Managing Risk in USAF Force Planning

  • Published

Managing Risk in USAF Force Planning by Frank Camm et al. RAND, 2009, 256 pp.

Balancing the projected capability and capacity needs of the USAF with current operational requirements is a continuous challenge facing senior Air Force leaders. What is the impact of fielding more intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets to support the war on terror? If the Joint Strike Fighter program experiences prolonged delays, which current or future programs should be de-scoped or cancelled to fund upgrades and service life extensions to existing 4th generation fighters to cover the capability gap. In Managing Risk in USAF Force Planning, the authors present the initial results of a FY 2007 Project Air Force RAND study commissioned to provide Air Force leaders and their planning staffs with a framework to “sharpen their understanding of their subjective beliefs about the future and the policy implications of these beliefs.” This study also demonstrates how using a scorecard allows planners to reach a consensus regarding their “subjective beliefs about the future and the risk associated with it” and how to effectively communicate those subjective judgments to civilian and military leadership.

The current risk assessment tools used by the Air Force are inadequate and inefficient. The capability review and risk assessment (CRRA) method requires countless layers of subjective judgments to determine the set of effects the USAF has to achieve to execute each CONOP (as defined by the 2003 Transformation Flight Plan). The process became so bloated and muddled that senior leaders found it difficult to “explain their judgment on how changes in programs might change individual subjective probability distributions.” Additionally, civilian and military leaders not involved in the process found it difficult to both determine which or whose subjective beliefs were used and to understand products generated by it.

In short, the process is so cumbersome and layered that all transparency and meaning is lost. The result is AF leaders who talk about risk management using hollow platitudes instead of clearly conveying how selecting different policy options will “affect the likelihood that specific futures injurious to US security will occur; and that, if such futures occur, how resource transfer will change the damage to US interests that occur by limiting the AF’s ability to respond.”

The scorecard risk assessment framework proposed by this RAND study is designed to be compatible with the military vernacular, flexible enough to account for and embrace the uncertainty of the future, and is lean and transparent so leaders can effectively demonstrate and communicate how their subjective beliefs impact policy decisions.

Readers should not get bogged down in memorizing the specific steps associated with building this risk assessment scorecard or worry about using them as a checklist for strategic force planning. One will get much more out of this publication focusing on the concepts that underpin this framework; specifically, the fact that the future is wildly unpredictable.

The seminal premise of this monograph is that the “persistent presence of uncertainty” is inescapable across all planning horizons. This sentiment is woven through every section of this text in an effort to drive a cultural change in the way the military views strategic force planning and to reinforce the fact that there is no objective way to predict future events and their impacts. Whether referred to as persistent uncertainty or the unknown unknown, the implications are the same: we depend on the subjective beliefs and judgments of senior leaders to build an Air Force with the optimal balance of capability and capacity to counter a wide variety of threats in an effort to minimize damage to US interests (risk).

This is a daunting task to be sure, but the authors effectively demonstrate how employing a scorecard risk analysis framework enables senior leaders to refine their subjective beliefs through interaction with their peers, staffs, and subject matter experts. The result is a populated scorecard that lists salient threat categories and the subjective judgments on how the magnitude and probability corresponding to each threat changes for each alternative policy package across a specific horizon. The interactive and iterative process used by leaders and their staffs enables the development of consensus, the ability to accurately document the subjective beliefs that comprise that consensus, and the means to effectively communicate the consensus to other civilian and military leaders.

Despite repeatedly asserting the persistent uncertainty of the future, it is paradoxical for the authors to state that “we can predict with confidence the military requirements associated with the combat phases of war.” Virtually all instances of US involvement in armed conflict seem to contradict this sentiment, most recently evidenced by the unexpected length of our involvement and the need to “surge” in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Professional military judgment and subjective beliefs may provide senior leaders with the level of forces they anticipate will be needed to deal with a given conflict, but the amount of forces needed for actual combat cannot be predicted any more than we can predict when the next conventional war will occur.

It is important to note that this study is a work in progress. The authors note that more analysis is required before the Air Force can implement this framework. In future revisions of this study, RAND should explore implementing this framework across the joint construct and JCS or DoD level. Greater efficiencies in overall strategic force planning and risk management could be discovered if this framework were adopted by all services. It would also be interesting to see if building partner capacity, especially amongst the United States’ peer or near peer strategic partners, could be an effective tool in mitigating strategic force planning risk.

Regardless if this scorecard framework is adopted by the Air Force for strategic force planning, the discussion on the persistent presence of uncertainty alone makes this report worth reading. I encourage field grade officers in intermediate professional military colleges or initial staff assignments to read this study to gain insight on how uncertainty can impact all strategic force planning decisions.

Maj Steve V. Engberg, USAF

Joint US Military Affairs Group, Korea

"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."