Innovation in the USAF

(USAF Photo)

(USAF Graphic)

The US Army, the US Navy and the US Marine Corps each possess an aviation component to meet their organic requirements, but only the USAF has the full range of offensive, defensive and support capabilities to act in the air, in space and in cyberspace. It carries out five core missions: air and space superiority; ISR;[i] rapid global mobility; global strike and command and control. It operates two of the components of the nuclear triad,[ii] operates the overwhelming majority of military space capabilities and contributes significantly to the national intelligence effort. Like its sister services, it fills positions required in the regional combatant commands (COCOM) and concentrates on the organisation, training and equipment of its forces. Directed by the Secretary of the Air Force (SECAF) and commanded by the Chief of Staff of the US Air Force (CSAF) it has its own budget, the programming and execution of which are controlled by Congress.

As the premier military aviation organisation in the world, the USAF projects an all-powerful image, by virtue of the range and size of its capabilities and, even before its creation in 1947, its uncontested role in conceptual, doctrinal, technological and organisational leadership. This reputation results partly from its considerable resources, but also from a permanent quest for optimisation, which sets it apart at the very heart of the Defense Department. As recognised by General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “The Air Force has been certainly among the most adaptable parts of our national military instrument of power. Every Service has made some adaptations, but I would suggest that the Air Force’s seems to me, in my experience, to be the most prominent, most visible, most important.”

Innovation is at the heart of the ethos of the USAF. The sources of innovation are many, as are the initiatives aimed at stimulating it. Paradoxically, no agreed definition exists within the USAF of innovation, and there is no organization charged with its overall direction and management. Innovation in the USAF is not a function, or even a job, but an objective to guide the actions of each airman. The spirit of initiative which inspires it sits uneasily with entrenched bureaucracy. Defence literature, which contains much on land innovation, has little to say on the subject in the field of aerospace. It is therefore difficult to arrive at an exhaustive description of innovation, but an overview is possible, as is a description of how the USAF intends to face its present and future challenges.

Innovation: What Are We Talking About?

Specialised studies in general distinguish between innovation and adaptation. Each of these may have common objectives (better effectiveness, more efficiency, risk management, cost reduction) but they occupy different time frames and do not necessarily involve the same actors.

Innovation looks far ahead, imagining the future and the ways in which it can be shaped. It is associated with long-term strategic, technical and operational prospects and depends rather on the central administration (Air Force Headquarters, the Pentagon), on partners (universities, think tanks, industry) and the headquarters of the USAF major commands (MAJCOM). Adaptation consists of improving an existing tool or the way of using it. It is rather the product of specialised tactical organisms, units or individual initiatives, and can be initiated by the chain of command.

While easy at first sight, this distinction is not totally satisfying. Futurists and planners cannot envisage the future without basing it on the present, and small changes can have major and lasting impacts. The concepts of the first laser-guided bombs or the invention of the Predator drone are examples of home-made inventions which turned out to be real game changers. For the purpose of this article, innovation and adaptation are merged, accepting that both are marked by the same search for progress, whatever the long-term aim, the subject or the level of application.

An Air Force Resolutely Facing The Future

AFRL Audio Researcher(USAF Photo, Richard Eldridge)

AFRL Audio Researcher
(USAF Photo, Richard Eldridge)

The American propensity is to seek technical solutions to operational challenges, but technological innovation is particularly essential for air and space capabilities. In the USAF this is the domain where innovation is best structured, and it is what most distinguishes it from the other Services. It is in fact, the only Service which has a Chief Scientist, a special adviser to SECAF and CSAF for scientific and technical questions. The Air Force Materiel Command, responsible for the concept, development, experimentation, acquisition and support of the Service’s whole range of equipment, also oversees a specialised laboratory, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), which devotes an annual budget of $ 2.4 billion to fundamental and applied research activities. To do this, the AFRL calls on its Science & Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) programme subsidises about 220 researchers every year for an annual cost of $38 million, while the Science Mathematics And Research for Transformation (SMART) programme has supported 640 researchers over the last nine years, of which 89% have subsequently worked for the USAF. The Minority Leaders Program is another example of a partnership that connects the USAF with 25 universities in the context of targeted research into nanotechnologies, electro-optics and composite fabrication.

