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Tomorrow's Air Force: Tracing the Past, Shaping the Future

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Looking ahead to future airpower requirements, this engaging and ground-breaking book on the history and future of American combat airpower argues that the USAF must adapt to the changes that confront it or risk decline into irrelevance. To provide decision makers with the necessary analytical tools, Jeffrey J. Smith uses organizational modeling to help explain historical change in the USAF and to anticipate change in the future. While the analysis and conclusions it offers may prove controversial, the book aims to help planners make better procurement decisions, institute appropriate long-term policy, and better organize, train, and equip the USAF for the future.

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15 Chapters

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1 The Birth of Military Airpower

ePub

 

With us air people, the future of our nation is indissolubly bound up in the development of air power.

WILLIAM “BILLY” MITCHELL

 

 

With the advent of airpower into military operations in the early twentieth century, a new era of war-fighting strategy slowly emerged. The traditional operations by Army and Navy forces that enjoyed centuries of tradition, lessons learned, and accepted strategies would be confronted and challenged by airpower’s primary new characteristic – control of the sky. Although lighter-than-air systems had been used for many years to rise above the battle space in an attempt to spot and track enemy movement, balloon aircraft were unable to provide the maneuverability and attack opportunity the new emerging aircraft enjoyed. Operations ranging from traditional spotting of enemy positions and movement and signaling ground forces to delivering time-sensitive communications to rear or forward leadership and eventually providing an air-to-ground attack option all characterize early airpower operations. These capabilities altered how wars were planned and forced military strategists to consider the extent to which traditional military operations might change. From its earliest inception in military operations, airpower advocates and the leaders responsible for its application struggled with a continual and common challenge – how best to organize this new weapon of war.

 

2 World War I and the Interwar Years

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The day has passed when armies on the ground or navies on the sea can be the arbiter of a nation’s destiny in war. The main power of defense and the power of initiative against an enemy has passed to the air.

WILLIAM “BILLY” MITCHELL, NOVEMBER 1918

 

The two timeframes presented in the foregoing historical overview both share a missing ingredient in terms of forces that drive institutional change: they lack any significant external event. Although the time frame from 1911 to 1915 did show some change from limited external events, the first major external event for airpower in this period is World War I. As this chapter will show, the cultural and leadership changes emerging from the newly formed airpower group within the Army would now be confronted by the measurable and empirical realities of war.

Although the Army failed to procure technology that would have enabled aircraft to drop bombs more accurately, airmen continued to argue for airpower operations to expand beyond just reconnaissance.1 During the years from 1915 to 1917, a number of advances and experiments took place that showed airpower’s ability to strafe troops (attack enemy ground troops from the air) and drop bombs. However, airpower supporters continued to call for more autonomous authority, greater flexibility to use airpower in new ways, and expanded operations outside of traditional ground strategies.2 One of the more enlightened debates emerging among airpower supporters was the idea that aircraft could over-fly enemy positions and bomb industry and war-making factories. Rather than being directly and continuously tied to a ground assault, airmen began to see the potential of airpower to target important enemy positions that the traditional Army would not normally be capable of targeting. Unfortunately, the airpower supporters “had trouble making converts among officers never exposed to [such] enthusiasm.” Furthermore, “the high command of the U.S. Army continued to believe that aviation should gain control of the air over the battlefield and assist the ground forces. …”3 Unfortunately, the dominant Army perspective still maintained and guaranteed that pilots and airpower would be subservient to ground operations. In fact, on reconnaissance sorties where the pilot was accompanied by another “observer” officer, the observer held the position of supervisor for the mission and the pilot was seen as the observer’s “aerial chauffeur.”4

 

3 World War II

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The interwar years leading up to America’s involvement in World War II brought tremendous change to the development and the importance of airpower in war. Airpower advocates’ outspoken appeal for the efficacy and advancement of airpower, equal to other military arms, stimulated the establishment of the Army Air Corps; “Mitchell was of course the leading visionary.”1 In 1935, the Army Air Corps (promoted from the Army Air Service in 1926) won the development of the General Headquarters Air Force, organizing all operational units under one command.2 Although the formal establishment of the Army Air Corps and the General Headquarters Air Force fell short of a separate Air Force, it afforded airpower leaders greater autonomy to operate, plan, and develop airpower processes. The establishment of the Air Corps Tactical School enabled airmen to further codify their ideas into doctrine and begin formally educating personnel. Of over 1,091 students who graduated from ACTS from 1920 to 1939, nearly 25 percent became general officers in World War II (including eleven of the thirteen three-star generals and all three of the four-star generals).3

