyber from an Air Force perspective, from a group of technologies that grew up supporting very narrowly focused technical support to human operations. The Air Force and air component commanders are worried about big effects on big battlefields, because our job is to fight the big fight. So, how do we reshape our thinking in the Air Force to think about executing the five core missions that are our only job? How do we do more ISR in and through the cyber domain, more command and control, more strike of different types? What kind of targets now open up to us, and what effects can we now produce that we couldn’t before? That’s the change the Air Force needs to make in the cyber domain. Make it mainstream, as opposed to a kind of a niche capability with really talented people doing it behind the green door. That’s what this is calling us to figure out how to do.”

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