The identification and development of breakthrough technologies are either spontaneous (technology push) or originate from a proliferation of conceptual and doctrinal work (technology pull). It is one of the responsibilities of the Sub-Office of A-5/8 Strategic Plans and Requirements of the Air Staff to catalyse them. One A-5/8 Division conceives the development of the framework for the achievement of the five core missions of the Air Force, without prejudging the capabilities needed to achieve them. Another Division lists them in techno-financial terms for each of the 12 key functions which contribute to them: nuclear deterrence operations, air superiority, space superiority, cyberspace superiority, command and control, global integrated ISR, precision attack, special operations, rapid global mobility, personnel recovery operations, agile combat support, education and training. Prior to this, a third division conceives and experiments with future scenarios (Skunks, Checkmate) and the strategy to confront them (Strategy). Finally, within this division, a group of strategists, the Strategic Studies Group, independently explores important strategic trends of direct benefit to the USAF.

The Air Staff works in coordination with the major USAF Commands, each of which conducts future studies in its area, but also with a certain number of internal and external partners. Within the USAF, this is one of the vocations of the Air University, which brings together several centres for research and academic education. The Air Force Blue Horizons Project calls every year on about 15 students from the Air War College to study a forward-looking subject involving emergent technologies, the future of aerospatial and cybernetic combat, and how the USAF should prepare itself for them. Its conclusions inform future staff studies, strategic planning, Quadrennial Defense Review scenarios and the statement of requirements. The prestigious School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, the cradle of strategists for the USAF, also produces this kind of work. Outside the USAF, universities and strategic research industries also stimulate study. Among the best known are the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies, attached to the influential Air Force Association and the only think tank exclusively devoted to military aerospace questions, and the Rand Corporation, whose Project Air Force benefits each year from a research budget of around $ 45 million. Recently, the US Air Force has experimented with an innovative method of consultancy with the WIKISTRAT company which, using a virtual network of global experts, hand-selected to address the theme in question (crowd sourcing), offers to deal with complex questions at very short notice and low cost.[iii]

An Air Force Mobilised By The Current Tactical Needs Of The War-Fighter

Innovation must therefore look far ahead and seek to improve what exists. In this context, the USAF depends on its centres of technical and tactical expertise but also on each of its airmen, whether civil or military, whatever their level of responsibility.

F-16 Post-Flight Inspection at RED FLAG 12-2(USAF Photo, MSgt Ben Bloker)

F-16 Post-Flight Inspection at RED FLAG 12-2
(USAF Photo, MSgt Ben Bloker)

Exercise Red Flag is one of the best examples of this innovation from the field. Instituted in 1975 to deal with the lack of training in air combat with adversaries using different equipment and procedures, a deficiency identified during the Vietnam war, Red Flag has progressively grown and adapted to the latest operational demands: at first the attack of defended ground targets, then combat in complex environments and finally widening to include allied air forces. Today, the exercise offers training to traditional and emergent partners of the USAF (Arab countries and India recently) on the whole range of air missions, in scenarios which include the increasing importance of the space and cyberspace dimensions. The lessons learned from the missions of very advanced realism are taken into account adapting tactics, techniques and procedures for USAF personnel, in flight and on the ground.

There exists in parallel within the USAF a number of fora where professionals can get together to discuss their difficulties and their good practices in order to innovate together. The Weapons and Tactics Conference (WEPTAC) regularly brings together fighter and bomber pilots, navigators and weapons systems officers who exchange their tactics, techniques and procedures, debate innovative concepts and propose solutions immediately applicable to their problems. Similarly, the Revolutionary Acquisition Techniques Procedures and Collaboration (RATPAC) network, twice per year, assembles junior acquirers from the Air Force and the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) to optimise and accelerate acquisition procedures for certain equipments. A noteworthy fact is that this spontaneous initiative has the support of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition.

