Invoking the ingenuity and courage of the Doolittle Raiders and other World War II Airmen, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr., beseeched the current Total Force in a Sept. 20, 2021, speech to embrace a similar “culture of innovation, collaboration and accountability that made the impossible possible.”
Change — and a new culture — are needed, Brown said during his address to the Air Force Association’s Air, Space, and Cyber Conference, to confront emerging and legitimate threats from China and “near peer” competitors. Such change is required to develop and deploy new capabilities necessary to defend the United States, its interests, and allies.
“We are seeing two significant challenges converge,” Brown said. “First, the return to strategic competition with near peer adversaries able to threaten not only the American homeland, but its ideals and values. The second, the need to holistically transform our Air Force to compete, deter, and win in a highly contested environment but blocked by bureaucracy, prioritization, and the application of resources.”
Brown’s assessment of the threats and what is needed to meet them echoed those presented earlier in the day by Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall. Like Brown, Kendall noted growth and ambitions of China as a primary strategic concern and the need for the Air Force to reset the way it operates and thinks to respond successfully.
“To overcome these challenges, we must transform our culture to one that values innovation, collaboration and accountability,” Brown said. “… We must move with a sense of urgency today in order to rise to the challenges of tomorrow. Because the return to strategic competition is our nation’s greatest challenge.”
The main themes in Brown’s remarks to an audience of Airmen, industry officials, policy makers and advocates, all echoed the call to action Brown issued more than a year ago shortly after becoming the service’s highest-ranking officer. That document, “Accelerate, Change, or Lose” is Brown’s blueprint for forcing cultural change, for adding speed to actions and decisions, and infusing a more freewheeling sense of innovation across the force.
While Brown emphasized that the Air Force must push hard to change and to accelerate in order to accomplish its missions and protect the nation, he also noted that such change is possible because of the quality of people in the Total Force.
“I truly believe we have the greatest Airmen and best defense and tech industry in the world,” he said. “Together we must work to accomplish what seems impossible. We must rise to the challenges of today to prepare for tomorrow.”
Brown said he has seen “progress” on meeting the goals he outlined but he said more is needed.
“Over the last year, I have seen the embers of a culture shift,” he said. “Our shift in culture has empowered Airmen to reduce bureaucracy and to decide what to prioritize by what is truly value added.”
He added, “Based on our deliberate efforts to change and define culture, I believe we have started to set conditions to ensure U.S. airpower can continue to be decisive in 2030 and beyond.”
But, he warned, there is no room for complacency. “A few embers here and there will not bring about the culture change,” or transform the service’s bureaucracy to move faster and with clarity of purpose,” he said.
“My job and our collective job as leaders is to pour fuel, through innovation and collaboration, on the embers to create a fire of culture change. Culture is not just sufficient, it is necessary to accomplish what seems impossible, it is necessary to transform our Air Force to meet the demands of tomorrow.”
Brown praised the Air Force’s recent performance in Afghanistan “where we saw our Airmen execute the largest airlift in history.”
But he offered a bookend to the history in Afghanistan and the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attack to what is confronted today.
“We cannot wait for a catastrophic crisis — sudden or insidious — to drive change for our Air Force and the joint force,” he said. “It will be too late.”
He specifically highlighted actions and personal initiatives that highlight the kind of thinking and behavior needed to ensure continued superiority. “While at AFCENT (U.S. Air Forces Central) and USAFE (United States Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa), I saw fighter squadrons prove we can generate combat power with a third less manning,” he said. “They were able to achieve this by capitalizing on multi-capable Airmen and agile combat employment concepts.”
He called out for praise Master Sgt. Jason Yunker and Master Sgt. Timothy Peters and the so-called VIPER Kit they developed from a concept “drawn on the back of a bar napkin” that allows refueling operations with any existing infrastructure.
“It reduces the footprint required to support combat generation from six vehicles, six personnel, and diplomatic clearances that take up to 15 days per TDY to … three personnel, and no diplomatic clearances,” he said. “Not only did this change how the Air Force conducts deployed refueling operations and enable rapid global operations, it changed the lives of these Airmen.”
Lt. Miolani Grenier is another example, Brown said. While Grenier is an Air Force intelligence officer, she is certified to operate a forklift “so she could unload aircraft upon initial arrival at a deployed location.”
“This is exactly the type of culture we need,” Brown said. “If we do not challenge the status quo, we will not be able to provide airpower anytime, anywhere.”
Brown’s remarks came three days after he issued an “Innovation Letter” to Airmen. While acknowledging in the one-page letter “that innovation instinctively aligned to create the world’s dominant Air Force,” Brown said more is needed.
“To succeed, we must properly identify problems, empower decentralized solutions by individuals and teams, and infuse an ethos of innovation at all levels. Innovation depends on both creative individuals and supportive organizations to turn concepts into reality,” the letter says.
Brown carried that call to action in his remarks at the AFA conference.
“I am extremely proud of the progress we have made towards creating a culture that will ensure our success tomorrow,” he told the audience of more than 2,000 at AFA.
“But we still have work to do and we must collaborate and hold each other accountable. … We have the opportunity, but not the time. We must accelerate change to leave our mark and make the impossible possible.”