Equipment & Innovation

March 30, 2017

The global threat environment the United States faces today requires a unique blend of high-tech military solutions and airman-based innovation. In March, USAF’s senior leaders laid out an approach for striking this balance at AFA’s 2017 Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla. Top Air Force officials said advanced capabilities and creative thinking must work together for the US to stay ahead of a complex field of adversaries.

This parallel approach, making full use of the new and the old, will be key in training airmen for today’s battles, in revitalizing the health of the squadron as a building block of Air Force power, and in fully integrating space operations into the joint combat effort.

The training challenges ahead for the Air Force require both an orientation to high-end technology and an embrace of low-tech ingenuity. The multidomain command and control Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein has placed at the center of the future air battlespace requires the most advanced capabilities.

Foremost among them is the F-35. The fifth generation fighter is “a difference maker in how we can carry out command and control and fuse all the components of warfighting for future conflicts,” said Lt. Gen. Darryl L. Roberson, commander of Air Education and Training Command. The Lightning II, he said, is “our key to ensure air superiority in the United States.”

As such, training needs to keep up with technology. For Roberson, this means the T-X trainer is key to “bridging the technological gap between our current trainers and that fifth generation capability.”

A big part of what’s new here is that pilots will learn to see offensive craft—fighters and bombers—as command and control (C2) and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms. In this regard, the F-35 is “more like an AWACS than an individual fighter,” Roberson said, referring to the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System C2 aircraft.

This requires new thinking, and Air Force Global Strike Command’s Gen. Robin Rand recounted the advice he recently gave bomber pilots: “Frankly, the least important thing you might do is drop a bomb. The most important thing you might do is provide a critical piece of ISR that’s going to save someone’s life.”

Rand celebrated the refurbished B-52s that “delivered a bunch of whup-ass on some really bad guys” in support of Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq.

Getting up to speed on fifth generation capabilities is not enough, Roberson insisted. Yes, USAF needs to “expose airmen to the network-fused operations” of the air and space operations centers earlier and more often in their training, but in the realm of anti-access, area-denial warfare (A2/AD), airmen also need to learn to be “proficient at fighting in the dark and with little or no technology,” Roberson said.

For Air Combat Command chief Gen. Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle, speaking just before his retirement, the long-term development of “stove-piped capabilities” that were built with only one service—and not joint battles—in mind have hamstrung the US military’s ability to prepare for an A2/AD environment.

This is what Gen. Carlton D. Everhart II, boss of Air Mobility Command, called the problem of “enclaving.” When an adversary is intent on eliminating the advantage the US gains from advanced capabilities, part of the answer is to reorganize the fight in America’s favor.

This shift can touch on technology. Carlisle said that “open mission systems” and “open architecture” can allow communication and control systems to adapt within an A2/AD environment and enable more flexible joint operations.

The ultimate goal, Goldfein told reporters, is to create a “family of systems” that can work together to outpace a rival. In this sense, superiority will be defined in terms of “not what do I have, but how do they connect?”

Some see this as a fundamental change that marks “the advancing of the character of war.” That’s the view of Lt. Gen. VeraLinn “Dash” Jamieson, deputy chief of staff for ISR.

But like Roberson, Jamieson resists the idea that technological advances alone will address the challenge. She anticipates, in the near future, adversaries who “probably will be at parity with us or even exceed us in many areas.” China and Russia will also soon have fifth generation capabilities, comparable to those offered by the US F-22 and F-35.

2014 Was the Year

Goldfein told reporters that, in 2014, “the world changed” when state actors began engaging in “adversarial competition below the level of armed conflict.”

This is not quite a Cold War. Russia’s adventurism in Ukraine and Syria and China’s expansion in the South China Sea represent real strategic challenges, but they feel more like lukewarm war—partly by design.

However we name it, the threat of high-end conflict is back, but the solution in 2017 is not another arms race. “What technology has given us,” Jamieson said, “is the means to integrate the multidomain capabilities.” The family of systems, when they harmonize well, gives USAF a pace of operations that can defeat even a high-end adversary. But crucial to achieving this speed is the human element. “What our airmen have given us through critical thinking,” she said, “is the advancement and the speed of decision-making from the data” gathered by new ISR platforms and shared through a fused C2 system.

So it’s more than just boosterism when Carlisle insists that “our advantage over time has always been the way we think.” The open systems and open architecture he called for would give the US a battlespace edge only when our combatants devise “better ways to use what we give them.” That’s why Carlisle said the most important training question facing the force right now is: “How do we unleash that thought potential” of airmen to capitalize on what Air Force leaders see as a personnel advantage

Squadron Matters

Goldfein’s decision to focus on squadron revitalization and multidomain command and control at the same time addresses the continual need to give airmen top-notch tools and the freedom to put them to work.