Finally, the incentive to innovate, including in daily life, is applied on a USAF wide scale. The Air Force Smart Operations for the 21st Century (AFSO 21) programme formalises an incremental programme allowing innovation by reducing the waste of time and resources at unit level. In 2013, the Every Dollar Counts campaign invited every airman to suggest cost-saving measures applicable locally. 302 ideas were accepted by the USAF, resulting in savings of $ 71 million and 24,000 hours of work per year. These two initiatives have been extended and are now included in the Airmen Powered by Innovation (API) programme which seeks to catalyse suggestions from the grass roots.

A Crucial Need For More Innovation

The USAF is currently confronted by considerable capacity problems. The whole range of missions is assured on the world scale it merits, and modernisation is ongoing with the impending arrival of the F-35A, new generation KC-46 tanker aircraft and the new generation LRS-B bomber. But 25 years of uninterrupted operational engagement in the Middle East and elsewhere, and the application of heavy budget constraints since 2011 (reduction followed by sequestration of the budget), have appreciably weakened the Air Force.

With 315,000 active personnel, it now has the most condensed structure in its history. While 188 combat squadrons were available in 1991, there are only 55 in 2015. The in-service fleets are ageing: the average age of the USAF’s approximately 5,000 aircraft is 25 years. If the venerable B-17s had been involved in the Gulf War, they would have been five years younger than the B-52s are now. The focus over the last 15 years on air/land combat in a permissive environment has resulted in the erosion of some high-end skills not used in those operations. The stated ambition is to resurrect by 2023 80% of the skills that were present in 2001 before the launch of Enduring Freedom.

The signs are not good for an easing of budgetary constraints or operational tempo. Engagement in Iraq and Syria will not have given the USAF the respite counted on to rebuild its forces following the withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. From now on, the rise of regional powers, especially in their aerospace capabilities, will add to the challenge of anti-access/area denial. Contemporary developments in warfare, unpredictable changes in geopolitical balances and development of non-state threats are all fraught with consequences for the USAF’s capabilities, its force structure, its international partnerships and its projected detachments.

Finally, and perhaps above all for this eminently technological force, the acceleration of technical progress and the increasingly rapid diffusion of breakthrough technologies reinforce the need to anticipate and to be able to adapt quickly, certainly more quickly than the adversary. Tomorrow’s USAF will have to be even more innovative and responsive.

An Air Force In Marching Order

The history of innovation in the USAF shows the adoption of a strategy is an indispensable pre-condition for success. To innovate is in effect to try to resolve an identified problem by affording it the priority it merits. This is how the problem of suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) was resolved in Vietnam, or that of precision strikes at the beginning of the 1970s. Conversely, close air support (CAS) missions in Korea were not very effective because they had not attracted sufficient interest since the Second World War.

Since 2013, the USAF has conceived and adopted an overall strategy which determines its priorities, with the flexibility to cope with the unexpected. A vision, The World’s Greatest Air Force, Powered by Airmen, Fuelled by Innovation,[iv] defines what the Air Force is (‘what we are’) and what its contribution is to the national defence policy. A second document, Global Vigilance, Global Reach, Global Power,[v] presents its five core missions (‘what we do’). A third, America’s Air Force: A Call to the Future,[vi] revised every four years, lays down the major objectives for the next 30 years (‘what we must achieve’). A fourth and final document, The Strategic Master Plan (SMP),[vii] updated every two years, extracts priorities and goals in order to guide planning out to 20 years, (‘how we will accomplish this’). It is the SMP which, in the light of fiscal projections, guides the work of the annual planning process (Planning Choices Event) for the ten years ahead.

