What a Flournoy Pentagon Could Mean for the Air Force

Michèle A. Flournoy, the former under secretary of defense for policy, has emerged as the frontrunner to take over as Defense Secretary once the presumptive President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January. In a June article published in Foreign Affairs, Flournoy provided a glimpse into how the Defense Department’s outlook could shift under her leadership if she does in fact assume the top job at the Pentagon.

The article, “How to Prevent a War in Asia,” called on the Defense Department to shore up its deterrence toward China, specifically through changes in weapons buying and new operational concepts. U.S. deterrence in the Pacific has slipped, she wrote, and the Pentagon needs to invest more in capabilities to deter an aggressive China, including survivable command and control, cyber, and unmanned systems. Specifically, Flournoy said the Defense Secretary needs to press the military services to make tough choices.

“The U.S. military also needs to adapt its own overseas posture while shoring up the capabilities of allies and partners,” Flournoy wrote in the article. “It should expect that China will try to disrupt the U.S. ability to re-enforce forward forces from the outset of a conflict, in all domains—air, sea, undersea, space, cyberspace. Accordingly, U.S. forces, bases, logistics networks, and C4ISR networks must be made more survivable and resilient. This will require investments in stronger cyber- and missile defenses; more geographically dispersed bases and forces; more unmanned systems to augment manned platforms; and resilient networks that can continue to function under attack.”

The column had at least one key reader. In his “Accelerate Change or Lose” paper, Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr wrote, “The warning signs have been blinking for some time,” citing the Flournoy article in a footnote.

“The 2018 National Defense Strategy and the independent National Defense Strategy Commission both concluded that the international security environment is getting more competitive and dangerous with the return of great power competition and the erosion of U.S. military advantages. Recent publications from leaders and scholars across the security community raise similar alarms regarding the erosion of U.S. warfighting advantages.”

Air Force Magazine spoke with several former senior U.S. Air Force officials who worked directly with Flournoy. Each said she is qualified to lead the Pentagon if nominated, that she would largely keep the department on the same course it has been under the Trump administration, though she’s likely to prioritize key USAF acquisition programs while cutting back on other legacy systems and controversial nuclear programs in the face of tightening budgets.

“If nominated, Michèle is extremely well qualified, it would be good news for the Air Force and the entire department,” said former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who worked with Flournoy multiple times in Pentagon policy during the Clinton administration. “…. Her world perspective is we have to remain focused … on great power competition, and China is the most worrying of those great powers.”

Facing the Budget Reality

Flournoy is currently the managing partner of WestExec Advisors. She also founded the Center for a New American Security before being floated as a possible Defense Secretary in the Obama administration and in a potential Hillary Clinton administration before the 2016 election.

During a virtual Aspen Institute event in August, Flournoy was asked directly about serving as a Secretary of Defense, responding that while she would not speculate, “I’ve spent 30 years in some form of public service, either in government or in the nonprofit sector, and that is my calling. And so, you know, who knows. But I’ve come out and endorsed Joe Biden. I do think he’s the right answer for the country, and I would do anything to support his success and for the sake of the country.”

If nominated and confirmed, she would lead a Pentagon facing down either flat or declining budgets. After years of focus on “great power competition” under the National Defense Strategy while continuing wars in the Middle East, a rising deficit and a realignment of priorities amid the COVID-19 pandemic will likely force the Pentagon to shift its priorities.

“Defense budgets are probably going to flatten in the coming years, no matter who wins the election,” Flournoy said during the Aspen Institute event. “That means you have to make tradeoffs, that means you have to make many hard decisions, it means you probably need to buy fewer legacy forces in order to invest in the technologies that will actually make the force that you keep more relevant, more survivable, more combat effective, and better able to underwrite deterrence.”

She warned lawmakers in January testimony, even before the pandemic hit, that the Pentagon and Congress need to make trade-offs between legacy platforms and new technologies. “The United States is underinvesting in the new technologies that will ultimately determine our success in the future, … a recipe for failure with dire costs for the nation.”

In a possible preview of what Air Force planners will face, Flournoy said lawmakers and the Pentagon need to find the “knee in the curve” and determine the point where it would make more sense to stop buying a platform, and instead spend money on emerging technologies that would keep existing platforms survivable and effective, using the example of foregoing “fighter squadrons for the Air Force” for a smaller and more capable force.

“The Secretary of Defense should … be willing to make the hard choices necessary to prepare for the future fight—and Congress should support the Pentagon when these hard but correct choices are made,” she said.

Former Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley, who ran the service while Flournoy led DOD policy, said “she understands not only the strategic choices that will need to be made, but also the importance of gaining congressional buy-in for those choices. I don’t think it’s appropriate to think of those choices in terms of service or programmatic ‘winners or losers.’ Michèle has a calm and practical mind and I’m confident she appreciates the rising importance of the cyber and space domains, the importance of regaining and/or maintaining our technological edge for the future, and the value of initiatives like [joint all-domain command and control] which, as it matures, will give our military capabilities greater than the sum of its parts.”

In several recent appearances, Flournoy highlighted the Air Force-led JADC2 effort as key to what the military needs to become, telling lawmakers in January testimony the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System is the “long-pole in the tent” for making multi-domain operations a reality. The effort needs rapid advancements in technology, spurred by private sector approaches to technological development, and more investment than it currently has.

