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The U.S. Air Force has embarked on a new round of strategic planning, under the auspices of its 2015 Strategic Master Plan (SMP), to help set the future direction of the service. Refining the Air Force's strategic planning process may help the service align itself to its environment and keep key initiatives on track. To offer the Air Force actionable findings on strategic planning, we surveyed a number of major topics and literatures for common themes and findings. The basic concept and approach of the SMP has promise. Our review of history and theory supports the idea that a consistent, ongoing planning structure would offer important advantages to any military service. Yet we also found that the actual design and execution of the SMP could potentially obstruct, rather than facilitate, these objectives. The SMP retains many elements of an old-style strategic planning process — forecasting an identifiable future, building an exhaustive, pre-set plan, and identifying hundreds of specific tasks — which creates a focus on execution over creative and flexible responses.

Key Findings

  • Our review of history and theory supports the idea that a consistent, ongoing planning structure would offer important advantages to the Air Force.
  • However, the current SMP is "industrial age" — it does not emphasize flexibility and agility, which are the most important values of a modern strategic planning process.


  • Create a clearer statement of the core strategy that motivates current Air Force thinking about future competitive advantage.
  • Streamline the SMP and the surrounding ecosystem of strategy documents.
  • Use the SMP as a framework to rebuild high-level strategic dialogues.
  • Use the SMP as the supporting structure for a network of initiatives or processes designed to enhance innovation and agility.

Research conducted by

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

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