These documents all confirm the same credo: the necessity for the Air Force to improve its strategic agility. The ability to respond better and more quickly means innovating at all levels, first of all in the development of breakthrough capabilities and the planning processes. Hypersonic flight, nanotechnologies, directed energy, unmanned systems and autonomous systems are some of the priority areas for research. The exploration of concepts which cross boundaries in the air, space and cybernetic domains, and in the field of missions and capabilities, will be given priority. The existing stovepipes processes of research, definition of the requirement, technological development and acquisition are no longer up to date, neither is their inertia. Under resource constraints and time constraints the most viable solutions are the most flexible ones, those which combine capabilities in systems of systems. The definition of the requirement and the acquisition process will be punctuated by more numerous decision points in order to be able to modify or abandon a programme more easily during its life cycle. The creation of prototypes will occur earlier to reduce the resources necessary for turning an idea into reality.

Graduating Class at Lackland NCO Academy(USAF Photo, Robbin Cresswell)

Graduating Class at Lackland NCO Academy
(USAF Photo, Robbin Cresswell)

The development of each airman’s potential for innovation will also be pursued by developing his technical skills, his critical faculties and his ability to adapt. The diversity of his experience, his career path and culture will remain the measure of this. Particular emphasis will continue to be placed on further education, to enable every airman, civil or military, to develop his leadership skills. The officers, 60% of whom now possess a Master’s degree or its equivalent and 1,600 of them a Doctorate, will develop their ability to think strategically. Careers will be planned with more flexibility, to enable those who wish to take a sabbatical or adapt their work patterns, for example moving from full-time to part-time working. Those who choose to have a specialist career will also benefit from financial and promotion opportunities. This tailored approach is more complex; it implies rethinking personnel management policy.

Finally, the role of leadership remains essential. Behind all innovation there exists a creative individual and a sponsor, a confident and persevering chief who agrees to support the project in spite of the doubts and obstacles of a bureaucracy whose conformity and weight are no longer suited to the realities of the twenty-first century. The organisations and their command structure must create a climate of confidence, promote initiative, give freedom to subordinates and take on the (controlled) risk of failure. Today, the majority of American airmen have the feeling that they cannot influence change. The establishment of a more favourable general climate is one of the main preoccupations of the USAF high command.

The USAF At A Crossroads?

The USAF is going through a delicate period. Under continuous operational pressure and resource constraints which seem likely to last, it is having trouble achieving the essential balance between recapitalizing the forces engaged in current operations and preparing for the future, while the demand for airpower increases constantly and the commitments to come could well be more demanding. It is nevertheless determined to make the effort necessary to remain first in the world and to keep the central position it occupies in US defence policy.

The transformation necessary requires a complete review of its concepts and its way of functioning. The cultural shock is accepted. It is in the process of putting the new approach into practice. The ability of the USAF to innovate and its will to do even more are the foundations. To quote its Chief, General Mark Welsh, “The history of the USAF is a history of innovation.” This will remain true for its foreseeable future.

Colonel Jean-Patrice Le Saint is a Mirage 2000 combat navigator with extensive experience in conventional and nuclear air-to-ground operations. His background comprises two assignments on the French Air Force Staff, Paris, in the fields of strategy, concepts, doctrines, and employment. A former speech-writer to the French Joint Chief of Staff, he is currently the French Air Force’s Exchange Officer within the Chief of Staff of the Air Force Strategic Studies Group.

[i] Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

[ii] The airborne and surface-to-surface ballistic components.

[iii] A few weeks compared with several months; a few tens of thousands of dollars compared with some hundreds of


[iv] The World’s Greatest Air Force, Powered by Airmen, Fueled by Innovation: A Vision for the United States Air Force


[v] Global Vigilance, Global Reach, Global Power for America (

[vi] America’s Air Force: A Call to the Future, July 2014 (

[vii] USAF Strategic Master Plan, May 2015 (


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s