As the United States of America stands on the precipice of another revolution of military affairs, it is important to remember it has been here before.i Since the 1700s, the role of the technologist and military strategist has remained unchanged—to determine the military utility of new technology, from rifled firearms to airplanes to nuclear missiles. The acquisition enterprise that molds these technologies into military capabilities must continue to develop and modernize to assure continued capability delivery.
To realize national capabilities in the past, the evolution of the US Air Force’s acquisition enterprise was necessary to leverage technological breakthroughs, such as mass production during the Industrial Revolution, nuclear physics, and microelectronics. As the Air Force faces future modernization challenges and investment decisions, it must reflect on US history to understand how the Air Force met past technological advancements. This article examines the enterprise investments made at crucial times in US history and provides historical analogies for investing and evolving the Air Force’s acquisition enterprise toward digital materiel management (DMM), “the process of integrating and employing digital methodologies across the entire lifecycle, from invention to retirement, across all warfighting capabilities.”ii
In 1917 Congress appropriated $640,000,000 to buy “‘supremacy in the air’ . . . but American tool-makers and engine makers and wood-workers and manufacturers” did not have the knowledge, production capability, and resources necessary for modern “aircraft production.”iii Furthermore, “America's factories were immediately busy on huge contracts for rifle and artillery ammunition, clothing, food, railroad and truck transportation---everything in large quantities, and all of which was more or less standardized production, without the uncertainty and the experimental hazards attending airplane engineering.”iv Stated differently, American manufacturing had little incentive to produce different equipment at scale with new, more risky, production methods. Therefore, “TIME---an element that no $640,000,000 could ever buy back again---became the great and most important factor in the race to put American aircraft and American pilots on the battle front.”v In summary, when World War I arrived, the Army Air Corps attempted to procure aircraft, but it had not made the enterprise investments in the industrial base to produce the aircraft and therefore could not procure aircraft at the desired rates or capabilities.
This problem persisted until the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor. World War I taught aviation and military leaders that the domestic industrial base had underperformed and the military industrial base was not able to scale if called upon.vi Leaders successfully petitioned Congress for the authorization to effectively create updated logistics, supply, modernization, and depot systems.vii Although the production of these systems was authorized, little appropriations were provided, and therefore, the developments envisioned by the aviation and military leaders went unfunded until shortly after December 7, 1941.viii
Even after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States still took significant time to build the military systems necessary to fully utilize the technological, manufacturing, and mass-production advancements created by the domestic industrial base.ix Individuals and teams of devoted military and civilians, such as industrialist Bill S. Knudsen, commissioned as an Army lieutenant general based on his civilian expertise in mass production, and the “dollar-a-year” executives, worked with the Department of War to mobilize the industrial base. x Without the domestic industrial base, World War II would have looked completely different. After Pearl Harbor, the United States made significant enterprise investments to fully leverage, utilize, and mobilize the domestic industrial base.xi
After World War II, humanity found itself at another inflection point—the nuclear age.xii The post-World War II peace dividend was relatively short-lived due to the nuclear age and the onset of the Cold War. The perceived threat of nuclear war prompted a holistic review of the new Department of Defense and the process by which it would strategically project US power and assure deterrence.xiii This threat drove developments of asymmetric technologies and delivery methodologies like jet engines, supersonic aircraft, and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Those technological developments, however, were made possible due to enterprise investments in people—such as Project Paperclip (also known as Operation Paperclip)—and infrastructure, such as rocket laboratories at the Air Engineering Development Center (now the Arnold Engineering Development Center, or AEDC).xiv Modernization due to the threat of nuclear war utilized and expanded prior DoD enterprise investments. Such enterprise investments enabled the nation to scale, leverage, and expand those technologies when the Cold War arrived at the United States’ doorstep.