 

4 Counting the Changes in Period One

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As I have traced in the previous chapter, over the years from 1907 to 1947 the United States Air Force finally gained its independence as an equal arm of the U.S. military. Throughout the period a series of external events resulted in an increased level of pressure that eventually influenced how and when airpower would experience a major organizational change. As the external events required internal perspectives to change, the overall culture shifted from its original characteristic in 1907 to its final orientation in 1947 (from an Army ground-operations perspective to an airmen’s bomber-operations perspective). Moreover, those responsible for making organizational decisions, determining how money would be spent, and operationalizing airpower for war equally evolved throughout the period. All of the changes observed and measured were incremental in that they advanced the cause, perspective, and leadership of airpower closer toward a major organizational change at and following each significant external event.

 

5 The Rise of Bomber Dominance: 1947–1965

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Flying fighters is fun, flying bombers is important.

GENERAL CURTIS LEMAY

 

 

In the first few years following the end of World War II and the subsequent independence of the USAF in September of 1947, the organizational structure of airpower was formally developed. The leaders of the new military service were faced with managing and operationalizing the new atomic weapon, countering the emerging and ever-increasing Soviet threat, and continuing to maintain the traditional missions of strategic bombardment, transport, ground support, and air-to-air pursuit and attack.

During these early years from 1947 to 1950, the first Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF), W. Stuart Symington, and the first Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF), Gen Carl Spaatz began the process of developing the organizational structure of the USAF:

The Air Force adopted the basic organization that has persisted over the years: a headquarters, with a staff consisting of deputies who both advised and carried out policy and special assistants; a network of major commands and lesser agencies, both operating and supporting; and the operational commands overseas … the Air Force … assumed certain responsibilities, among them the deterrence of nuclear war. Deterrence, however, was but a single aspect of an evolving national policy, and the Air Force had to devote its resources to the others.1

 

6 Bomber Decline: 1965–1992

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In the years leading up to the Vietnam War, SAC was clearly the dominating force behind all airpower organizational and operational decisions. However, as previously described, TAC and the fighter perspective continued to call for greater resourcing, developed scenario-based arguments in a limited war framework that required tactical capabilities, and refused to allow SAC’s dominance to silence their views. Furthermore, with the advent of Kennedy’s “Flexible Response” approach to foreign conflicts, the USAF was being pressured to develop more operational options than the traditional deterrence-based massive retaliation strategy of SAC and the bomber-operations advocates. As the Vietnam War emerged, it became clear that a limited war characterized by significant political constraints was developing. Dennis Drew, a professor and widely recognized expert on airpower in Vietnam, offered the following assessment of early USAF planning for operations in Vietnam:

 

7 The Changing Leadership of Period Two

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Previous chapters of this study outlined the incremental changes from 1947 to 1992, focusing most of the analysis on the external events and internal cultural dynamics of the period. As was the case in the concluding analysis for Period One, in this chapter I will present methods to measure and focus specifically on the variable of transitional leadership. Organizational models suggest that changes in leadership can have an influence on organizational structure; therefore, knowing that there was significant organizational change in 1992 (as previously presented), one should be able to trace an empirical change in leadership throughout the period leading up to 1992. As an assessment for this proposition, this chapter is presented in two parts. In the first part I offer an examination of three specific timeframes within Period Two: 1960, 1975, and 1990. At each point, an analysis of key USAF leadership positions will be examined to include the number of general officers in key positions and their airpower primary backgrounds (SAC or TAC). Analysis with fifteen-year increments provides data to help determine whether any trends in the leadership change existed throughout the period. In the second part of this chapter I will present specific analysis regarding the changing demographics and experiences of those selected to the top Air Force leadership position – the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. By tracing throughout the period the general officers selected to be CSAF, one can assess what experience base was deemed to be the most important; what specific group within the USAF was considered dominant enough to hold the top decision-making position; and, most importantly to this work, what changes or trends can be observed regarding the type and selection of the CSAF from the beginning of the period to the end. As modeling suggests, senior leadership often parallels the dominant culture within an organization. For this period’s analysis, one would expect to find that a bomber-operations background characterized early CSAF officers while a transition to a fighter-operations background would dominate by the end of the period. If it can be shown that the top leadership position changes in parallel with the internal culture (as outlined in previous chapters) and ultimately reflects the dominant culture, then the correlation between changing leadership and changing culture will be an important indicator when attempting to anticipate future USAF organizational change.

