Air Force Transformation
Air Force Transformation
Specialist in National Defense
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
Many believe that the Department of Defense (DOD) — including the Air Force
— must transform itself to ensure future U.S. military effectiveness. The Air Force has
a transformation plan that includes advanced technologies, concept development, and
organizational innovation. Issues for Congress include the efficacy of this plan, its
feasibility, and the attendant costs. This report will be updated.
Beginning in the 1990s, observers have discussed the need for DOD to transform1
in light of rapidly changing international circumstances. Both the Clinton and George W.
Bush Administrations argued that the United States must embark on a transformation path2
today, to meet a range of future security challenges. While the United States is today’s
dominant military power, past dominant powers have been surprised by changing3
circumstances and unforeseen threats. Further, the need for DOD to confront non-state
actors (e.g., terrorists, insurgents, international organized crime, narco traffickers) — a
very different challenge than confronting nation-states, may grow in the future.
In May 1996 the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff published Joint Vision 2010,
a conceptual template for how America’s armed forces may exploit technological
opportunities to achieve new levels of effectiveness in joint military operations. This
transformation guide was updated, expanded, and republished in May 2000.
DOD’s 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) described six critical goals to
focus transformation efforts: (1) protecting critical bases of operations and defeating
1 The 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR); The National Security Strategy of the United
States; The Secretary of Defense’s Annual Report to the President and Congress; The 1998
National Defense Panel; P.L. 105-261, Title IX, Subtitle A, Sec. 903; The 2001 QDR.
2 Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, 2001 Annual Report to the President and the Congress;
George W. Bush, “A Period of Consequences,” speech at the Citadel, Sept. 23, 1999.
3 Eliot Cohen, “Defending America in the Twenty-first Century,” Foreign Affairs, Nov. 2000.
weapons of mass destruction; (2) assuring information systems and conducting effective
information operations; (3) projecting and sustaining U.S. forces in distant anti-access
environments; (4) denying enemies sanctuary by providing persistent surveillance; (5)
enhancing the capability and survivability of space systems; and (6) leveraging
information technology and innovative concepts to develop an interoperable, joint
command, control, communications and surveillance architecture.4 In November 2001,
DOD established a new office to manage its transformation efforts.
It is generally accepted that transformation will require new technologies, new
operational concepts, and organizational innovation. Transformation will likely require
more emphasis on service and joint concept development and experiments, science and
technology efforts, tied closely to warfighters, processes that identify and quickly
operationalize promising concepts, and interoperability efforts critical for effective
coalition operations.5 DOD and the military services have developed transformation plans
and, to varying degrees, embarked upon them. Yet, questions remain about cost, schedule,
and the need to balance transformation objectives with near term modernization needs.
Transformation is not modernization, which aims at improving existing capabilities. Thus,
transformation and modernization may diverge, and can compete for funds and priority.
The need to “re-set” equipment worn-out in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq also
competes with transformation.
Air Force Transformation Activities
The Air Force’s transformation process is encapsulated in its Transformation Flight
Plan (AFTFP), first published in 2003 and updated in 2004. The AFTFP documents
ongoing Air Force transformation efforts and ties them to the 2001 QDR’s six
operational transformation goals. The AFTFP describes the Air Force’s core
competencies, efforts to adapt the Air Force culture and organizational structure, six
concepts of operations which are under development and eight transformational
capabilities that will enable them. The 2004 AFTFP departs from the 2003 version by
combining some of the concepts of operation (CONOPs) being pursued, and articulating
new efforts in business transformation. Unlike the 2003 version, the 2004 AFTFP also
discusses the role of “battlefield airmen” and helping U.S. allies to transform.
The Air Force defines transformation as “A process by which the military achieves
and maintains asymmetric advantage through changes in operational concepts,
organizational structure, and/or technologies that significantly improve warfighting
capabilities or ability to meet the demands of a changing security environment.”6 By this
definition, Air Force leaders say that the Air Force has been engaged in a military
transformation for decades and that current activities are a continuation of this process.7
4 U.S. Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report, Sept. 30, 2001, p. 30.
5 Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, 2001 Annual Report to the President and the Congress,
Ch. 11, “A Strategy for Military Transformation.”
