The Department of the Air Force will unveil sweeping changes to its structure, organization, and training in February, buttressing the forces to better compete with and, if necessary, fight and defeat China and Russia should a peer conflict arise.
Having used his first two years as Secretary of the Air Force to focus the department on achieving seven operational imperatives and more effectively delivering operational capability to its warfighters, Frank Kendall ordered in September a sweeping review of five lines of effort across the department, seeking to uproot the impediments to current and future readiness and to enable the rapid development and integration of new technologies and capabilities into the services structure, tactics, and doctrine.
The Operational Imperatives sought to focus modernization efforts on critical needs: Ensuring a future Global Strike capability by delivering new B-21 Raider bombers and advanced long-range weapons; updating bases to be more resilient under attack and flexing fighter and mobility forces to operate from austere locations; and revamping military space assets into a proliferated satellite architecture too large and distributed to be crippled by one or a few anti-satellite weapons.
Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall III
China is a thinking, well-resourced adversary. They’re now thinking about the things we’ve said we’re going to do and how they’re going to defeat them. That’s why we have to re-optimize.
But as Kendall and the Chiefs of the Air Force and Space Force revealed in a series of preview interviews ahead of their February unveiling of their overhaul plans at the AFA Warfare Symposium, it became clear as those efforts progressed that there were other, systemic and organizational impediments to current and future force readiness, and that the service’s ability to fight tonight is not what it needs to be to deter or, if necessary, fight and defeat China in a peer conflict.
Those conclusions drove what will be the biggest overhaul of the Department of the Air in decades, reshaping how the Air & Space Forces will operate in the future.
“I had an assumption, walking in the door, that the Air Force and Space Force which, despite its newness, were basically structured and ready for whatever conflict might happen,” Kendall said in a January interview. “The realization has come to me over the period of time that I’ve been here—and the Chiefs are 100 percent in agreement with this—that we’re not as ready as we should be for great power conflict today.”
Kendall sees changes at his Pentagon headquarters, but also a substantial realignment within the Air Force major commands and significant overhauls of training, including exercises designed to stress-test that training to identify shortfalls.
“I’ve been in the Pentagon a long time,” said Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman. “Bureaucracies struggle with change if the leadership at the very top of the organization isn’t committed to it, isn’t emphasizing it, isn’t giving us the priority and top cover, and really pressing us with that sense of urgency—and so that’s what he’s done.”
The Department of the Air Force houses two services of vastly different size, structure, and capability. But both face headwinds in their struggle to modernize and prepare for a more complex, capable adversary.
“The Air Force and the Space Force under the Department have the same goal here,” Saltzman said. “We know fundamentally that we face a pacing challenge that is going to put us to the test and that neither service has been optimized for that—either completely or because they’ve been doing other things for decades”The Air Force will reimagine its deployment rotations and deployment preparation, better aligning training and planning with anticipated destinations. Technology development will be better aligned with efforts to deliver weapons more quickly to the warfighter and to integrate those capabilities into war plans more readily. The Space Force, meanwhile, is preparing for a new era in which it could find itself under attack, both in orbit and at home. It is seeking to be more operationally responsive, developing both defensive and offensive capabilities to fight, if necessary, in space and better protect its critical infrastructure at home. Individual training will expand and intensify, with expanded requirements for Airmen before they can deploy and more realistic training for Guardians. In short, every Airman, Guardian, and civilian employee of the Department of the Air Force is likely to be affected in some way, small or large.
“The re-optimization scope is broad,” said Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David W. Allvin. It is also strategic: “The issue is, you can’t reorganize yourself out of a challenge,” Allvin added. “But if you have an organizational structure that’s inhibiting that change, then you need to address that.” Among the first projects Kendall took on after becoming Secretary was where the Air Force was headed with a series of experiments under the banner of a future Advanced Battle Management System. The concept was central to the Air Force operationalizing the joint force concept of Joint All Domain Command and Control, but the investment strategy struck him as scattered: Too much experimentation, and not enough defined operational capability.
From the start, Kendall saw ABMS as failing to deliver “meaningful operational capability to the warfighter.” Launched as a program to replace the legacy E-3 Sentry, ABMS had morphed from a platform-centered concept to a family of systems to a series of highly publicized experiments but had gotten no closer to delivering a product.
When Kendall defined his seven Operational Imperatives for the department seven months later, “Operationally Focused ABMS” was second on his list. But the department lacked an office or agency that could lead that effort department-wide. So he created integrated program executive office and named Brig. Gen. Luke C.G. Cropsey in September 2022 to oversee the DAF’s command, control, communications, and battle management efforts (C3BM), something he defined then as among the hardest jobs he’d given anyone over his entire career.