 

8 Fighter Pilot Dominance: 1992–1994

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The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.

CARL VON CLAUSEWITZ

 

 

For USAF personnel, the last few years leading up to 1992 could not have been more challenging. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the end of the Cold War, and the fighter-operations success of Gulf War I were precursors to the change the USAF would soon face in 1992. According to Boyne,

the biggest hurdle, emotionally and organizationally, was still to come: the disestablishment of Strategic, Tactical, and Military Airlift Commands and the subsequent reorganization of their functions into new commands. Other commands were also affected, and for their members there was the same sense of uncertainty and nostalgia. But for the public at large, the loss of SAC, TAC, and MAC was almost sacrilegious.1

 

9 From Bosnia to Allied Force: 1994–1999

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Although the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia had begun in the 1980s, the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) did not become fully involved until the early 1990s. As was the case in Somalia, much of the conflict initially started as a humanitarian relief in the midst of what was building up to an internal civil war in the area. However, as in Somalia, the “peacekeeping” and humanitarian efforts of the world community were challenged by the instability, factions among various armed subgroups, and widely divergent political perspectives across the international community. For the USAF, Bosnia would be an example of the limits of the fighter-operations perspective within the context and realities of a complex international and political environment.

According to political scholars who closely followed and examined the Bosnian crisis, the Clinton administration “inherited a U.S. – indeed Western – Bosnia policy that was in complete disarray.”1 Daalder describes best what the United States under the international authority of the United Nations had to deal with in the early 1990s:

 

10 September 11, Afghanistan, and Iraq: 2001–2011

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There is no question that the events on September 11, 2001 (9/11), changed the United States and the world; interestingly, the terrorists on 9/11 used airpower as their weapon of choice. However, as history clearly outlines, the belligerents did not attempt to use airpower to challenge our Air Force for air superiority or attack our military ground forces; instead, they operationalized an asymmetric strategy that fell outside of our traditional and symmetric status quo. The attacks on 9/11 took America by surprise because they did not fall into our accepted paradigm of traditional national defense strategies. The use of an asymmetric attack on 9/11 challenged the defense establishment by exposing the existing disequilibrium between our national defense organizational structure and the potential for attacks outside of that established paradigm. Of direct importance to this work, the major events that followed the attacks of 9/11 called for significant effort by the USAF. Examining those events and determining their influence on the organizational structure of the USAF is vital in the assessment of Period Three analysis. This chapter covers two specific post-9/11 timeframes: the first addresses the initial military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq up through May 1, 2003; the second addresses the sustained operations in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2003 to the summer 2010.

 

11 Signs of Change: 1992–2010

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The issue of the dynamics of leadership has already been presented, in part, in the discussion regarding Gen McPeak and Gen Fogelman. However, in line with the previous chapters measuring changes in leadership demographics, further assessment will serve to help identify trends that are not captured in the historical narrative. Because leadership is often a reflection of the dominant culture, and because organizational change models have shown the influence that leadership can have on the change process, analysis of the leadership changes that occurred from 1992 through 2010 should provide important insight regarding possible future organizational change within the USAF. This chapter will examine the leadership characteristics (specific operational specialty of senior ranking USAF leadership) over the period from 1992 to 2010. Due to the shorter length of time for this analysis (eighteen years), specific data will examine the leadership posture at nine-year points: 1992, 2001, and 2010.

 

12 Anticipating USAF Change

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The Nation’s interests in the future, as in the past, are likely to be better served by the diversity than by the scale of capabilities offered by the Air Force.

CARL BUILDER

 

 

This chapter opens the analysis of Period Three beginning in the present day and attempts to map how the future organizational structure of the USAF might develop (2013–2030). In the view of Bernstein, Lebow, Stein, and Weber, “Social scientists cannot afford the luxury of only examining the past, they are deeply engaged in the attempt to explain the present and think analytically about the future.” Moreover, “Our [social scientists’] interest is in the identification and connection of chains of contingencies that could shape the future.”1 Up to this point in the present analysis, I have deliberately considered Periods One and Two in order to assess the explanatory power of the outlined organizational change models within the context of the organizational elements of the USAF. Finding that the organizational modeling appropriately helped to describe, inform, explain, and anticipate organizational change within the context of the USAF, I then used these insights as a guide to examine the first eighteen years of Period Three (1992–2010) in preparation and as a basis for continuing Period Three analysis into the future.

