The Future of the Air Force: A View from the Top

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The Future of the Air Force: A View from the Top

June 14, 2005 5 min read
Jack Spencer
Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom
Jack Spencer oversees research as Vice President for the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity.

How should the Air Force be transformed to maximize its efficiency and effectiveness? In 2004, the Air Force issued its U.S. Air Force Transformation Flight Plan, a major document that specifically addressed important issues of transformation, such as business practices, capabilities, and service culture.[1] As the Air Force prepares for the 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), there will be even more strategic and programmatic decisions to be made.

In a recent lecture at The Heritage Foundation, General John P. Jumper, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, outlined the challenges that the Air Force faces as it enters the 21st century.

Agility is a Key to the Future

Looking back to the 1980s, the U.S. defense establishment had no inkling of the threats that Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and Osama Bin Laden posed. It was not possible to predict that the whole decade of the 1990s-not to mention the new century, to the present-would be dominated by these adversaries and by new kinds of conflicts for the U.S. military.

One of the main lessons to take from recent history is that agility is a cornerstone of success. As the U.S. military undertook Operation Desert Storm, it was still a cumbersome, Cold War-driven force. Planning still centered on a European or a Korean conflict. Although the U.S. military was successful in Operation Desert Storm, Operation Allied Force, and Operation Vigilant Warrior, there was still little agility, and military leadership knew that it had to do better. Since 1994, senior Air Force leadership has supported a major shift in the Air Force's culture to enhance agility, strengthen contingency forces, and transform the ability to respond to any crisis that could arise globally.

Part of this transformation effort is the focus on future force structure, to include more integration of the Air National Guard and Air Reserve in today's missions. Guard units have responded to this by mixing more, on a day-to-day basis, with active duty units and being better prepared for high-demand missions. Also, procurement is an important part of transformation equation. Unfortunately, it has reached the point where individual systems cost so much that each one is reduced to a niche capability. A variety of factors such as confidence of suppliers, requirements of the program, and competition in industry affect this. However, it is not just the procurement system, but business that must be influenced by the new culture emerging in the Air Force.

Transforming the Mindset

Transformation is as much about how the military thinks as what it buys. A big part of the force that any service has in place today will still be around 15 years from now, and so it is necessary to pay as much attention to integrating current assets as to replacing or acquiring new assets. There is an ongoing shift from concentration on platforms and systems to effects-based thinking. This means starting with operations and thinking more about how forces will fight than what they are going to fight with and what is going to be purchased. Cultural and bureaucratic roadblocks hamper this new thinking. Rivalries between the services can affect the service itself, the joint force, and coalition forces. Part of the problem is that the Air Force, in general, does not always clearly ask for the assets or systems that it needs (for instance, computer systems) and then must deal with the resultant inefficiencies.

Other problems are more cultural and bureaucratic. There are many areas where the senior leadership of the Air Force is trying to encourage people to move beyond the status quo and develop new ideas for the future:

  • Intelligence: What good is intelligence that is too classified to be used by the pilots who need it? For Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Air Force integrated the intelligence/imagery officer into the air operations center and put space assets into the real-time fight. This improved effectiveness to an amazing degree.
  • Tankers: Why should tankers, which operate close to the front lines and have sufficient space, not carry additional capabilities for communications, electronic sensing, and signal intelligence? This has nothing do with "gold-plating" the airplane or getting away from its primary refueling mission, but everything to do with exploiting a great asset. The effort is still underway to get thinking on tankers aligned with the effects-based way that the Air Force plans to fight.
  • Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: What good does a UAV do if the intelligence that it gathers cannot be communicated quickly to nearby air assets because of the division between "intelligence" and "operational" channels? The Air Force has finally had some success in enhancing Predator capabilities and overcoming this bureaucratic stovepipe.

    Finally, General Jumper reiterated that despite all the technology, people remain the most important resource of the Air Force. The United States should be proud of the pride, discipline, and dedication of its airmen.

    For more information on related defense subjects, see Heritage Foundation Executive Memorandum No. 970 "The U.S. Should Consider F/A-22 Sales to Select Allies," Backgrounder No. 1847, " A Congressional Guide to Defense Transformation: Issues and Answers," and Executive Memorandum No. 953, "Defense Priorities for the Next Four Years," all available at

    Jack Spencer is Senior Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Kathy Gudgel, Research Assistant in Defense and National Security, contributed to this piece. This WebMemo is based on a presentation given at "The Future of the Air Force: A View from the Top," a public event held at The Heritage Foundation on April 28, 2005.

  • B-52s: In Afghanistan, the situation developed where someone on the ground (on a horse) communicated data through a laptop to a B-52, which then released a GPS guided bomb. The B-52 is now doing precision bombing that it was never designed for. This is a good example of how old things must be used in new ways to support effects-based thinking.
  • Convoys: If it is too dangerous in Iraq for convoys, due to road bombs, how can those trucks be taken off the road? Can the material be moved by air? Organizational disconnects between the Air Force and the Army are being addressed, and collaborative efforts improved. Senior leaders have found that the collaborative spirit being pursued at higher echelons is already taking place on the ground, through the personal initiative of combat officers.
  • Near Space: This area, between the upper limits of flight and the lowest altitude that a satellite can orbit, falls between two traditional areas of interest. However, near space exploitation can offer tremendous benefits and must be explored. Research is now underway on how to leverage orbiting platforms with high earth platforms to achieve the best results.


Jack Spencer
Jack Spencer

Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom