Sometimes, a singular event so stuns the world that we are instantly, palpably aware that nothing will ever be quite the same again. Pearl Harbor. 9/11. COVID-19. At other times, the world shifts and it’s only later that, looking back, the scope of change grows clear.
And sometimes these two phenomena converge, and you see not just the changes aligning in the rearview mirror but a clear path to a better future ahead. Now is one of those moments.
When Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. became the 22nd Air Force Chief of Staff in the COVID-infected summer of 2020, his signature challenge —“Accelerate Change … or Lose”—was a cry for urgency. Brown didn’t unveil a new strategy or organizing principle. He was sounding an alarm. Stop admiring the problem and get on with solving it. Push decision-making down the chain. Come up with your own solutions. Get on with it.
Time is short. The clock is ticking.
Teaming Brown with Frank Kendall, who arrived as Secretary one year later, proved fortuitous: Kendall, the consummate Pentagon insider and old Cold Warrior matched well with the fighter pilot warrior, whose scant Pentagon experience might otherwise have been a handicap. But Kendall’s focus was well aligned: He wanted to move on from conceptual experiments to “delivering meaningful operational capability.” He too wanted to accelerate change.
That brings us to today. Brown became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Oct. 1. A month later, his former deputy, Gen. David W. Allvin, was finally confirmed and sworn in as the 23rd Air Force Chief of Staff. A new era arrives.
Like Brown and Gens. David Goldfein (Chief No. 21) and Mark Welsh (No. 20), Allvin inherits the smallest, oldest Air Force in American history. Each Chief took over a smaller and older force than his predecessor, and the Air Force continues to shrink, jettisoning by the hundreds older aircraft that long ago exceeded their “best-by” date.
But unlike his predecessors, Allvin may well be able to hand off a growing Air Force to his successor.
Over the next few years, the Air Force will begin to test and field a whole new generation of aircraft and weapons, the most fundamental rejuvenation of the force since the 1970s when it delivered the F-15, F-16, F-117, B-1, B-2, C-17, AWACS, and JSTARS.
In his week as Chief, the T-7A Red Tail, the first jet trainer in nearly 40 years, and the B-21 Raider, the first new bomber since the B-2 more than 30 years ago, arrived at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., for testing. They join F-35s already proving out new upgrades in the California Desert and a host of new air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles. Also coming soon: B-52s with new engines and flight systems, the E-7 Wedgetail AWACS replacement, the Next-Generation Air Dominance family of systems, and a cast of uncrewed Collaborative Combat Aircraft.
There hasn’t been so much “new” coming down the pike in generations. How fitting, then, that the new Chief should be a former test pilot and that his challenge to the force is “follow through.”
It’s time to complete the picture. Turn concept to reality. The future to now.
The world is at a far more dangerous precipice today than it was three years ago. During COVID, we experienced fear of the unknown, unprecedented impacts on our lives and the economy, reactions and counterreactions. COVID left the world a less stable place. It undermined globalization, exposed overdependence on foreign supply chains and just-in-time delivery processes that leave little margin for error or disruption. COVID also deepened political divisions and undermined trust in institutions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to exploit those divisions when he invaded Ukraine. He bet—wrongly it turned out—that Europeans would give up Ukraine as long as they were assured a steady supply of Russian gas.
COVID broke economies, but some came back faster and stronger than others. China has proven less resilient. Its president, Xi Jinping, continues to consolidate power. Having publicly dispatched his predecessor, Hu Jintao, into obscurity last year, Xi disposed this year of both his defense and foreign ministers. Business leaders have also been made to disappear.
Iran’s audacious instigation of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel is another symptom of a more dangerous world. Its proxy forces in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere continue to try to draw the U.S. into a wider conflict.
Russia, China, and Iran all benefit from a less stable world. The U.S. must be steadfast in deterring their worst instincts.
At his coming-out speech at JB Andrews, Md., Nov. 17, Allvin acknowledged the tense world situation.
“The current environment is one in which our national interests are threatened in a way we have not seen in decades,” he said. The job of the Air Force and the military in general, “is to ensure that when other international actors consider reaching into that toolbox for a device labeled ‘military conflict,’ they rightfully consider that an unwise choice.”
Rebuilding the Air Force, as a more modern, more flexible, and more lethal opponent is the key to deterring—and to fighting and winning if needed.
“The evolving character of war is one that privileges speed and tempo, range, agility, flexibility, resilience, and precise lethality,” he said. “These elements run deep in the DNA of airpower, and it is our responsibility to the joint force and the nation to bring these to bear to meet our pacing challenge.”
Speed has always been key to victory in war. David was smaller than Goliath, but his slingshot was quicker than the giant’s sword. The great Roman Legions lost the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest to far-less sophisticated but more nimble German tribes. Speed crushed Iraq in Desert Storm.
Speed creates confusion and information advantage. It ramps up the pressure on an overwhelmed foe. It creates surprise, and surprise wins.
Yet, speed has not been a defining characteristic of Air Force modernization over the past 20 years. Inconsistent funding, inconsistent support from Congress, inconsistent messaging from the Pentagon, and inconsistent performance by suppliers have all contributed to that fact. The KC-46, the T-7A, and the F-35 programs are all years behind schedule.
Yet it now seems we are at a turning point. The reviews of those aircraft are universally high; their troubles finally nearing a close. The B-21, among USAF’s best-run efforts, is pretty much on target. The organizational discipline that Kendall and Brown imposed is working.
Allvin’s challenge is to rally his Airmen to the call. “Follow through” doesn’t have the ring of “Charge!” or even “Accelerate Change … or Lose.” It’s not poetry. But it’s important. Sustaining change is as hard —maybe harder—than initiating it. Achieving transformation is another challenge all together.
Time is short. The clock is ticking. Take your swing—and follow through.