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Commentary: Innovation and America's 21st Century Air Force

Nov. 25, 2013 - 03:01PM   |  
By PAULA THORNHILL   |   Comments
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Lost in the US defense budget debates are deeper issues about the relationship between the military and American society. In many ways, these issues are especially stark for the Air Force.

After a decade of manpower-intensive, land-focused conflicts and myriad other issues ranging from cyberwarfare to drone warfare to sexual assault, its relevance is remote from much of the American public. Can the US Air Force improve this connection? Four observations, uncomfortable as they might make airmen initially, suggest some ways the Air Force as an institution can do this.

First, to the American public, the Air Force’s signature piece of technology — the manned aircraft — is becoming obsolete even as it becomes more expensive. The F-35 is the most recent aircraft in the news that is costing an exorbitant amount of money. What taxpayers see is a huge bill for relatively few planes to deal with a vague overseas threat.

In the public’s mind, manned aircraft are becoming increasingly irrelevant as drone warfare comes of age. Airmen must address this manned-versus-unmanned disconnect or risk fostering a public perception that the Air Force is more interested in protecting manned platforms than protecting the nation.

Second, internally the Air Force suffers from a crucial disconnect between its core culture and stated mission. Pilots of manned aircraft still occupy the center of Air Force culture. However, its mission has become increasingly fragmented.

Indeed, in the early 21st century, the Air Force states it flies, fights and wins in air, space and cyberspace. What does that mean to airmen, and more importantly, the American public? The variety of answers to this question explain why civilians are simultaneously proud of airmen, perplexed by what they do for the nation, and in some cases, such as cyber operations, even curious if airmen are performing military missions.

Third, this culture-mission disconnect leads to inconsistencies in how the Air Force presents itself to the executive and legislative branches, and how these branches of government understand the Air Force’s role. Should civilian leaders expect further mission fragmentation when a new technology emerges? Can they rely on the Air Force to look across mission areas for the best solution, rather than focusing just on a traditional one?

Finally, like the other military services, the Air Force tends to be an insular organization. Airmen frequently would rather talk to each other and other members of the military about their service’s complexity than build a broader understanding about what the Air Force does. Yet in a democracy defended by a volunteer force, effectively communicating a service’s core purpose is crucial to a healthy relationship between the military and the society it serves.

Such observations are not unique to the Air Force; certainly, one could come up with equally uncomfortable observations about the other services. However, because of its comparative institutional youth, its focus on technology, and the increasingly short time between the introduction of new technologies and their obsolescence, the Air Force’s need to address these observations is most acute.

Fundamentally it needs to return to its original organizational culture, a unique blend of military professionalism and innovative spirit. At its strongest, this cul-ture allowed airmen to look at a new technology, the manned aircraft, and turn it into a crucial new military instrument in the first part of the 20th century. That innovative spirit captured the hearts and minds of the nation.

But technologies move inevitably toward obsolescence — hence this 21st century paradox: Left unchallenged, the manned flight technology that once made the Air Force a highly innovative military service could now be limiting the service’s contributions to the nation.

The myriad missions it performs need to be underpinned by an organizational culture that captures airmen’s imaginations, civilian leadership’s trust and the public’s fascination by reimagining the air component of military power. This is not a call for reopening the services’ roles-and-missions debate, but about understanding holistically what happens when the Air Force unites its various mission components, and helps the nation understand that it contributes much more to national defense than manned flight.

With this approach, the Air Force would begin to offer solutions to defense problems that are less expensive, focused on solving new challenges, and better connected to a core American cultural thread of using innovation to provide solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

In this rapidly changing global security environment, a reimagined, integrated, innovative Air Force would be predisposed to anticipate new defense challenges and look for new airpower solutions to them. This is what the nation expects of — and needs from — this critical service, itself born of technological innovation.

Paula Thornhill is a retired USAF brigadier general and a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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