“We’ve had to do ad hoc things to complete tasks that should have had someone in place with that as their mission,” Kendall said. Now he will build on that concept. “We’re going to create organizations to have those sorts of missions, both here on the Secretariat and in other parts of the force.” However difficult these jobs are, Kendall sees Cropsey and Tim Grayson, now the Air Force’s chief engineer, as providing exactly the high-level, centralized coordination necessary to drive faster results and more rapidly push out new capability to front-line units. “We got to have people who are thinking about integrated capability—integrated capability, planning, and modernization, and readiness,” Kendall said. “We need that on the operational side, and we need it on the technical side as well.”
Kendall says the nuclear enterprise has only grown more important as China rapidly expands its nuclear force, highlighting the need to better coordinate the Air Force’s nuclear weapons modernization efforts. “Global Strike Command is fine in terms of the operational side of that,” Kendall said. But he is concerned about modernization, with supply chain challenges, costs continuing to mount, and little margin for error. “We are looking at making sure we have a senior leader who is in charge of everything that supports the nuclear warfighting part of the force.”
Prime on that list is keeping the new Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile program on track. That program, encompassing the largest national infrastructure effort since the construction of the interstate highway system, includes developing the missile, new launch control centers, and 450 silos. In January, the Air Force acknowledged rising costs and delays put it in breach of the Nunn-McCurdy amendment, a 1983 law intended to curtail runaway weapons development costs. That means costs have risen at least 25 percent above original estimates and puts the program at potential risk of cancellation.
The Air Force is faring better in developing the B-21 Raider bomber, of which it anticipates acquiring at least 100 over the next decade-plus. The B-21 made its first flight in November. In the Pacific, Kendall and Allvin foresee accelerating and enhancing the changes necessary to enable Agile Combat Employment—the strategy of dispersing from central fixed operating bases and instead scattering air operations across multiple smaller bases with far less infrastructure. Though ACE has been doctrine since 2022, more must be done, from training to infrastructure, to ensure squadrons can actually execute the concept.
“We’ve been we’ve been talking and exercising Agile Combat Employment, but we haven’t actually done everything we need to structure the force to be able to do it effectively,” Kendall said. “You know when the last time was we actually went to a unit and said, ‘The war has started, show me you can go?’ Decades—it’s been decades since we did that. We should be doing that all the time.”
ACE has from its inception focused on “Multi-Capable Airmen,” able to perform a variety of jobs to ensure the smallest possible footprint at remote air stations. Those mixed or secondary skills also anticipate operations where the Air Force suffers significant casualties, and the ability to continue operating despite those depends on Airmen able to do whatever is needed. As every Marine is a rifleman, and every Sailor has damage control responsibilities, Kendall wants to every Airman to able to contribute to launching aircraft. He sees the Multi-Capable Airman concept evolving to something less voluntary, and more plainly defined, calling them “Mission-Capable Airmen” instead, so that they are able to operate a forklift, help refuel aircraft, repair a runway, or assist with logistics.
“We’ve sort of encouraged people to learn more than one skill, and we’re giving them opportunities to do that,” Kendall said. Now it will be formalized. “It’s not going to be optional. It’s going to be a requirement in certain roles in certain commands, that when you go out to an ACE remote spoke or hub, that you’ll be able to do more than one job.”
New deployment models are taking shape, building on the Air Force Force Generation model unveiled under Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.’s tenure as CSAF. AFFORGEN was designed to help the Air Force, combatant commanders, and the broader U.S. military better understand the implications of deployment decisions, how calling up a squadron for a set mission now may require gaps in other operating theaters or in the future, said Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. James Slife, sworn into the job in December after a long delay. “It gives us a better ability to articulate capacity, risk, and readiness to the joint force,” Slife said. “The service has a responsibility to think on a different time horizon than combatant commands do.”
AFFORGEN is still a work in progress, and impacts the various major commands differently, but will impact Air Combat Command especially.
The Air Force is also rolling out a new Air Task Force concept, packaging forces that train, deploy, and fight together. The idea is to end the existing system, which had become almost a lottery, with individuals from dozens of disparate units assembling into a team only after they arrive in theater.
For now, the service plans three Air Task Forces: two for U.S. Central Command and one for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. The first ATFs are scheduled to begin their AFFORGEN cycle this summer, the Air Force says. But ATFs are still a pilot program of sorts, officials say. “We’re going to put those units together ahead of time, give them six months, at least, to prepare themselves for the deployment so when they show up in theater, they’re ready to function,” Kendall said. “So that will model it. This is going to be for the specific rotational deployments we’re doing now. Those are not the same forces we need in a contingency for major combat operations against a peer competitor.”
