Promoting Innovation and Modernization Within the Air Force

by David A. Ochmanek

Research Brief

The United States today faces a highly dynamic security environment. To meet the challenges posed by emerging threats, such as nuclear-armed regional adversaries and global terrorism, the Air Force must continue to develop new operational concepts and associated systems, and it must implement them in a timely way.

Project AIR FORCE at RAND developed a framework for force modernization that can be used to promote innovation by focusing concept development efforts on key challenges and lending increased coherence to the Air Force's advocacy efforts. This framework designates a set of actors—including definers, proponents, and conceivers—to monitor and promote critical aspects of the modernization process. Applying the framework would entail the following key measures:

  • Focus on meeting operational challenges rather than on improving or "recapitalizing" specific forces. The current system within the Department of Defense centers on developing "requirements" for proposed systems. The prior and more important activity of actually defining new concepts is often overlooked.

    The proposed framework calls for definers to specify key operational challenges that the Air Force should strive to meet—for example, being better able to locate and identify suspected terrorist groups or individuals in complex terrain. These challenges are translated into specific tasks for which conceivers develop new concepts and technologies. Proponents monitor the Air Force's ability to perform the tasks, and they advocate for resources when improvements are necessary.

  • Separate the processes of concept development and acquisition. Current guidance, taken literally, dictates that innovators must seek permission from acquisition authorities before they can explore new concepts. This requirement inhibits the kind of creative thinking that should occur during the problem-solving process. The proposed framework calls for conceivers to work independently to study operational challenges and propose solutions for them. The Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff then decide which ideas merit implementation based on input from proponents and independent evaluators.

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