In his first month on the job as the Air Force’s new chief of staff, Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown laid out a stark warning for the service: It has to change in several significant areas, or it risks losing the next war.
In an Air Force news release Dec. 10, Brown issued action orders detailing how the service must “accelerate change or lose.”
The chief first outlined his four action orders — which focus on the need to change how the Air Force creates and manages its airmen, its bureaucracy, how it approaches competition against potential major adversaries such as China, and design implementation — in an address at the Air Force Association’s virtual Air Space Cyber conference in September.
“If we don’t change, if we fail to adapt, we risk losing,” Brown said in September. “We risk losing in a great power competition, risk losing in a high-end fight, risk losing quality airmen, losing budget dollars, our credibility and aspects of our national security.”
In the Dec. 10 release, the Air Force said the action orders have spelled out what needs to change. Next, the Air Force must decide “how” to change — with the help of from airmen across the force, who are being asked to share their ideas.
“My strategic approach of ‘Accelerate Change or Lose’ explains the why,” Brown wrote in the action orders. “These action orders provide the what. It’s the way we address these action orders that will provide the how.”
“It is all of us … our talented airmen … that are key to cutting unnecessary bureaucracy, recognizing and understanding our competition, and thinking of creative ways we can reshape the design of our Air Force,” Brown continued.
In a sign of the importance Brown attaches to changing the way the Air Force recruits, trains, teaches, manages and develops its airmen, his first trips as chief of staff were to see basic training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland and Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.
The first action order calls for updating how airmen are managed, based on best practices from both the public and private sectors, to make sure the Air Force has the quality force it needs, is an attractive career choice, and uses modern IT systems to manage its talent. It also calls for incorporating diversity and inclusion efforts throughout Air Force culture, not as a “standalone program.”
It also calls for eliminating or re-prioritizing “low-value activities or processes” that aren’t critical to the success of the Air Force’s mission.
Brown also said the Air Force’s bureaucracy needs a “tune-up,” so the service can make decisions as quickly as needed in a modern, global environment, and not run into barriers to innovation and success.
“Current processes are too slow, allow ‘soft vetoes’ without accountability, incentivize counterproductive inter-[major command] and inter-functional fighting, and too often deliver sub-optimized solutions for the sake of compromise and consensus,” Brown wrote. The current USAF structure is optimized for an obsolete strategic context and must be updated to compete, deter, and win the high-end fight.”
The Air Force will have to restructure to better support emerging models of generating and presenting its forces, push organizations to take perspectives and make decisions that consider the entire service, and provide a sustainable workload for airmen and their families, Brown wrote. Doing that will include speeding up communication between headquarters staff, limiting layers of bureaucracy that don’t add much value, eliminating redundancies, and improving collaboration and integration across different organizations.
The Air Force also needs to change how it understands its potential major competitors, their ambitions and how they might fight wars in the future, Brown said.
That will mean starting to teach airmen the background of potential adversaries like Russia and China, Brown said — everything from their language and culture to how they educate their troops and view strategy.
“Chinese and Russian objectives, mindset, and ways of warfare must be second nature so we can better shape the future together,” Brown said.
The Air Force must also be much more agile in the way it designs new aircraft and other systems, and manages its existing systems, he said. That will include making “tough choices,” he said, to identify systems and programs that are outdated or unaffordable, and cutting them to make way for the next generation of capabilities that will keep the Air Force competitive in future fights.
Brown and many other senior leaders in the Air Force discussed how to enact changes in all four areas at October’s Corona meeting at the Air Force Academy on Colorado Springs, Colorado, where action plans and proposed first steps were on the agenda for consideration.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.