Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James testify before the House Armed Services Committee in March. A new strategy document emphasizes better relations with Congress. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The US Air Force is calling for closer ties to industry, better relations with Congress, and increased flexibility for both airmen and acquisitions — all part of a 30-year strategy document unveiled Wednesday.
Titled “America’s Air Force: A Call to the Future,” the document is part of a broader strategic overview ordered by Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh this year. Welsh announced his goal of taking a longer look into the future during February’s Air Force Association conference in Orlando, Florida.
The 22-page document is largely broad in its goals. Service officials indicated a 20-year “Strategic Master Plan” document, planned for completion before the end of 2014, will feature more concrete goals and targets.
Still, the 30-year document provides a roadmap of sorts for how Welsh and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James see the future of the service. The review is largely based on four trends:
■ “[R]apidly emerging technological breakthroughs,” such as the leap in technology for portable devices over the past decade, will continue to occur, which requires the service to stay flexible to maintain a technological edge;
■ Geopolitical instability will continue, meaning that “preparing for a threat based solely on current geopolitical realities will be insufficient;”
■ A “wide range of operating environments” that the Air Force will have to contend with, requiring equipment that can operate in contested and uncontested environments, as well as heavily degraded environments for humanitarian missions;
■ The need to ensure protection for the “global commons” of the air, cyber and space domains.
Handling these four trends relies on “strategic agility,” or making sure the service can be flexible and adaptable to deal with whatever threats could emerge.
“Embracing strategic agility will enable us to ‘jump the rails’ from our current path of 20th-century, industrial-era processes and paradigms,” the report reads.
That agility comes in a couple different ways. For airmen, it involves creating a way for them to leave the service, gather real-world experience, and then bring that back into the Air Force without being punished for it.
“Breaks in service — or transitions between full-time and part-time — need not be punitive in the advancement of our future airmen. Rather, the experience they gain during their time out of uniform should be recognized for the broader perspective it delivers,” the report reads. “Similarly, we must commit to a career development model that provides those in specialized career fields with incentives and promotion opportunities on par with those in more mainstream disciplines.”
The report also emphasizes “a character-based, diverse culture” inside the service, with the goal of blending the lines between the active, Guard and reserve components.
Technologically, that agility means working more closely with the science and technology (S&T) side to nurture and develop new technologies.
“A commitment to capitalize on the most promising S&T breakthroughs will expand the aperture when we consider future capabilities,” the authors wrote. “We must couple this commitment with a requirements process and acquisition system that accommodates more frequent ‘pivot points’ — opportunities to modify or abandon a program during its life cycle — and harnesses rapid prototyping to reduce resources required to bring a design idea into service.”
Looking to modular systems will help get technology into the field sooner and provide more options for forces operating around the globe, the report notes.
The rapid pace of development on new concepts and ideas also means making acquisitions easier and less cumbersome — and will require working more closely with industry.
“As we increasingly elevate affordability as a key attribute of future acquisitions, we should look to the commercial industry for insights. The profit motive that drives the private sector forces increased competition — along with innovative acquisition and development processes — into business models as a matter of survival.”
James previewed the strategic agility idea during a speech to American industry at the Farnborough International Airshow July 15.
We’re still too rigid in our processes and procedures ... we still take too long too frequently to get things done,” James told the audience. “We have got to learn to talk to each other freely.”
Also important in the report is an emphasis on “partnerships” — strengthening ties with think tanks, industry and, notably, Congress.
Relations between the Hill and the Air Force have been rocky for years, something the report acknowledges and pledges to improve upon. Given the service’s goal of retiring platforms such as the A-10, which have been largely blocked by congressional action, those improved relations can’t come soon enough.
One area that goes into greater details than others is a focus on what “game-changing” technologies being developed now could be relevant for the future of the service.
Those are all areas in development, and the report notes this is not an exhaustive list. However, the emphasis on these technologies provides a roadmap not just for Air Force researchers, but for industry leaders who want to get a jump on new investments.
Speaking on Tuesday, Gen. Mike Hostage, head of Air Force Air Combat Command, made it clear directed energy was one technology he would like to see focused on, particularly given magazine size challenges on newer jets such as the F-22 and F-35.
“I spent a lot of time over the past couple of weeks talking to the different labs that are working on directed energy,” Hostage said. “There are some amazing developments in that arena.”
Hostage also expanded on how he would like to see industry and the Air Force work more closely together to develop new technologies, noting that Air Combat Command hosts “innovation conferences” to bring research labs, operators and industry together.
“The idea is to spark interest on the part of our industry partners to grab a lab and say ‘hey, we would like to partner with you on that technology,’ ” Hostage said.
“Our industry partners have IRAD money that is their lifeblood,” Hostage continued, referring to internal research and development. “That’s how they produce things that will eventually produce profit. It’s IRAD that produces the stuff I actually need to go to war. So it’s really important to me that we spend the S&T to keep the labs producing technology, but also that industry takes that technology and produces real things with it.”
The report also lays out the need for a modern deterrence strategy.
“In the 21st century, a credible nuclear deterrent is still absolutely necessary, but not always sufficient,” the report reads. “The future deterrence landscape is exceedingly more difficult.”
A dispersed threat, such as a terrorist group like al-Qaida, is not deterred by the threat of a nuclear strike — and realistically, nations such as Iran that would act against the United States would do so with a cyber attack, not a military intervention that could open the possibility of a nuclear response.
Instead, new deterrent methods are needed, ones that are based on technologies that are cheaper and more responsive. Cyber will play a role here, as will having highly capable ISR platforms.
“Instead of committing vast amounts of national treasure to overwhelm any and all potential adversaries, we will develop innovative, lower-cost options that demand high-cost responses,” the report concludes. “If it costs markedly less for us to defeat a missile than it does for the adversary to build and launch it, the strategic calculus changes significantly.” ■