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

Tomorrow's Air Force: Tracing the Past, Shaping the Future by Jeffrey J. Smith. Indiana University Press, 2013, 272 pp.

Col Jeffrey J. Smith, recipient of a PhD in political science from Washington State University and current commandant of Air University’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS), attempts to fulfill two objectives in Tomorrow’s Air Force. First, he examines in historical perspective the question of “how and why . . . organizational change occurred” within the US Air Force and its predecessors. Second, he focuses  his analysis on “understanding and anticipating the possibility of future USAF organizational change.”

This two-fold approach serves as the basis for his argument that the current USAF organizational structure must change if the service is to retain its ability to contribute to US national security interests in a meaningful and effective way. Underscoring the imperative for such a change, Smith claims, is the growing disparity between an organizational framework grounded in the unique perspective of the USAF dominant culture—that of the fighter community—and the changing contexts of contemporary warfare. Given the current fighter-operations perspective, the Air Force organizational structure is optimally geared for fighting conflicts that place a premium on attaining and maintaining air superiority, that allows for targeting critical infrastructure using precision-guided munitions, and that feature opponents willing to mass fielded forces in the open, making it possible to attrit them from the air. Wars that easily fit into this paradigm are increasingly rare, however. Instead, asymmetric conflicts of the kind with which Americans have become painfully intimate over the last decade now serve as the dominant context of warfare.

The book’s historical survey of USAF principal operations in the last two decades—the period that coincides with the institutional dominance of the fighter-operations perspective—demonstrates the limitations of that perspective in asymmetric, unconventional, irregular, or urban contexts. In such environments, Smith notes, “the dominant and most important capabilities required of the USAF do not come from the fighter-operations community.” Instead, they are provided by Airmen “responsible for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance [ISR], together with space-based capabilities, cyberspace operations, logistics, tactical airlift, and special operations” (p. 215).

Smith does not dismiss the need for developing and honing capabilities associated with the fighter-operations perspective; time and again he emphasizes this will remain a crucial component of the Air Force’s mission. But the USAF will have to enlarge its spectrum of capabilities to “consider all of its systems under a larger strategic vision of synergistic operations” (p. 219) that will embrace both regular and irregular conflicts. In turn, he predicts, such a synergistic viewpoint will emerge as the dominant USAF perspective in the next two decades. This process will both require and generate profound organizational and cultural changes requiring the USAF leadership to consider a range of initiatives intended to ensure the service’s continued relevance and effectiveness.  These include, continued development of unmanned and remotely operated vehicles, cultivation of senior leaders whose promotion is based on broad strategic and intellectual acumen rather than on operational specialty alone, increased emphasis on interoperability, and greater acceptance of the USAF support role provided to the other services.

To anticipate and predict just what form these organizational changes might take, Smith analyzes the nature of analogous transformations in the Air Force’s historical development using insights borrowed from theoretical models of organizational change. At least twice in USAF history, its structure successfully adapted and readjusted to changing contexts. In the first half of the twentieth century, its institutional predecessors gradually moved away from the ground-operations perspective that reflected the imperatives of the parent service, the US Army. A combination of external pressures from two world wars, internal cultural changes, and key decisions by senior leaders resulted, by the 1940s, in the emergence of a bomber-operations perspective as the dominant organizational and cultural paradigm that provided the impetus for a USAF institutional independence. Similarly, the advent of limited conventional wars in Korea and Vietnam during the Cold War, combined with the changing cultural dynamics of its officer corps and senior leadership, facilitated the emergence of the fighter-operations perspective as the cornerstone of USAF organizational identity by the early 1990s. In each case, Airmen successfully adapted to changing circumstances, ensuring the continued relevance and effectiveness of their service.

Smith’s splendid analysis is a worthy successor to Carl Builder’s examination of Air Force culture (The Icarus Syndrome, 2002). To be sure, Smith’s conclusions are likely to generate considerable unease among those Airmen whose professional and personal identities pivot around the fighter-operations perspective. As Smith himself acknowledges, one retired general who read an advanced copy of the manuscript “refused to provide any comments more than to say he completely disagreed with my findings and that he could not endorse the work” (p. xiii). That, however, is all to the good because no one can deny the changing contextual realities and their implications which Smith analyzes with clarity and rigor. As Flannery O’Connor once put it, “the truth does not change in accordance to our ability to stomach it.” With the Air Force bracing itself for a future of tight budgets, rapid technological change, and strategic uncertainty, its leaders at all levels must begin asking themselves and each other some tough questions about the direction their service is headed. Those Airmen willing to actively engage in such discussions would do well to read this  book as the basic point of departure for debates concerning the intricate relationship between the past, present, and future U.S. Air Force.

Sebastian H. Lukasik, PhD

Air Command and Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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