6 U.S. Air Force, The USAF Transformation Flight Plan, FY03-07, HQ USAF/XPXT, p. iv.
7 John Roos, “Effect-Based Operations,” Armed Forces Journal International, Mar. 2001, p. 66;
Brig. Gen. David Deptula, U.S. Air Force Transformation Review, Mar. 9, 2001, p. 5.
Air Force officials contend that in the 1991 war with Iraq the Air Force demonstrated
two of the three required elements of a military transformation: the use of new
technologies (stealth and precision guided munitions) to enable novel operational
concepts (effects-based planning, and parallel warfare) and “leap-ahead” capabilities (the
total destruction of Iraq’s air power capabilities). Following this war, the Air Force
launched organizational changes (joining the Strategic and Tactical Air Commands, and
introducing the Expeditionary Aerospace Force (EAF)), that represented the final piece
of this first phase of Air Force transformation.
Whether the Air Force view on its state of transformation is accurate or not, it
appears that the Air Force has taken steps aimed at transformation, and has established
processes designed to guide these efforts. The Air Force has established six functional
Battle Labs to develop new ideas and concepts. The Air Force also annually conducts
wargames and experiments such as the Expeditionary Force Experiments. An Innovation
Steering Group was established to guide transformation activities, and ensure “warfighter”
inputs and feedback into the process.
The Air Force has also made changes to weapon acquisition and budget development
and allocation processes. For example, the Air Force Resource Allocation Process,
initiated in October 2000, is designed to give the Major Commands (e.g., Air Combat
Command, Space Command, and Air Mobility Command) a greater voice in the
budgeting process. This increase in the Major Commands’ voice in budgeting has been
reflected at higher levels within DOD.8 According to the 2004 AFTFP, the Air Force’s
goal is to “shift from threat- and platform-centric planning and programming to adaptive
and capabilities-and effects-based planning and programming.”9 While Air Force
officials express satisfaction with achievements to date, they say that Air Force
transformation is not complete. The Air Force is continuing the process by pursuing
advanced technology, new operational concepts, and organizational innovation.
The Air Force is pursuing technologies that it believes could engender new
operational concepts, to dominate air, space, and cyberspace. These include high
performance stealthy aircraft (the F-22 and Joint Strike Fighter (JSF)), unmanned combat
aerial vehicles (UCAVs), directed energy weapons (such as the airborne laser),
miniaturized munitions, and advanced command, control, communications, computers
and intelligence (C4I). The Air Force’s space-related programs are in varying states of
maturity, and include space-based radars, space-based lasers, micro satellites, “next
generation” missile defense, and space operations vehicles. Air Force efforts in the area
of cyberspace include computer network attack, computer network defense, and
information assurance activities. Both space and cyberspace capabilities are expected to
become increasingly important as the Air Force and the other services leverage U.S.
information technology assets in numerous warfighting applications.
The impact of new technologies is limited if they do not create new warfighting
approaches. The Air Force says it is developing new operational concepts designed to
exploit emerging technologies and enable new capabilities. These operational concepts
8 Amy Butler, “Combat Commanders To Direct Unprecedented Spending at Pentagon,” Defense
Daily, Feb. 11, 2004.
9 U.S. Air Force, The U.S. Air Force Transformation Flight Plan 2004, HQ USAF/XPXC, p. 3.
are in varying stages of maturity and they often overlap. Between 2003 and 2004, the Air
Force has made changes to the CONOPs it says are transformational and now say that
developing these CONOPs (Global Mobility, Persistent Attack, Global Strike, Homeland
Security, Nuclear Response and Space & C4ISR), are an expression of “capabilities-
based” planning and programming.
The final facet of the Air Force’s ongoing transformation effort is organizational
innovation. Organizational changes can be the most difficult and most important piece
of the transformation puzzle. Organizational change is difficult because it involves human
factors; non-quantifiable, social and psychological issues, such as tradition, culture, and
mind set. However, organizational change is central to transformation, because it codifies
and institutionalizes new capabilities and ways of doing business.
Refining the EAF is the Air Force’s main effort in the area of organizational change.
