The Need to Balance Warfighting Assets, and Systems that Enable Them

“To be successful, the U.S. Air Force must continue its future design work and accelerate the evolution and application of its operational concepts and force structure to optimize its contribution to Joint All Domain Operations.”

- General Charles Q. Brown, Jr., the Chief of Staff of the Air Force

This quote epitomizes the positioning found in the recent article published by General Charles Q. Brown, Jr. which urges the Air Force to accelerate change in order to continue its air dominance.

At Decision Lens, we couldn’t agree more that the pace of change has quickened and the timeline to prioritize, plan and act is greatly compressed and increasingly replayed as conditions change. In order to improve readiness, the Air Force must modernize.

More often than not when we think about modernization and accelerating change, our focus is on program implications and the willingness to invest in and update the actual in-the-field war-fighting assets. This is borne out in the General’s statement highlighting the importance of ruthlessly prioritizing: “…we must reframe platform-centric debates to focus instead on capabilities to execute the mission relative to our adversaries. Programs that once held promise but are no longer affordable or will not deliver needed capabilities on competition-relevant timelines, must be divested or terminated.”

While I most certainly agree that our Air Force needs to have the most modern war-fighting capabilities, especially in a world of asymmetric threats where issues can pop up in any corner at any time from nearly any entrenched set of interests, I believe the idea of modernization must be more expansive as highlighted in his comments that “Learning from prior recapitalization and modernization plans, we must frame decisions with an enterprise-wide perspective.” This is the key.

Take an industry that was completely disrupted–retail by Amazon. In order to understand how Amazon revolutionized retail, one must dig deep to assess the problems that Amazon solved – the inconvenience of having to visit a brick-and-mortar location and being limited to the available inventory. Amazon solved the inventory issue years ago and more recently addressed the convenience problem by ensuring that the customer can now receive goods on the day that they were ordered.

Amazon did not achieve this by purchasing faster trucks or conveyor belts. It was achieved through cutting-edge systems, development, and digitalization of every single point in the value chain. In fact, arguably, the areas that had the least innovation were the actual assets and delivery mechanisms themselves.

Applying the Amazon story to the Air Force begets a simple question.

Would you rather have the most modern war-fighting assets possible but, due to underlying support and operational systems that largely depend on manual processes, not be able to deploy them for months, or have some older platforms that can be dropped into a threat situation on the same day due to digitalization across the entire spectrum?

This might be too stark of an example, but it is illustrative that unless we do indeed balance the focus on both the warfighting assets and the systems that enable them, we will have the equivalent of a Ferrari in the middle of a jungle with nowhere to drive it.

Similar to Amazon, mapping that value chain is critical to this success. The General indicates “We need to examine our structures and decision-making to force the hard conversations and effect the changes we need,” and “…we must be able to frame decisions and trade-offs with both a near and long-term view of what value our capabilities provide throughout the lifecycle of performance.”

The ability to rapidly anticipate disruptors and to use advanced analytics to drive the decision trade-offs, honing in on where the most value can be gained towards the mission, is paramount. As one airman recently told me “no matter how much we want to deploy forces, if the financials don’t get reallocated quickly to do that, it isn’t going to happen”.

So, it’s a question of not just accelerating change, but focusing on which points in the chain are the weakest links, and what are the impediments to that change. We have worked with the DoD for decades and the discussion about systems modernization has been front and center; well-recognized. Yet we still have many legacy processes and systems that, due to the sheer weight of the effort and change needed, still have not been modernized.

What is needed is a willingness to erase all of the sacred cows and to look at the opportunity now as one where disruptive change must be employed. Amazon, in its miraculous transformation from just selling books online to a comprehensive retail operation, did not examine how Walmart did business. Instead, it focused on what the value chain looked like, and what areas of that chain could be disrupted through modern technologies, from employing an online store, utilizing advanced logistical systems, and opening their ecosystem to thousands of small online retailers. Many of these ideas would have been anathema to a dyed-in-the-wool retail executive at the time.

The importance of strategic prioritization cannot be emphasized enough. The priority for change needs to be writ large in the budgeting process or it won’t happen on its own. Similar to companies entering new markets, they have to place growth bets – keep the cash cow going for revenue purposes, but at the same time forward invest in new capabilities and markets that may have an unknown return at the time. The ability to take this kind of risk will only be truly realized when the financial framework that drives the organization is set up to enable it.

We are moving in this direction, with rapid-fire investments by organizations such as AFWERX who can quickly identify new technologies and processes that have promise and growth by supporting them. Decision Lens is one such example of a private company that is recognized as solving an important need for the US Air Force. It is exciting to see the Air Force moving in the direction of solving not only endpoints but also each link in the chain to provide best-in-class capabilities to retain air dominance now and into the future.

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