 

13 Framing the Survey Perspectives

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From the information captured in the survey, it appears clear that there is disequilibrium between the non–fighter pilot officer’s perspective and the fighter pilot officer’s perspective. In summary, both groups of officers agree that the future will be characterized by an increase in unconventional war over conventional war, and both do not believe that the traditional air superiority and strategic strike perspectives of the fighter-operations community adequately inform and explain airpower operations in unconventional war. As a result, it appears the non–fighter pilot officers believe there are now more important considerations in terms of systems, procurement, and capabilities than the fighter-operations perspective offers. However, the fighter community clearly disagrees, responding to all questions that challenged or degraded the fighter perspective with responses supporting the fighter-operations status quo.

One of the more striking observations taken from the survey involved how each group perceived the future of UAVs relative to manned flight. The non–fighter pilot officers believe that UAVs will eventually replace fighters, while the fighter community does not agree. Furthermore, when the two groups were asked to prioritize systems for purchase, the non–fighter pilot community had UAVs in the top three and fighters last; the fighter pilot community had fighters as the top priority and UAVs last. Finally, the imbalance in perspective between the two groups is further cemented in the assessment of whether fighter pilots should hold the senior leadership positions when considering the current and future mission of the USAF. The non–fighter pilot officers overwhelmingly disagreed, while the fighter community overwhelmingly agreed. When these observations are considered in light of the last questions, which investigate the unwritten prestige of pilots and the further stratification of fighter pilots, the picture of where the USAF is in terms of culture becomes fairly clear: in transition.

 

14 Changing Leadership

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The overall conclusion from the previous survey analysis is that the USAF is in a transitional time, when the fighter-operations community that dominated the USAF in 1992 is now experiencing internal challenges. Much of the previous analysis focused on the internal cultural dynamics revealed by responses to the survey questions, which examined officers’ beliefs, perspectives, and opinions on what should be considered standard operating procedures, as well as the friction between the fighter-operations norms and the rest of the Air Force. In this transitional time, the USAF, as the previous chapter concluded, is experiencing the emergence of a new culture and the development of a new organizational structure. Before attempting to predict the organizational direction this transitional path may take, this chapter will first consider specific senior leadership observations (current as of summer 2010).

According to organizational modeling, leadership is an important variable in examining the organizational dynamics of any institution. Furthermore, as Periods One and Two studies showed, leadership often reflects the dominant culture, and considerable insight can be gained about an organization by examining the leadership trends, characteristics, and demographics of those in the highest positions. For the USAF, the four-star officer rank is the highest obtainable rank; those selected have the greatest amount of influence regarding the current and future directions of the USAF. Although previous work used a comparison of three- and four-star general officer changes in 1992, 2001, and 2010 to identify any trends, examination of four-star generals in particular offers additional insight. At the four-star level, the USAF has only nine to twelve officers who have been highly successful, have received the approval of DoD leadership, and have been vetted by the congressional and even the presidential oversight process. Given this process, the characteristics of those in the four-star billets should be some indication of what the U.S. government perceives as most important; of what the DoD has determined will provide the best war-fighting leadership; and of what operational specialties within the Air Force are receiving the highest level of representation and recognition. As modeling and the previous case studies suggest, observing who occupies the most senior and most influential leadership positions will provide considerable information that can be used not only to identify the presence of a transitional time, but also to help to assess what direction any identifiable transition may be taking.

 

15 Predicting the Future

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Consideration for how the future may unfold and how conditions may affect the organizational structure of the USAF is important when understanding that much of the procurement of new systems, training of personnel with the appropriate skill sets, and investing in research and development all have significant lead times often measured in decades. For USAF leadership and planners, determining the appropriate organizational structure of the USAF in 2030 requires analysis of what path should be initiated today. As previously shown in the first two period case studies, organizational change within the USAF followed an evolution where external events, internal culture, and leadership changes together culminated into major organizational change. However, because future USAF organizational change will depend in part on the external events that occur in the future, and because future external events and internal pressures cannot be known, prediction for how Period Three might unfold out to 2030 can only be based on the trends and observations noted in the first nineteen years (1992–2011). By combining the current internal culture assessment drawn from the survey that showed clear disequilibrium among the officer corps, the current demographics of senior USAF leadership, and the observation of a growing trend toward unconventional war, a prediction of the future organizational structure of the USAF in 2030 is offered.

 

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