The purpose of the EAF is to provide a structure and schedule to effectively meet
contingency demands. The EAF organizes much of the Air Force into 10 Aerospace
Expeditionary Forces (AEFs) that include combat, mobility, and combat support forces
that rotate on a 15-month training and deployment cycle. Each AEF includes
approximately 175 aircraft and 20,000 active and reserve personnel. AEFs (and two rapid-
reaction Aerospace Expeditionary Wings) form the heart of the EAF, but strategic
mobility forces and so-called low density/high demand (LD/HD) forces (such as U-2s and
JSTARS) are also key elements. The Air Force hopes to deploy an AEF in 48 hours, and
up to five AEFs within 15 days. Each AEF is tailored to the regional commander’s needs.
The Air Force completed its first full AEF rotation and began its second in
December 2000. The Air Force learned some lessons from this first cycle, and refined the
concept. It created additional LD/HD crews and linked them to the AEFs. Although this
does not reduce the burden high deployment rates place on aircraft, it does help reduce
the stress on people. The Air Force conducted another review following September 11th.
This review spurred more changes to the AEF, such as more evenly distributing Reserve
and Guard personnel throughout the 10 AEFs. To meet military requirements in
Afghanistan, Iraq, and Korea, the Air Force deployed several units outside the normal 90-
day AEF rotation between January and July 2003. Starting in July 2004, 120-day AEF
rotations began. While the Air Force reported in early 2004 that the AEF had returned to
its 90-day schedule, thousands of troops remained on extended deployments.10 In 2006
the Air Force reported that the number of airmen deployed beyond 120 days was
i n creasi n g. 11
Issues for Congress
The 110th Congress may, as part of its defense oversight function, assess the merits
of the Air Force’s transformation program: Is it aggressive enough? Is it feasible? Will
it achieve the desired effect? Are transformation goals balanced with modernization
needs? The debate over the F-22 and JSF offers an example of how transformation
questions intersect, and may increasingly vie for Congressional attention. Evident in this
10 Gordon Trowbridge, “AEF Schedule Back on Track,” Air Force Times, Feb. 23, 2004.
11 John Tirpak, “Expeditionary — and Seriously Extended,” Air Force Magazine, Apr. 2006.
debate are contrasting views on technologies to pursue, how aggressively to pursue them,
and the difference between transformation and modernization.
Critics of USAF plans to acquire F-22s and JSFs argue that these aircraft are
modernization programs, and that the Air Force’s requirement for new fighters would be
adequately satisfied in the near term by upgrading and procuring F-15s and F-16s. They
argue that the effectiveness of today’s fighter and attack aircraft can be maintained
through upgrades to their radars, command and control systems, and weapons. Future
adversaries, they argue, will increasingly employ mobile cruise, ballistic and surface-to-
air missiles that will jeopardize the forward operating bases that shorter range military
aircraft — such as the F-22 and JSF — will require to generate significant sortie rates. By
cancelling or truncating the F-22 and JSF, critics argue, the Air Force can free substantial
funds that can be used to more aggressively pursue programs such as space-based assets,
directed energy weapons, UCAVs, or long range bombers. Such programs are more likely
to overcome tomorrow’s anti-access threats, and offer more transformation potential.
Supporters of the Air Force’s transformation plan counter that while the F-22 and
JSF do modernize today’s fighter and attack aircraft force, they will also transform air
operations. Their combination of stealth and high aeronautical performance (e.g.
maneuverability, speed, and endurance), will enable radical capabilities and operational
concepts. Further, they argue, along with long-range bombers, stealthy high-performance
aircraft offer the best potential for overcoming tomorrow’s anti-access threats. Air Force
supporters also contend that F-15s and F-16s are nearing the end of their useful lifetimes.
Spending today’s money perpetuating 1970s-era technology, they argue, is not wise.
Finally, supporters note that the Air Force is already pursuing space-based assets,
cyberspace operations, directed energy weapons, and UCAVs. The Air Force’s current
budget makes it difficult to spend more on these programs, given other pressing priorities.
