The U.S. Air Force's New Mission: Accelerate Change or Lose?

The U.S. Air Force's New Mission: Accelerate Change or Lose?

Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. is a wrecker and a builder. The new U.S. Air Force chief of staff wants to uproot post-Cold War attitudes toward air warfare—attitudes premised on everlasting U.S. air supremacy—and implant a mindset premised on competitive entrepreneurship. Can he succeed? 

Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. is a wrecker and a builder. The new U.S. Air Force chief of staff wants to uproot post-Cold War attitudes toward air warfare—attitudes premised on everlasting U.S. air supremacy—and implant a mindset premised on competitive entrepreneurship. Shortly after taking up his post this summer, Gen. Brown issued a brief directive to the service entitled Accelerate Change or Lose. It’s a manifesto explicitly aimed at recasting how airmen think about air power. 

Brown points out that the air force has gotten by with certain assumptions since Desert Storm thirty years ago. Aviators have grown accustomed to having the leisure and taxpayer largesse to field top-end platforms, sensors, and armaments; to thinking of North America as a safe haven from hazards on the far sides of the oceans; and to regarding command of the air as something that belongs to the United States as though by a law of nature. He proclaims that “these assumptions no longer hold true today.” 

Aerial command is not a birthright. It has to be wrested from determined competitors. 

Like the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, the Air Force seems to have succumbed to the illusion that victory in the Cold War was forever. In 1992 naval grandees instructed the Navy and Marine Corps to restructure themselves as a “fundamentally different naval service” with little need to equip or train to fight for maritime mastery. There was no one left to fight. In other words, the end of the Cold War spelled the end of naval history—repealing the first and foremost function performed by sea services.  

That was a false and dangerous prophecy. 

Brown rightly describes the post-Cold War decades as historically aberrant because America faced no peer antagonist. The U.S. Air Force must adjust to a strategic setting “more akin to the World War II era than the uncontested environment to which we have since become accustomed.” It must devise different “forces and operational concepts” and “adapt to the changes in the security environment.” And it must do so fast—or stare defeat in the face in competition against the likes of China and Russia. 

Unlike the Commandant’s Planning Guidance put out by Gen. David Berger last summer when he took over the U.S. Marine Corps, Accelerate Change or Lose is less a detailed set of precepts than a call to action. Gen. Brown does hint at details to come. For example, he forecasts that airmen “will have to fight to achieve localized air superiority to enable joint effects.” This suggests that America will not rule the sky absolutely or permanently. It will do so partially and temporarily. 

Brown’s claim should have a familiar ring to maritime strategists. Alfred Thayer Mahan, America’s fin de siècle prophet of sea power, fashioned a doctrine of absolute “command of the sea.” A great navy exerts “overbearing power on the sea” that “drives the enemy’s flag from it, or allows it to appear only as a fugitive.” Having won control of “the great common,” it bars enemy access to the common—starving the enemy of foreign trade while confining its military to dry land. 

Decisive battle was Mahan’s strategic preference of choice, naval blockade an acceptable if less agreeable alternative.  

Giulio Douhet, the influential Italian air-power theorist quoted in Accelerate Change or Lose, was an avowed Mahanian. In fact, he titled his pathbreaking treatise Command of the Air. Overbearing power in the sky, declared Douhet, entitled air forces to bombard sites on the surface beneath, striking not just at military forces but directly at a hostile society’s warmaking potential. Like Mahan, he prescribed efforts to vanquish a foe’s main force in combat and take control of physical space more or less forever. 

Enter Julian Corbett. Mahan’s English counterpart and rival took a more jaundiced view of maritime command. He opposed naval zealotry. Because the world’s oceans and seas are vast and the largest fleet is minuscule by contrast, declared Corbett, “the most common situation in naval war is that neither side has the command; that the normal position is not a commanded sea, but an uncommanded sea.” The “object of naval warfare is to get command of the sea,” yet “the command is normally in dispute.” 

Fleet commanders covet Mahanian command, that is, but they often have to content themselves with winning enough control of the sea for joint forces to accomplish their goals on land. 

In the neverending debate between acolytes of Mahan and Corbett, it appears Gen. Brown comes down squarely on the Corbettian side. If the U.S. Air Force must make the transition from an age of absolute rule of the air to an age of local, transitory control, it must undertake a cultural revolution. That’s the true value of Accelerate Change or Lose. It puts service folk on notice that longstanding habits of mind and sentiment no longer suffice for this incipient age of great-power strategic competition. 

Prevailing attitudes must change just as matériel, doctrine, and tactics must. 