The Space Force is also changing. Space assets have long been a critical enabler for the U.S. military but have not been held directly at risk. However, a 2021 direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test by Russia and the 2015 standup of the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force, which focused China’s military space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities, is evidence that space might become a conflict zone. The Space Force plans to evolve from an organization created to put military space capability under one service into a true fighting force.
“The Space Force is still largely the collection of activities that we had when we started the Space Force,” Kendall said.
That on-the-fly construction was a necessity for a new service, Saltzman said. But now, four years on from its creation, re-optimization offers the service a chance to conduct a wholesale investigation of itself.
“There’s things that we can look back on that we had to do fast because we had to establish ourselves fairly quickly. And now, with some hindsight, we can say, ‘Did we get it right?’ Are there areas we should have emphasized differently? Are there things that we’re not satisfied with?’” Saltzman said. “I think we’re going to be better as we come out on the other side.”
Saltzman likened the change to converting the Merchant Marine into the Navy.
“The Space Force has been operating in a benign environment for a lot of this and we don’t have warfighting experience in the space domain,” Saltzman said. “So, we need to build those simulators, build those ranges, build the tactics, try to test them as best we can, give the rehearsals to our units.”
The Space Force also relies on the Air Force for basing and logistics support. That model faces unique challenges—a power outage could do far more damage than a bomb.
“The Space Force does most of its work with employed-in-place forces, so we have to think about that base infrastructure,” Saltzman said. “Space Force bases are the power projection platforms. If our computers in the ground network get hot, all of a sudden, we don’t have the ability to command and control, we don’t have the ability to receive data, and we’re in real trouble. As odd as it seems, HVAC systems are a critical component for sustainment,” he said, as essential as cyber defenses.
OPTIMIZING FOR THE TIMES
There is plenty of historical context for the changes now underway. Following World War II, the Air Force was carved out of the Army Air Corps and greatly downsized for what was hoped would be a new age of peace. But soon after came war in Korea, and then the Cold War with the Soviet Union, with the rapid expansion and formalization of the nuclear enterprise.
The 1960s and 1970s brought the Vietnam War, for which the Air Force was ill-prepared. Having structured a force around nuclear deterrence, it found itself fighting an air campaign with the wrong weapons and with severe restrictions on how it engaged the enemy. Suffering huge losses, that led to a massive rethink of how combat forces train and execute conventional war, bringing forth the introduction of radar-evading stealth technology and advanced, precision-guided weapons.
The Air Force focused on technological superiority through the 1980s, then proved those advances in air campaigns in the 1990s, beginning with Operation Desert Storm against Iraq and bringing Serbia to end its war in Kosovo with air power alone. But in the 1990s, with the Cold War over, the Air Force had to adjust again, this time for efficiency. Older platforms were jettisoned, and the force shrunk by more than one third. Modernization was delayed and put on hold as the Pentagon bet that, in a single-Super Power world, the U.S. could afford a “procurement holiday.” Then came two decades of ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which air power was ever present, but little challenged. That led to heavy use of assets even as new aircraft were procured at record low levels, accelerating the aging and shrinking of U.S. airpower.
The Air Force prioritized efficiency in this period, collapsing and combining units to best meet continuing demand in the Middle East, while compromising its ability to engage in a high-end fight. The Air Force shifted away from deploying complete squadrons.
“In a relatively low-threat environment, where we were operating for years at a time out of large main operating bases, that model has been sufficient to our needs,” Slife added. “We organized our Air Force to be as flexible as possible, break it up into as many small little things as we can, and deploy.”
Now the U.S. faces two nuclear powers, Russia and China, rising nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran, a regional war in Ukraine, growing instability in the Middle East, and a growing risk that China will try to seize Taiwan militarily, threatening its other neighbors with its expansionist ambitions.
Russia has been determined to pursue its war of attrition in Ukraine, is playing the long game, and is calculating that it can prevail in that way by outlasting the West. China presents even more of a longer-term threat—a “pacing challenge,” in the words of Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III.
“Every change in the strategic environment privileges different attributes,” Slife said. “This is now a very different environment.”
But the Air Force and Space Force are running out of time to adapt.
“Xi Jinping has told his military to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027,” Kendall said. “China is a thinking, well-resourced adversary. They’re now thinking about the things we’ve said we’re going to do and how they’re going to defeat them. That’s why we have to re-optimize. We’re in a race. And we can’t just hope we win. We have to actually do things to make sure we stay ahead.”