An issue implicit in the debate described above, is the pace and aggressiveness with
which the Air Force should pursue potentially high-payoff technologies such as space-
based assets and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs and UCAVS). Many analysts argue
that exporting Air Force operations from the atmosphere to outer space could increase
their effectiveness and survivability, and should therefore be pursued aggressively;
perhaps at the expense of other programs. Others strongly support increased use of UAVs
to engender new warfighting capabilities, and to reduce the risk of U.S. casualties. In
addition to setting aggressive goals for fielding UAVs, advocates also find fault with the
decision not to accelerate procurement of the Global Hawk UAV, the Air Force’s next
generation airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform. This
perspective argues that the Air Force is prone to sacrificing transformation opportunities
for modernization needs, and that a balance between the two must be found.
A balance may also need to be struck between supporting current operations and
investing in transformation. Many fear that the costs of the ongoing war in Iraq will
consume transformation funding. Some DOD officials argue, however, that the war in
Iraq is not shortchanging transformation. In fact, they say, the war in Iraq is actually
accelerating transformation efforts.12
Air Force officials argue that they are pursuing transformation programs as
aggressively as is prudent within projected budgets. Current readiness shortfalls make Air
12 Jefferson Morris, “Iraq Operations Accelerating Transformation, Cebrowski Says,” Aerospace
Daily & Defense Report, Aug. 4, 2004.
Force modernization a tangible and high priority, that should not be sacrificed for
transformation programs that may or may, not pay off years hence. Also, senior Air Force
leaders have said that transformation “very much depends” on another round of base
closures.13 If the Air Force is asked to more aggressively lead DOD’s efforts in these
transformation areas, they argue, this effort should be funded in addition to
modernization. Perhaps a re-examination of the traditional division of DOD’s budget
among the Services is appropriate, they argue.
Air Force organizational activities are also an issue. The Air Force believes that
refining and implementing the EAF will have a transformational effect. Air Force officials
say that the EAF compels the Air Force to organize and think about itself in terms of
composite teams, not along functional “stove pipes.” It also ensures that the units
deployed to conduct a mission are at the peak of their training and readiness. Furthermore,
Air Force officials believe that the EAF creates an expeditionary mind set and provides
an effective mechanism for reducing personnel tempo, which in turn could ameliorate
recruitment and retention problems. Finally, the Air Force believes that the EAF provides
a basis for additional organizational innovation. As an example, Air Force officials cite
the GSTF, which will be composed of the first two or three AEFs deployed to a theater.
Critics suggest that while a useful force management tool, the EAF concept is not
transformational. The EAF, they argue, is a more modest organizational change (like
changes instituted by the Navy many years ago) that simply facilitates rotational forward
deployments of forces. To transform the Air Force’s warfighting capabilities, the EAF,
or other organizations, must inherently leverage new technologies and enable new
operational concepts. These characteristics are not evident in the EAF, they argue.
Furthermore, the recent fluctuations in the 90-day AEF deployment cycle shows,
detractors argue, that this concept is still a work in progress.
A great debate also revolves around some of the Air Force’s transformation
operational concepts, such as Rapid Halt Operations.14 While many in the Air Force
believe that air power alone can defeat or at least stalemate enemy ground forces, many
other analysts maintain that only ground forces can capture and control enemy territory
and forces. Do the 2004 AFTFP CONOPS suggest a similar “go it alone” mindset?
Many studies say that another issue for Congress may be its own role in
transformation.15 Some argue that transformation faces powerful status quo opposition,
and will be infeasible without congressional support. They advocate new working
arrangements between the Services and Congress. These studies assert that to achieve
transformation, Congress should consider modifications to current budgetary oversight
mechanisms, such as bi-annual budget authority, giving DOD managers more flexibility
to shift funds between accounts, and removing statutory barriers to a greater private role
in areas such as defense depot maintenance.
13 “Air Force Transformation Depends on Base Closing Round, Jumper Says,” Aerospace Daily
& Defense Report, June 28, 2004.
14 “Rapid Halt Operations” did not appear as a CONOP in the 2004 AFTFP.
15 1998 National Defense Panel, pp. vi, 67, 82; Defense Science Board on Transformation, p. 28.