Air University Press


Behind the Light Switch: Toward a Theory of Air Mobility

  • Published
  • By Derek Salmi
  • Air University Press, Maxwell AFB, AL

This study offers a theory of air mobility intended to assist practitioners and policy makers in analyzing the efficacy of air mobility operations. It begins by presenting a model of air mobility utility that incorporates the key airpower and logistical principles of velocity, capacity, attainability, and sustainability to graphically illustrate air mobility’s effects within a campaign. Additionally, the five critical factors of freedom of movement, command and control, integrated logistics, technology, and training are examined as essential elements that must be addressed to determine air mobility success. Next the theory’s model and factors are applied to eight historical case studies, ranging from combat operations of the Second World War to recent humanitarian disaster relief efforts, which typify the broad air mobility missions set.

AuthorDerek Salmi
AU Press CodeB-163

Author of Behind the Light Switch: Toward a Theory of Air Mobility 

Col Derek M. Salmi is the Deputy Director, Strategy, Concepts, and Assessments, Directorate for Logistics (J-4), Joint Staff, The Pentagon, Washington, DC. In this capacity, he leads a team of logistics professionals in developing, integrating, and assessing critical logistics concepts and requirements in support of ongoing and future global operations. Colonel Salmi received his commission from the United States Air Force Academy in 1998 after earning a Bachelor of Science degree in political science. He has served in various operational assignments and has commanded the 92nd Air Refueling Wing, the 100th Operations Group, and the 436th Operations Support Squadron.

Colonel Salmi is also a graduate of the Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, was a National Defense Fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and has deployed multiple times to support Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, and New Dawn. Before his current assignment, Colonel Salmi was the commander, 92nd Air Refueling Wing, Fairchild AFB, Washington.

Q1: What was the genesis of Behind the Light Switch? Why a (new) theory?

For me the genesis for this book centered on trying to find a way to close the gap between my personal experiences as an air mobility practitioner—and seeing firsthand how hard it can be to pull all the pieces together to achieve success while also knowing that success is never guaranteed—against the general feeling expressed by the quote from which the work takes its name. It is exactly the point that former Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen Mark Welsh, was making in comparing air mobility operations to a standard light switch—most never question the intricate wiring or how the electricity or even the bulb itself behind the switch work because the light turns on . . . every single time. Air mobility operations are very similar in that, for the most part, they have been incredibly successful and “have worked” but several key factors must be in place (behind that proverbial switch) to ensure that success and those can’t be taken for granted.

As such I wanted to study this idea further and try to provide a framework so decision makers—and primarily those leaders with limited or no mobility experience such as civilian policymakers or military members from the combat air forces or other services—could have a starting point for understanding, influencing, and leading successful air mobility operations. I also hoped it would spark greater imagination in the minds of air mobility personnel so that they would continue to imagine new paradigms and approaches and continually improve the mobility enterprise.

I had the opportunity to try out my research at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center where, among the 30 or so civilian national security PhD students and professionals in my fellowship cohort, it was well received. With the ensuing discussion and probing questions that followed I recognized there may be some value in expanding this topic and strengthening the argument through case studies spanning history and the different types of possible air mobility campaigns (from operational-level to counterinsurgency to humanitarian to name a few).

Q2: What do you want readers to take from this work?

Ultimately I hope that readers realize successful air mobility operations simply don’t "just happen,” rather there are key decisions that must be made both in the moment of execution and across the preceding years in areas of force development and force design to drive ultimate success. This is an idea I try to capture with the five key factors of air mobility and the inverted triangle diagram in the second chapter. These five key factors, apart from being interrelated and exerting influences on each other, achieve importance in varying degrees across the planning-to-execution time continuum as well. So when air mobility operations are effective, it’s usually the result of decisions and investments made well before the point of need. My theory ultimately attempts to provide some structure for ways for strategists to think about this.

Q3: What surprises emerged from your research—any unanticipated findings?

I think my biggest takeaway—and it wasn’t necessarily a surprise but certainly something to note—is that we tend to learn more from those losses suffered as opposed to victories gained. As such the case studies of Stalingrad and Dien Bien Phu were the most instructive for me and in turn resonated the most. At Dien Bien Phu, for example, one could almost feel how a series of seemingly small decisions—both at the strategic and tactical levels and at times only remotely connected—ultimately doomed the French garrison by making the necessary, sustained air mobility operations impossible. With careful self-reflection and empathy, I think we can all imagine ourselves facing a difficult decisions and a similar dilemma.

I think another key finding focuses on what these case studies may teach us regarding future air mobility operations. If current trends continue—and they should—the future battlespace will be characterized by contested logistics in all domains and stretching from the homeland (previously an area of sanctuary) to the future battle areas. What does this mean for air mobility command and control in a cyber or space-contested environment? What skills do we need our air mobility professionals to train to and focus on? What kind of technology do we need to invest in now for the future? By reflecting upon the past, I hope this book provides at least one tool to help better prepare for the future.

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