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Research Questions

  1. What does Air Force strategic planning actually accomplish?
  2. What should it accomplish?
  3. How can the process be modified to best fit that goal?

This report examines the history of strategic planning efforts in the U.S. Air Force and asks three basic questions. First, what does Air Force strategic planning actually accomplish? Second, what should it accomplish? Third, how can the process be modified to best fit that goal? The report finds that many of the most innovative Air Force strategy documents were produced outside the bureaucratic structure. Still, the Air Force has successfully used strategic planning to accomplish four basic tasks: allocate resources; structure the force; define and shape the service's mission and identity; and, perhaps most importantly, create a dialogue about the direction of the service. For the most part, successful strategic plans have achieved these results by applying five key lessons: understanding the policy environment; encouraging ideas from the bottom; starting the strategy from the top; keeping the message succinct, substantive, and sharp; and focusing on process as much as product.

Key Findings

There Currently Is Disagreement over the Utility of Long-Term Strategic Planning

  • Some senior leaders interviewed doubted their ability to predict and plan decades out in a concrete sense.
  • Other senior leaders interviewed for this report worried that the Air Force's public documents have become too abstract and technology-focused, rather than concrete and strategic.
  • Current and former planners tend to place a higher premium on strategic planning.

Historically, the Air Force Used Strategic Planning to Accomplish Four Key Tasks

  • Justify resources to U.S. Congress and to the rest of U.S. Department of Defense
  • Structure the force and explain the structure to the rest of the service.
  • Define and shape the service's mission and even identity particularly at strategic pivot points.
  • Create a dialogue about the direction of the service within the service and with Congress and other key constituencies.

The Most Successful Air Force Strategies Have Applied Five Basic Lessons

  • Understanding the policy environment.
  • Encouraging ideas from the bottom.
  • Starting the strategy from the top.
  • Keeping the message succinct, substantive, and sharp.
  • Focusing on process as much as product.


  • Encourage ideas from below: Cultivate free thinkers within the ranks and encourage dialogue between them and senior leaders.
  • Know your environment: Tailor messages to specific audiences and understand the context — social, political, economic — of the period during which the document is produced and disseminated. Know that the messages that work inside the U.S. Department of Defense will not always play well when floated to a wide audience.
  • Development strategy from the top: Strategy cannot simply be left to the planners and still be successful. For a strategy to produce real change, the Air Force strategy's priorities need to be its senior leader's priorities and those senior leaders need to be on the same page. Get leadership buy-in early in the process of developing the strategy.
  • Keep the strategy succinct, substantive, and sharp: Successful strategy documents require a clear if blunt vision for the service defended by details and measured by a handful of select metrics about how the U.S. Air Force will fulfill its priorities, with few additional distractors.
  • Focus on the process as much as the product: Air Force strategists perhaps should be more concerned about the discussions these documents spark, rather than necessarily what these documents say.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Strategic Planning and Its Discontents

  • Chapter Two

    Defining Strategy and Measuring Its Effect

  • Chapter Three

    Air Force Strategy from Its Formation Through the Cold War

  • Chapter Four

    Air Force Strategy from 1990 to the Present

  • Chapter Five

    Lessons for Air Force Strategic Planning

  • Chapter Six

    Postscript: The Future of Air Force Strategy

  • Appendix

    Effect of Specific Air Force Strategic Documents

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the Director of Strategy, Concepts and Assessments, Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements (AF/A5S) and conducted by the Strategy and Doctrine Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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