Lasting impression: Lessons from Air Force leaders

  • Published
  • By Capt. Cory Seaton and Tech. Sgt. Thomas Berthiaume
  • 20th Air Force

This year, a group from the 20th Air Force Headquarters staff had the opportunity to attend the Air Force Association’s 2021 Air, Space, and Cyber Conference. We were fortunate enough to listen and learn from a plethora of senior leaders and experts regarding not only current Department of Air Force affairs, but the future as well.

Air and space superiority is not a right and has to be earned everyday through dedication and hard work. In order to keep earning our superiority, we need to change to prepare for the future. Our 30-year-old fleet is not going to perform as well tomorrow as it has today. We need to stop building for today and instead build for tomorrow.

We must shift our focus from regional conflicts to great strategic competition. Soon we will no longer be operating in a near-peer environment. China is currently our pacing threat and within 10 years will be a peer adversary if nothing is done, with Russia not too far behind. In nearly every domain, China is pushing the envelope in technological advancements. With this potential rise of peer adversaries we need to reenergize our people to enable them to be innovative to accomplish accelerated change in every domain.

One domain we must better utilize in order to prepare for a potential threat is space. Space is vital not only to our way of life, but to our national security. Earning space superiority enables joint forces to prevail in a global, all-domain fight. Space provides the warfighter a combat advantage from the ultimate high ground to the last tactical mile. We must acknowledge that space is no longer a benign arena for the betterment of mankind, but a new warfighting domain. Space is competitive, with 16 active space-faring nations. Space is congested, with over 35,000 objects orbiting the planet. Finally, Space is contested, with a recorded nine demonstrations of varying counter-space capabilities. Because of these factors, the U.S. Space Force could not have come at a better time.

For us to be successful in every domain and theater, we must remember that we are one team. It is essential we collaborate and integrate with our allies and mission partners; sharing best practices makes everyone better. We must communicate early and often to collaborate and provide structure towards long-term success. We need to enable our allies to be an additive measure to bolster our efforts in assuring global prosperity and peace. We also need their help to deter aggression and adversarial acts against allied air fields, both via passive and active measures. As one team, we are going in the same direction and can provide crucial support to one another; not one organization can be successful on their own.

Within our organization, it is important to further communicate clear vision and mission statements of a collaborative culture. We can often be our own worst enemy with developing assets on our own and believing we have the best practices. We have begun to change that with the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35, which is being developed by over ten countries. Historically, our acquisitions philosophy has put us behind in technology development and is greatly contrasted by Chinese strategies. Whereas we are slow to produce new assets, they develop new technology quickly. When we are deliberate in our decision making process, they are quick to try multiple strategies to discover the most efficient one. While we are traditionally very risk adverse, China is not afraid to have a high risk tolerance.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q Brown, Jr. and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass state, “What is good enough today, will inevitably fail tomorrow.” We must be able to recognize this in order to start tackling the problems. Briefings will not be able to solve the problems of the future today, but people can. People are our best asset that enables us to earn the right in Air and Space superiority. This is why we need to inspire one another, every Airman, in order to create a culture of innovation and an environment that Airmen want to be a part of. This will not only help the Air Force of today, but also increase retention and recruiting efforts for tomorrow. These cultures are created and sustained at the lowest levels of the Air Force: the work places, the flights, and in the squadrons. We must trust Airmen to make decisions and empower them to do so.

In order to accomplish a culture of innovation and empowerment, we need high-paced, quality leadership. Our Airmen cannot believe in impossible. Disproving “impossible” has been seen for the last few years with middle-tier acquisitions. It was said that we could not go any faster than we already were, that the speed of acquisitions was as fast as it could go. Yet, people like Lt Gen Guetlein, the director of the Space Systems Center, and those aligned with his risk tolerance did not believe in impossible. Now with Dr. Roper in the seat of Department of Defense Acquisitions, we have Rapid Capabilities Offices for both air breathing and space assets. As a result, they are producing capabilities in 1 to 5 years, a significant decrease from a few years ago when it may have taken twice as long. These innovative projects and programs are increasing real capabilities in record time. They have reduced bureaucracy and constrained thinking because they do not believe in impossible.

The main take home of the event was that we must not believe in impossible; absolutes cannot exist in our future Department of the Air Force. Nothing is impossible. China can and will be our peer adversary if nothing is done, if steps are not taken to advance our force to innovate at a speed that enables accelerated change. However, if we accelerate change by pouring fuel on the fire of innovation, empowering and trusting our people, it will make it extremely difficult for our adversaries to threaten conflict in any domain: air, space, or cyberspace.