Barely a week after Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost took the reins at Air Mobility Command, her boss, Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., outlined the Air Force’s strategic approach as it prepares for a potential high-end fight.

In his eight-page white paper, “Accelerate Change or Lose,” released Aug. 31, Brown said the Air Force must adapt to a new reality in which the United States' military dominance is no longer assured, and peer nations such as China and Russia are increasingly aggressive and emboldened.

Tomorrow’s airmen are more likely to fight in highly contested environments, he said, and the Air Force “must accelerate the transition from the force we have to the force required for a future high-end fight.”

In a Sept. 10 interview, Van Ovost outlined how the command — responsible for airlift, air refueling, air mobility support and aeromedical evacuation — is responding to that challenge. Building upon the work of her predecessor, Gen. Maryanne Miller, “who did some really good work looking at operations across the continuum of conflict," from uncontested to contested environments, “we’re going to turn this headquarters and the mobility air forces toward the contested environment,” she said.

Her aim is to accelerate that progress across several areas, she said. The first is developing the force.

“Our mobility airmen, they’re amazing. They are our competitive advantage,” she said. “They’re the ones with that competitive spirit. They’re always thinking ahead of how can do things differently from a perspective of how they train differently, the capabilities that we provide them, and frankly, the concepts that we provide them.”

Her second priority is to advance the command’s warfighting capabilities, she said.

“Our adversaries have adapted to our concepts,” she said. “They are designing capabilities specifically to go after the advantages we have as a nation, one of which is projected joint force, which is what we do — our deployment and distribution capabilities reaching around the world.”

Potential adversaries are “trying to contest us … even from our home bases here in the United States via multiple domains, including cyber.” In response, AMC must come up with new concepts of operations, she said.

“We have to be thinking about competition all the way to the get go,” she said. “It’s a fight to get to the fight as we deploy and maneuver the force.”

At the same time, AMC needs to advance its warfighting capabilities, “specifically, targeted capabilities for aircraft, to ensure that we can provide mission assurance for the entire joint force,” she said.

The command will be “thinking a little bit outside of the current mission sets,” she said, to focus on connecting the joint force and assuring U.S. forces can move freely, both at home and in the theater.

Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost, the head of Air Mobility Command, receives a mission briefing during her visit to the 349th Air Mobility Wing headquarters at Travis Air Force Base, California, Sept. 1. (Dennis Santarinala/Air Force)
Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost, the head of Air Mobility Command, receives a mission briefing during her visit to the 349th Air Mobility Wing headquarters at Travis Air Force Base, California, Sept. 1. (Dennis Santarinala/Air Force)

That includes ensuring secure command and control and being able to leverage advanced digital infrastructures, such as the advanced battle management system, “to make more precise decisions on what it is we do,” she said.

“And we want to make those decisions at the speed of strategic relevance, right?” she said. “We want to ensure that we have the connectivity, the interoperability and lethality — that we add those things to the joint force to ensure that we can do global reach and global power around the world, now and into the future.”

The KC-46 will become one of the command’s “flagships,” she said, “because it has the kind of connectivity we’re talking about, the kind of power we’re talking about. … Where there’s a fight, there’s going to be an airlift airplane, an air refueling airplane up always … to help connect.”

"So that’s why I talk about developing our amazing airman and advanced warfighting capabilities in order for us to ensure that we are full spectrum ready and that we can generate the critical capacity necessary for the joint force in order to project the joint force and to ensure strategic deterrence.

Part of the command’s responsibility is to ensure strategic deterrence via airlift and air refueling in support of the nuclear mission, she said, so making sure those capabilities are secure is crucial.

Agents of change

Like other commands throughout the armed services, Air Mobility Command is dealing with COVID, race relations and the likelihood of flat or declining budgets. But those issues also provide opportunities to accelerate change, she said.

Although the COVID pandemic could have had a detrimental effect on readiness, it’s also possible “to take advantage of what we learn there to accelerate our capabilities,” she said.

For example, we’ve done a lot of work with respect to virtual work … our ability to process data in different areas and to do it securely," she said. “How do we take advantage of that, that level of change, for our future?”

On May 25, George Floyd, a Black man, died at the hands of police in Minneapolis, igniting nationwide protests and spurring the military services to . Two days later, the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders released a report that said the Air Force has failed to fix longstanding racial differences in its military justice system that led to black airmen being punished disproportionately more.

Since then, the Air Force is encouraging discussions about diversity, race relations and equal opportunity.

“We’re finding that the richness of diversity in our force is what’s going to carry us through," Van Ovost said. “If we can have those crucial conversations right now within our force, we know that we can increase the bonds of trust, such that we can … unchain our airmen to go do their very best.”

After several years of hefty budgets, military leaders are bracing for a reversal in light of the nationwide economic decline due to the pandemic. That accentuates the need to make the hard decisions needed to counter the Air Force’s eroding competitive advantage over potential adversaries, she said.

“We want to make sure that we we use every taxpayer dollar to best effect, and what are those best effects? An effect is a total kill chain. It’s the entire amount, from end to end, of how we project power and ensure strategic deterrence. So we want to make sure that we’re doing our very best with the funds that the taxpayers bestow upon us to ensure the security of this nation.

“These kinds of things, they’ve all kind of come together at this time,” she said. “And it allows us an opportunity to accelerate the change if we’re willing to make some key decisions on that. So in Gen. Brown’s ‘accelerate change or lose,’ we’re looking at all roles and missions and how do we do them better, more effectively? Is there anything that we should be changing, writ large, in order to ensure that we can continue to provide that combat power for the Air Force that ensures we can compete, and in turn win, into the future?”