What the squadron effort will do exactly remains unclear. Goldfein said the lack of specificity from the outset was intentional, but he also laid out a framework for the future. Effective leadership, he said, requires “a single person in charge,” a clear “concept of operations,” and a “calendar with milestones and objectives.”

Goldfein has put Brig. Gen. Stephen L. Davis, director of manpower, organization, and resources, in charge. The concept of operations and the milestones is still unfolding, in part, because of the wide variety of squadrons in the service. Goldfein said the Air Force has more than 3,400 squadrons, and they range in size from 40 to several hundred airmen. Clearly he doesn’t want a one-size-fits-all program.

What unifies squadrons, despite their differences, Goldfein said, is that they are the place where “we inculcate the culture of being an airman.” Because it is the most formative experience of airmanship, the squadron is the place “where innovation occurs” and where a shift in operations can have the “most impact.”

In his speech, Goldfein said revitalizing squadrons is less about building a new program than working to “remove the barriers … to getting [the] mission done.” He said a “reduction in additional duties” announced in August 2016 was a result of the squadron effort. Task-force leader Davis is overseeing a “comprehensive review of Air Force instructions,” the rule books that govern day-to-day operations.

The AFI review process is aimed at eliminating red tape and empowering the force at the smallest unit level. Goldfein said he wants to “push decision authority down to the right level.”

“I don’t want them all waiting around for me to solve it,” he said, recounting for reporters what he said at a meeting with the Air Force’s wing commanders. “Don’t wait for me to come to you with the big program,” he told them. He wants to motivate ownership and initiative at the grassroots level to generate exactly the kind of thought leadership Carlisle said marks the decisive American advantage. “I trust you” is the most important message he has for wing commanders, Goldfein said.

The personnel model of squadron revitalization resists the bureaucratic inefficiencies of top-down leadership. Goldfein joked with reporters that “when I was a squadron commander, I couldn’t pick the Chief of Staff of the Air Force out of a lineup.” The comment was facetious—he later apologized for it—but articulates the driving principle of the effort, which is to give as much freedom as possible to the lowest possible level. Goldfein hopes to liberate airmen to see more clearly what is required in their own areas of responsibility and develop new tactics, techniques, and procedures that will help them make the most innovative use of fifth generation ISR and C2 capabilities. By pairing organizational smarts with technological advances, the Air Force plans to keep a fighting edge over adversaries who may challenge or exceed them in some capabilities.

Ownership for the Service

A similarly blended model has been driving the Air Force message on space in 2017. Goldfein stressed USAF’s preeminence in the domain as clearly as he could. “We own space,” he told the audience. He explained it was “not about [the Air Force] taking control” of space but rather “fulfilling our obligation to the joint force” by stepping up to the service’s role as the “space coordinating authority.” As Air Force Chief of Staff, Goldfein said he is “the joint chief responsible for the preponderance of the space force.” This is simply fact.

Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, chief of Air Force Space Command, elaborated on this point. USAF “has been the steward of space for the last 54 years,” he told reporters, and “today the Air Force is leading the way in being able to protect and defend” US space assets. He also said the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act directed the Department of Defense to “push acquisitions programs back down to the services.”

Raymond has taken that as a directive to take “current programs” and “programs in development” that today are “held at the [Office of the Secretary of Defense] level” and place them “under the Air Force acquisitions authorities.”

Doing so would be a strategy for streamlining space acquisition, which is notoriously slow. There are a large number of services and organizations—Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) has said the number is 60—whose assent is required for space acquisition decisions to advance.

In this case, as in the squadron initiative, the Air Force is advocating for a certain kind of stove-piping to gain much-needed flexibility and efficiency. Clarifying the authority of a single service in charge of the space domain could have the same effect as putting “a single person in charge” of a squadron.

This is not the old stove-piping of interservice competition, but specialization for the joint mission. Raymond compared space capabilities to a light switch that the joint force can turn on whenever operations in any domain are required. It’s the Air Force’s responsibility to have that switch ready for all the services, 24/7. He wants to “ensure that we can provide the capabilities” the other services need to be successful in the domains they dominate.

Giving acquisition authority to the Air Force is not a cure-all for space acquisition, which often involves buying small numbers of exquisite capabilities over long time frames. Raymond said the Air Force needs to “develop and capitalize on” the rapid acquisition authority it already has vested in its Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office at Kirtland AFB, N.M., and use rapid acquisition authority more broadly.

Advanced abilities alone cannot keep the Air Force ahead of its state and nonstate competitors. The service’s leadership says the right blend of high-end capabilities and airman-based solutions such as innovation, authority, and training will produce what is needed for the future.