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Research Questions

  1. Is the U.S. Air Force sufficiently innovative today?
  2. What can be done to make the Air Force more innovative for the future?

Developing innovative means to go "over not through" national strategic challenges has long been central to the Air Force's contribution to American security. In recent months, however, U.S. Air Force (USAF) senior leaders have raised the questions of whether the service is sufficiently innovative today and what can be done to make it more innovative for the future. This report assesses historical cases of Air Force innovation or apparent failure to innovate. These case studies include innovations in strategic reconnaissance (1946–1972), nuclear survivability (1950–1960), suppression of enemy air defenses (1975–1985), and precision strategic attack (1990–1999). Cases of apparent failure to innovate include close air support after World War II (1946–1951), early efforts to defeat Soviet integrated air defenses (1960–1970), and airborne high-value targeting in the post–Cold War era (1990–2001).

Key Findings

Air Force Innovation Begins with Strategy

  • Identification and framing of a strategically important operational problem are more likely to lead to innovation than technological change.

The Air Force Innovates Differently from Other Military Organizations

  • While most military innovation comes from formalized changes to doctrine and organizational structures, Air Force innovation is more likely to come from efforts of individuals and operational units leading to the generation of a new type of air campaign.

Air Force Innovation Is a Decentralized, Diffuse, and Diverse Phenomenon

  • Different parts of the Air Force innovate in different ways, in "immediate adaptation," "short-cycle," and "long-cycle" innovation.


  • To drive innovation, the Air Force senior leadership requires a mechanism for deliberately identifying and framing strategically important operational problems.
  • The Air Force should carefully preserve its capacity to foster short-cycle innovation.
  • Airpower innovation, as a distinct phenomenon, is poorly understood outside the Air Force; more published scholarship on USAF innovation would foster an informed conversation in the broader defense community.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was sponsored by Maj Gen Steven Kwast, Air Force Quadrennial Defense Review Office, and Maj Gen David Allvin, Director of Strategic Planning, Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Programs, Headquarters, United States Air Force. It was conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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