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Preparing for the Future: Strategic Planning in the U.S. Air Force

Preparing for the Future: Strategic Planning in the U.S. Air Force by Colin Campbell and Michael Barzelay. Brookings Institution Press, 2003, 288 pp.

The dramatic changes that came about after the fall of the Soviet Union posed significant challenges for US military strategic planning. Strategic planners no longer could focus their efforts on one primary adversary and scenario (the Warsaw Pact invasion of Europe). In addition, the Air Force of the early 1990s confronted three notable changes: dramatic changes in the use of airpower during the first Gulf War, a substantial shift in the relationship between air and space power, and a decline in the importance of the nuclear mission. Yet, US strategic planning remained mired in the Cold War mind-set.

When Gen Ronald Fogleman became chief of staff of the Air Force in 1994, he inherited a flawed strategic planning process that was ill equipped to assess these challenges and advocate remedies to the secretary of defense and Congress. More specifically, Air Force strategic planning at that time (1) was organizationally separated from programming, (2) primarily forecasted from the present to replace current systems rather than back casting from the future to figure out what would actually be needed to address future challenges and how to plan and program for those capabilities between now and then, and (3) produced visions that were more slogans than true visions. As a result, Fogleman spent a significant amount of his tenure as chief trying to fix that process. Preparing for the Future provides a very insightful “fly on the wall” view of this effort and how those new processes evolved during the tenure of his two successors (Gens Michael Ryan and John Jumper). To my knowledge, it is the only work of its kind in the field.

The book evolved out of an effort by the first deputy chief of staff of plans and programs, Lt Gen Lawrence Farrell, to seek an outside perspective of the process and products of his new organization, which was a product of Fogleman’s reforms. He hired two teams of experts, including one of the authors, Michael Barzelay. When Ryan continued Fogleman’s new strategic planning processes mostly intact, Barzelay realized he had great material to expand the effort into a case study on how large organizations approach strategic planning. The new Air Force director of strategic planning at the time agreed and decided to fund the effort, which brought in the other author, Colin Campbell. The authors were given full access to all the major players, including Fogelman, Ryan, and the secretaries of the Air Force at the time (primarily Whitten Peters), as well as all archives. That case study eventually evolved into this book.

The book is organized into three main areas. The first is a chronology of the creation and execution of the strategic planning process initiated by Fogelman and altered by Ryan and Jumper. The second area analyzes those events and derives some lessons learned for other governmental organizations. The third area describes and assesses one key initiative to implement results from those strategic planning processes into reality—the development of unmanned aircraft—as well as several “processes for corrective visioning” through the Aerospace Integration Task Force, the Space Commission, and the Air Force Future Capabilities Game.

Along the way, the authors examine various issues and dilemmas related to how to identify and execute change. For example, is it better to drive change from the top down or to gain buy in from all parts of the organization? Does effective strategic planning require the passionate interest of the top executive or not? Interestingly, this analysis of the tenures of Fogelman and Ryan provides support for both sides of these and other such issues. The authors also effectively capture the difficulties in implementing strategic change, especially during a time of high current operations tempo.

My only, rather minor, quibble with the book is that, despite its impressive collection of information about what happened, its concluding analysis and lessons learned leave a bit to be desired, both in quantity and in quality. Fortunately, this is mitigated by some very useful insights sprinkled throughout the book associated with specific events, processes, or people. It is too bad these gems were not better synthesized at the end, especially for busy policy makers who may only have time to read the introduction and conclusion of the book.

With the dramatic Air Staff cuts of the past half decade and varying levels of interest in strategic planning from the chiefs of staff since Ryan, some have argued that the service’s long-range strategic planning is declining in influence and beginning to revert to the questionable practices in vogue prior to General Fogleman. This is rather troubling given that, despite significant progress and “transformation,” the US military is still primarily designed to fight the Cold War, and the post–Cold War security environment continues to rapidly change and demand a broader spectrum of capabilities. Therefore, while intended as lessons learned for other large government organizations, this book perhaps best serves as an important guide to today’s Air Force leaders as they consider how to conduct effective strategic planning despite today’s funding and manpower limitations.

Mort Rolleston

Headquarters Air Force, Future Concepts and Transformation Division

"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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