Innovating for Airpower

Dec. 22, 2014

The future of airpower, according to Air Force officials and top scholars at a November airpower symposium hosted by RAND Corp. and the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, is entirely reliant on the minds of future airmen. Officials said that in the strategies USAF is using to achieve desired outcomes, there must be a fundamental shift away from being married to processes, and the service must foster an environment in which new ideas are truly welcome through the ranks.

As the Air Force continues to shrink to its smallest size ever, it will become even more urgent for airmen to find new ways to solve old problems and ensure “we aren’t designing future tools the same way we did in the past,” said Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, commander of Air University at Maxwell AFB, Ala.

In the past, innovation and creativity have been stifled by process “and, I’m going to use the ‘b word,’ bureaucracy,” said Maj. Gen. David Allvin, director of strategy, concepts, and assessments on the Air Staff. “Especially with this competition for the human mind, the real idea of agility is this idea of breaking the rigid processes and paradigms of the industrial era,” Allvin said. There’s no such thing as an agile fighting force when the system in place is stuck in the last century, he said.

The key to breaking the mold, Kwast said, is creating “a culture of airmen who know how to learn and know how to think” about problems differently. For the Air Force, “the problem may not be that we’ve suboptimized or that our tools are not as relevant, … but rather [a need] to take a look at how we, as an organization, learn,” he added.

“The battlespace for the 21st century is the human mind, not some particular chunk of territory or seas,” added retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute, at the Nov. 21 event at RAND headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif. Deptula noted the “concepts of the last century will simply be eclipsed in the information age,” and all airmen must be empowered to think critically about the best way to solve current and future challenges.

When considering airpower strategy and its place in the broader national security environment, the focus is too often on equipment and technical ability and not enough on building a culture of critical thinking and innovation, officials believe. Innovation is what the Air Force does best and is the service’s “core competency,” Deptula said, adding that “a concerted focus on further developing our air and space force would serve us well”—particularly by developing new capabilities in areas such as space.

But with tightening budgets, even Air Force space advocates concede that developing a space force could be a hard sell to those looking to cut spending—and demanding to see the applicability of every dollar to the immediate US national security objectives.

“Space assets are a very efficient way and a very effective way to deliver” global reach, global power, and global vigilance, said Lt. Gen. Samuel A. Greaves, commander of Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles AFB, Calif. But further developing the capabilities in the space arena is not a universally accepted priority. Since 2012, the SMC investment budget has decreased by nearly $2 billion, according to Gen. John E. Hyten, head of Air Force Space Command.

Remarkably, despite the declining funding, Space Command didn’t stop doing a thing, Hyten said. “All the satellites are coming off the line; all the rockets are going up and working.” Thanks to the flexibility of contractors and other partnerships, AFSPC has managed to continue business as usual. But that’s also a problem, because business has changed, Hyten said.

Those with decision-making ability “have grown up in the same world that I’ve grow up in,” he continued, and the perspectives and ideas of younger airmen have not been able to penetrate the ranks and influence the way the Air Force does business yet. The Air Force has to find a way to change this.

Incorporating new ideas and finding a place to bring inquisitiveness in the space arena, one that is ever-changing as knowledge of space changes, is critical. Hyten said all of the other major commands have undergone significant organizational changes in the recent decade. But the command has to adapt to think differently “about the world that we’re in and not the world we were in before.”

Free Up The Thinkers

This thinking could apply to the allocation of resources—for instance, the current US satellite aggregation “has put us into a bind where we have very fat, juicy targets and everybody knows where they are,” Hyten said.

However, equating resilience with disaggregation “is fundamentally wrong,” he said.

It is also critical to realize that the Air Force does not have to operate separately in air, space, and cyberspace. In fact, working cooperatively with other services, industry, and other nations can help strengthen the capacity of the Air Force and free up airmen caught in circular tasks to operate more efficiently. Essential services like email, SharePoint tools, and data storage are things “industry does 100 times better than we ever will,” Hyten said.

“Why do we have thousands of airmen operating email?” Hyten asked. If services like IT were outsourced to industry—which Hyten argued has invested more into ensuring capability and security than the Air Force can—then airmen would be free to think more about cyber concerns. These include fighting network threats, doing missions inside of the network, learning how to anticipate attacks, and thinking proactively about moving forward in the cyber environment. Instead, they’re stuck on help desks troubleshooting email issues.

Cloud computing also presents opportunities for USAF. “If we move to the cloud, we’ll have a resilient, better defended system and be able to reallocate limited manpower to developing systems,” Greaves said.