“We’re talking the talk, but where is that substantial commitment of multiyear funding?” she told Defense News. “That’s, I think, something we need to work towards.”

While the department and Congress have talked a lot about changing acquisition and moving faster in weapons buying, it hasn’t become enough of a reality. Flournoy, in her Aspen Institute appearance, said the military hasn’t trained or incentivized flexible authorities “at scale.” Congress needs a more active role in ensuring the Pentagon can actually take advantage of the authorities.

“Sometimes when the department is trying to make those tradeoffs to move money from one program to another, if they don’t do a good job of explaining that to Congress, they sort of get the hand from Congress,” she said. “And so I think one of the things we emphasize is we really have to make Congress much more of a strategic partner in this exercise. They need to understand what we’re facing, the urgency. They need to be invited into the wargames, and to the simulations, and to the experimentation, and to understand why these tradeoffs are being made.”

With tightening budgets, technology investments will come at a cost, and experts speculate there’s one area under the new administration’s priorities that could come under scrutiny.

“The trickiest question is what Air Force priorities are the billpayers for these other investments called for,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow with the American Enterprise Institute. “It is inevitable the triad will get yet another fundamental re-look, with an emphasis on the [Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent] in particular. This is the most vulnerable leg of the triad when the toplines start coming down.”

James, who led the Air Force through budget cuts in the sequestration era and faced resistance from Congress when the service attempted to retire aircraft, also predicted that under a new administration the nuclear deterrent will come under some criticism. Under every new administration, there’s a defense review and likely a new Nuclear Posture Review. Under the new administration and possible Flournoy defense leadership, James said she expects the newly established “low-yield” nuclear weapon that came out of the 2018 NPR “could be on the chopping block.” The GBSD system, which is farther along than the low-yield weapon, would likely survive because ICBMs are a part of the Air Force’s heritage and comes with more political clout, but the number of warheads could be cut.

In testimony to the House Armed Services Committee in January, Flournoy said the U.S. needs to “think creatively” about deterrence—how the country could stop a great power from starting “down the road to war.”

“To prevent a miscalculation or escalation to conflict with a nuclear-armed rival, the United States must decide what capabilities we need to prioritize developing, acquiring, and demonstrating in order to credibly deter aggression, deny any adversary the ability to rapidly seize territory, and prepare to impose significant costs for any act of aggression,” she said. “And we need to do this with two timeframes in mind: deterrence in the interim (the next 5-10 years) and deterrence in the long term (10 years and beyond).”

Specifically, she highlighted USAF-focused conventional capabilities for deterrence, such as bombers outfitted with Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles. While in the Pentagon, Flournoy was a key proponent of investment in the air leg of the triad, “strongly” supporting the Air Force’s development of its future bomber, Donley said.

While serving as under secretary of defense for policy under Gates, Flournoy was a key architect of the “surge” in Afghanistan and the proliferation of counter insurgency doctrine in that theater and Iraq. She has served as a close advisor to former Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, who reportedly considered her for a top position in the Pentagon. In August, she said there is no quick end to the war in Afghanistan. “It would be a mistake for the U.S. to precipitously draw down or withdraw, particularly to leave Afghanistan before that peace is solidified, because we basically would be pulling the carpet out from under our Afghan partners, Afghan women, Afghan civil society that we’ve fought so hard to help them,” she said.

In the Pentagon and at CNAS, Flournoy had a major focus on “super scaling COIN” and in recent years served as an adviser to former Defense Secretary and retired USMC Gen. James Mattis, who reportedly brought her aboard his Pentagon staff. Retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, the dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies who worked closely with Flournoy multiple times, including on a roles and missions review in the 1990s and on the first Quadrennial Defense Review in 1997, said her focus on the strategic level was more on the Army and Marine Corps—working closer with the uniformed staffs of those services as opposed to the Air Force. “With respect to her background and personality credentials, she’s a very thoughtful individual … with a very balanced perspective of policy issues, she listens to people of all sides,” he said.

Her history in the QDR and policy in the Pentagon makes Flournoy well-equipped to take on discussions of roles and missions between the services, and to deconflict efforts that could create friction, such as the Army developing long-range capabilities that could step on the toes of the Air Force, Deptula said.

A Focus on People

James said that while Flournoy’s focus in the Pentagon and at CNAS has largely been on policy, she would “really work on people programs” such as increasing the compensation for junior enlisted personnel, more childcare, better spouse employment, and focusing on veteran employment. She told Defense News the civilian side of the Pentagon needs a “huge rebuilding” by bringing in a talented team and instilling “stability.”

If she takes the position, Flournoy would become the military’s first-ever female Secretary of Defense. Lindsay L. Rodman, the executive director of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security, said while in the Pentagon Flournoy was known for caring about diversity and working to establish institutions that were focused on leadership and talent management.

“[She] always has been cognizant of issues of diversity and, in particular, whether women were fairly represented,” Rodman said. “I think she’s been a champion of these issues for a long time. … She has been willing to be transparent about being a woman in these positions, because quite often, I think there is a pressure as a woman in these positions to not highlight your gender, necessarily, and I think she has not shied away from highlighting that issues of gender are present and important and impact the way that other people interact with her and she interacts with the world.”

Other names that have been floated include outgoing Arizona Republican Sen. Martha McSally, the first female Air Force pilot to fly in combat, and Army combat veteran Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).

Senior Editor Rachel S. Cohen contributed to this report.