Air Force launches wide-ranging review to ‘reoptimize’ itself for future fights

Five teams of senior leaders will examine everything from personnel and procurement policies to the Air Force's organizational chart. Their plans to move forwar...

The Department of the Air Force is undertaking a sweeping review of its processes and organizational structures under the basic theory that the ones it has in place today aren’t the ones it will need to tackle its top political appointee’s three biggest priorities: China, China and China.

The scope of the changes the Air Force is examining is potentially enormous — ranging from its acquisition processes to recruiting to the management processes that deliver support services — but the review won’t take forever. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has told subordinates he wants the initial set of reform proposals within the next four months.

“It’s about looking at all aspects of how we organize, train and equip to support the combatant commanders and the joint force, and it’s a recognition, I think, by all of the senior leadership in the Department [of the Air Force] that we need to make some changes to be more competitive,” Kendall told reporters Monday afternoon. “They’re going to cut across pretty much everything we do. We’ll make some decisions at the end of January, roughly, and move forward with execution from there.”

The effort kicked off last week, when Kendall assigned five separate review teams to examine five broad areas:

  • How the Air and Space Forces are organized
  • The services’ acquisition and equipping processes
  • Personnel systems, recruiting, training, retention and career management issues
  • How the Air and Space Forces create, sustain and measure their readiness
  • “Support” systems, including, for example, installations, processes for mobilizing individual units, and operational medicine

The teams will be made up of senior leaders at the headquarters level of both the Air and Space Forces, but also from the operational community, Kendall said.

He said the call for a sweeping, but nonetheless quick review came mainly from his observations in his first two years as the secretary of the Air Force over the past two years: Making good on the “operational imperatives” he identified early in his tenure was harder than it should have been, because the service didn’t have structures in place to support them.

“We have institutions that could do some of the activities we started under the operational imperatives, so we needed to create organizations to do work we should have already been able to do with existing organizations,” he said. “And then as I got to go around and get to know the force better, I also determined that we were not as deployable as I think we should be to support our operations plans. We can do it, of course, but it would require disruption.”

Disruptive, Kendall said, because the Air Force, as it’s structured today, doesn’t do a great job of evaluating how ready individual units are to deploy as “warfighting entities” that can move from one place to another on short notice.

“And as I talked to people about how we manage people and support functions around our bases, we basically have a situation where there’s a command that runs the base and a number of people associated with that, then there’s the command that’s the warfighting organization. But the two aren’t entirely separable,” he said. “So if you deploy, what do you actually send? We’ve got to go sort all that out, but the end state will be an organization that’s more aligned with dealing with the types of threats that are most of concern to us now.”

Overall, the initiative, which Kendall calls “reoptimization,” is meant to reset the Air Force from two main factors he thinks have pushed toward the organizational structures and processes it uses today.

One is a matter of where most of the Air Force’s operational attention has been over the past three decades: largely conflicts in places like Iraq and Afghanistan in which it hasn’t faced a serious competitor in the air or space domains. A second large factor, he said, is the chaotic decade-long period governed by the 2011 Budget Control Act that capped and arbitrarily cut Defense spending, pushing the Air Force to make efficiency-driven organizational decisions it wouldn’t otherwise have made.

That period of time also saw numerous changes on the acquisition policy front, many of which granted additional flexibility and agility to the Air Force and its sister services, including expanded authorities to use other transaction agreements and a new “middle-tier” of acquisition. The Air Force has also submitted proposed legislative language that would let DoD get started on the earliest stages of its acquisition programs without explicit congressional approval.

But the Air Force still sees opportunities for improvement in its procurement processes, hence the decision to make equipping one of the five pillars of the reoptimization effort, said Andrew Hunter, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics.

“In many cases when we’ve talked about acquisition reform, it’s more generically about, ‘How do we go faster?’ … between the three different priorities of cost, schedule and performance, sometimes the priority that takes center stage shifts,” he said. “I would say this is incredibly focused when we talk reoptimizing for great power competition. We know the capabilities that we have to develop and maintain in order to recapture competitive advantage with the pacing threat. We will be doing things that are directly tied to achieving those outcomes — organizationally, process and budgetarily — all on those specific goals. And right now speed is absolutely foremost.”

On the personnel front, Kendall signaled that the need for change may be more modest — at least when it comes to recruiting.

The active duty Air Force will likely fall about 10% short of its 2023 goal at the end of this fiscal year on Sept. 30, and the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard will have even more disappointing recruiting numbers, he said. But he said those challenges are likely temporary and can be addressed with more funding.

“We put a lot less resources into recruiting than the other services do, and with a relatively modest increase in resources, I think we could do much better,” he said. “A lot of recruiting is face-to-face conversations, and the numbers of people you have out on the ground doing things matters … we’re doing some things on the information technology and automation side to help with the administrative part of it, so that our recruiters are out talking to people instead of at their computer trying to enter data, and that’s going to help quite a bit.”

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