The issue of self-containment—relying entirely on USAF capabilities to avoid creating codependencies, which create redundancies—is bigger than just wasted time and resources on mundane IT tasks. The US has some major “security issues” that are inhibiting military collaboration with even friendly nations and allies, said Pacific Air Forces Commander Gen. Lori J. Robinson.

The US and USAF have to think differently “about security and some of the things that we hold near and dear to our heart, because if we can’t do that part, then I don’t see us being able to begin working together” with Pacific allies, Robinson said. In addition, USAF has to be smarter about communicating with partners to maximize and strengthen capabilities in the region. That means finding “a better way to be interdependent, not all [buying] the same thing, not all [having] the same stuff, but [complementing] each other with capability and capacity, so that when heaven forbid something happens in the region, that we all are working together, whether it’s across service lines or across capability with our partners and our allies,” Robinson said.

This is a fight that may not go over well in Congress, as Air Force leadership battles against members holding fast to the way things were or seeking ways to slash costs. But political gridlock on Capitol Hill is a persistent issue and one USAF must be prepared for.

Consistently late authorization and appropriation bills, shutdowns, and lots of crisis management—instead of proactive thinking—are contributing to what former Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley called an impossible environment in Congress. Donley, who was the longest-serving SECAF, lamented that there do not “seem to be enough votes to reverse the budget gaps, but [there are] enough votes to block the base closures … that are recommended to deal with the budget gaps.”

Radical Changes Needed

Greaves said Air Force leaders will have to be prepared to “answer the question: ‘Why change now?’?” when Congress asks. But if the Air Force is to continue to offer the world’s best capabilities in the future, there must be “radical changes in design and infrastructure,” Greaves said.

Left unchecked, parochialism can cause real damage to the nation. For example, USAF should work to develop and buy the best equipment money can buy. There are cases in which reliance on foreign products can become problematic, such as in the case of Russia’s RD-180 rocket engine, but in other cases a foreign product may simply be the best option.

“We’ve got to get over our … political reluctance to buy other people’s stuff,” said RAND senior analyst David Ochmanek. “If we can convey to our partners on the Hill the seriousness of the challenges we operationally face,” particularly in the Pacific, it will help the Air Force to overcome natural parochialism instincts encountered when you talk about co-development and purchasing overseas, he said.

Just as important as facilitating a collaborative work environment across borders, the Air Force is being smarter about finding ways to increase collaboration with local communities. This work pulls in both Congress and industry, working on ways to balance efficiency with effectiveness and to leverage technological advances.

“My fear as the Air Force Test Center commander is that I’ll have the research lab come to me and say we need you to test this and I say, ‘Man, that’s really cool. Can you come back in four, five years?’?” Maj. Gen. Arnold W. Bunch Jr. said. Staying on the cutting edge of research and innovation is crucial for the service, and this is where the congressional and industry partnerships and support become so vital.

“It’s not enough to talk about the technology, but how the technology integrates,” said former Air Force Chief Scientist Mark J. Lewis. “There are areas that we need some duplicative technologies to enhance the capability of workload, but when that is not the case, [USAF should be] working to eliminate redundancy,” added Bunch.

In this environment, “integration and practicality, consistency” are key, said Lewis, director of the Science and Technology Policy Institute at the Institute for Defense Analyses. As the Air Force is working and focusing on one technology, it has to be ever-thinking about the next generation of weapons and systems. “The speed at which information is out there to the whole rest of the world is remarkable,” Lewis said, and the US is beginning to lag behind.

“It’s really embarrassing when you celebrate your 10th anniversary” of the F-35 program “and you’ll celebrate your 20th anniversary before IOC,” said retired Lt. Gen. George K. Muellner, former AFA chairman of the board.

If anyone can pull the nation back up to its world-leading innovation past, it is airmen, said Donald B. Rice, Air Force Secretary under President George H. W. Bush. “The United States Air Force has been the best sponsor of independent analytical research of any organization anywhere on the planet,” Rice said, and national security has been better for it.

“In the last decade really, every time a committee to Congress—and it doesn’t matter whether it’s one chaired by a Democrat or one chaired by a Republican—comes up with a question that they want answered, they designate the work to [RAND’s Project Air Force]. And that is at least as much a testament to the Air Force as it is to RAND,” Rice said.

“If we could use airpower in the way it is meant to be used, and not just in the way that civilian leadership decides to use it, it could be much better,” said Paula Thornhill, director of the strategy and doctrine program at RAND’s Project Air Force.