Upon the United States’ withdrawal from Vietnam, the US Air Force looked at how to deter and defeat the Soviet threat and determined it could not compete with the Soviets in quantity but could defeat them asymmetrically with technologies such as stealth and a new AirLand Battle doctrine. Technologists had surveyed that battlespace and decided precision-guided munitions, radar cross section reduction, GPS, air superiority, and air battle management would provide the needed advantages. Yet, these technologies required significant enterprise investment and development.xv
In 1975, Secretary of the Air Force Dr. John L. McLucas testified before Congress: “I would hope we would not take any more continuing cuts. I think we’re down about where we ought to be. But if next year it comes down to a choice between taking a cut in force structure or one of our weapon systems, we’d take another cut.”xvi At that time, he “believed strongly that modernizing US equipment post-Vietnam was the most pressing need.”xvii What McLucas did not know was these modernization enterprise investments he so staunchly protected largely resulted in the second offset and yielded the modern Air Force, which still fights today.xviii McLucas’s enterprise investments were realized through enterprise divesting. From 1968 to 1975 the Air Force shrunk from 856,000 to 612,000 active duty members. To divest, leaders and McLucas “anticipated that congressional reluctance to approve foreign interventions after Vietnam . . . made it unlikely that the United States would be called upon to fight another war in the near term.” They recognized that in doing so, they were “either astute or lucky.”xix McLucas utilized divestment to free the necessary capital to make enterprise investments and expanded the acquisitions enterprise to generate today’s modern force.
After 20 years of fighting non-nation-state enemies and insurgencies, the Air Force finds itself at the precipice of another cultural and materiel revolution.xx It must embrace the change and let the threat, technology, and doctrine guide it. The change will require significant enterprise investment; without the investment, its ability to accelerate change will falter, and the risk of losing increases.xxi As great powers compete and the world approaches another inflection point with the advent of artificial intelligence, quantum computing, machine learning, and data management, the Air Force and Air Force Materiel Command must continue to modernize and invest in the acquisition enterprise.
The industrial base the Air Force relies on is proceeding, developing, and utilizing its equivalent of Digital Materiel Management. Without modernizing its acquisition enterprise, the Air Force assumes increased risk of acquiring irrelevant systems on irrelevant timelines. Without modernizing its acquisitions enterprise, the Air Force also assumes increased risk in design, testing, modernization, and sustainment of its weapons systems. And without modernizing its acquisition enterprise, the Air Force assumes increased risk to the capability deliveries necessary to create our enduring advantages.
The nation and the US Air Force have been here before. The Air Force needs modernization to generate its enduring advantages after 20 years of neglect.
Consequently, the Air Force also needs to secure capability delivery through acquisition enterprise investments such as digital materiel management. Enterprise investments matter as they ensure the people, processes, places, and production capabilities are established to scale and deliver when asked. The evolution of its acquisitions enterprise towards DMM is necessary to enable and integrate the development and delivery of its combat capabilities. The US Air Force needs these capabilities to deter and, if necessary, defeat any force that threatens the nation and its Allies.
Major Andrew J. Lingenfelter, USAF, serves with the Headquarters, Air Force Materiel Command, Commander’s Action Group.
i MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray, ed. The Dynamic of Military Revolution, 1300–2050 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
ii Marisa Alia-Novobilski, “AFMC Refocuses Digital on Materiel Management, Acquisition Enterprise,” Air Force Materiel Command Public Affairs, January 24, 2023, https://www.afmc.af.mil/; and Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC), AFMC Strategic Plan 2023 (Wright-Patterson AFB, OH: AFMC, 2023), 5, https://www.afmc.af.mil/.
iii R. M. McFarland, “History of the Bureau of Aircraft Production,” Headquarters, Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) History Office, ix.
iv McFarland, "Aircraft Production," ix–x.
v McFarland, "Aircraft Production," x.
vi Arthur Herman, Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II (New York: Random House, 2012).
vii Herman, Freedom's Forge, chap. 4.
viii Herman, chap. 8, app. A.
xi Herman, chap. 8, app. A.
xii Knox and Murray, Military Revolution, chap. 1.
xiii Jacob Neufeld, Bernard A. Schriever: Challenging the Unknown (Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, 2005).
xiv Neufeld, Bernard A. Schriever.
xv John McLucas, Reflections of a Technocrat (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2006).
xvi John McLucas, "McLucas Firmly against Force Cuts," Air Force Times, March 12, 1975.
xvii McLucas, Reflections, 93.
xviii McLucas, Reflections, 93.
xix McLucas. Reflections, 111.
xx S. Clinton Hinote, “After Defeat: A Time to Rebuild,” Æther: A Journal of Strategic Airpower & Spacepower 1, no. 1(Spring 2022).
xxi Charles Q. Brown Jr., Accelerate Change or Lose (Washington, DC: Headquarters, US Air Force, August 2020).