Putting a cultural revolutionary in charge of the U.S. Air Force should guarantee success on the logic that what top leadership ordains, people of lesser rank do. Right? Not necessarily. Sea-service chieftains wrought a cultural revolution during the 1990s, but theirs was straightforward to engineer. They directed the Navy and Marine Corps to lay down arms in placid times, an easy adjustment to make. It’s another thing entirely to take up arms and relearn battle skills in times like today, when dangers are gathering but haven’t fully taken form. 

Brown has his work cut out for him. He will not automatically get his way by virtue of his four stars and reputation for badassery. 

One bit of wording in Accelerate Change or Lose hints (probably inadvertently) at why he will have to keep after airmen for his revolution to prevail. When arguing that the past thirty years have been unusual, he describes these decades as “historically anomalous.” Anomaly is a word invoked by philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn half a century ago. Kuhn maintained that no scientific “paradigm”—roughly speaking, a theory that purports to explain some phenomenon—readily gives way to another. 

That’s because a paradigm approximates reality well enough to suffice. Otherwise scientists and laymen never would have accepted it as a paradigm in the first place. More importantly, says Kuhn, it attracts a corps of defenders who become invested in it for a mix of professional and personal reasons. Revising a theory means admitting it was wrong in part or in whole. No researcher (or anyone else) easily admits that publications, grants, and other tokens of professional esteem rest on a false foundation. 

This is where anomalies come in. The goal of any scientific model is to predict future phenomena. Yet, says Kuhn, discrepancies between a model’s forecasts and observed reality may start to appear over time. When anomalies do crop up, the keepers of the reigning paradigm metamorphose into gatekeepers. They try to explain away anomalies if possible. If not, they amend the paradigm incrementally in hopes that minor adjustments will preserve and extend its sway. 

And they mount a fierce rearguard action against proponents of a new, competing paradigm. Only when anomalies become too glaring to ignore or answer does the old paradigm give way. It shatters, its guardians no longer able to resist. For Kuhn, in other words, a “paradigm shift” comes about not through an orderly process of revision, as the scientific method says it should, but through a political process wracked by factionalism and—oftentimes—hard feelings. 

Kuhn lists the Copernican revolution among several historical paradigm shifts. The venerable Ptolemaic geocentric model of the solar system accounted for the planets’ courses well enough for century upon century. Yet church eminences—the gatekeepers of the geocentric system—fought with all their might against the new heliocentric model. This even as improved astronomical instruments exposed anomalies in the old paradigm and increasingly vindicated the new. 

Astronomer Galileo Galilei found the heliocentric paradigm shift rather painful; the religious authorities persecuted him for advocating it. 

Luckily for C. Q. Brown, he is authority in the U.S. Air Force. No one in thrall to the obsolescent paradigm of U.S. air power is likely to mete out a Galilean fate to him, delaying a necessary paradigm shift. But people are policy. Renaissance philosopher-statesman Niccolò Machiavelli contends rather archly that individuals cannot change with the times, but that republics have the luxury of replacing individuals who have fallen behind the times with those fit for new times and surroundings. 

In other words, groups well-led can keep pace with change even when people cannot. To usher in a new paradigm, Machiavelli might say, Gen. Brown may be forced to remove true believers in the old from posts of influence within the U.S. Air Force and replace them with believers in the new. That’s how bureaucratic leaders accelerate change. In the early going of World War II in the Pacific, for example, U.S. Pacific Fleet overseers gave submarine skippers two patrols to deliver results raiding Japanese merchant shipping. A captain was out if he didn’t deliver, and new blood was in. 

Machiavellian personnel policies bolstered the submarine fleet’s performance in short order. Similar methods may be necessary in the air force. 

It’s worth noting that Accelerate Change or Lose tries to instill a culture of continual adaptation and innovation rather than a fixed body of ideas about air strategy. Strategic competition is an interaction in which contenders try constantly to one-up one another. That being the case, it has a fractal nature, branching off in unforeseen directions. Declares Brown, “we must be able to account for the interactive nature of competition and continuously assess ourselves relative to our adversaries’ adaptations.” 


Now, Accelerate Change or Lose feels incomplete in some respects. It says little about how air operations shape events on the earth’s surface, where military quarrels are settled in the end. It makes little more than perfunctory obeisance to joint and alliance warfare. Nowadays air commanders are maritime commanders in a nautical region like the Indo-Pacific. Gen. Brown would be due an extra huzzah! had he acknowledged that the U.S. Air Force is now a maritime service—an implement of joint sea power. 

But I quibble. One imagines this is far from the last word from the chief of staff. Chances are a wild-blue counterpart to Berger’s Commandant’s Planning Guidance is already in the works. Brown has taken a wrecking ball to the old paradigm. Precisely what will replace it remains to be seen. 

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and the author most recently of A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.