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Brown readies the Air Force, wants to ‘go fast’

The Air Force Association 2020 Air, Space and Cyber Conference graphic. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Rosario "Charo" Gutierrez)

The Air Force Association 2020 Air, Space and Cyber Conference graphic. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Rosario "Charo" Gutierrez)


In his first major address since becoming Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., outlined in remarks Sept. 14 to the Air Force Association (AFA) an ambitious campaign to “reshape” the service’s culture, hardware and practices while bluntly warning, “If we do not change today, we will lose tomorrow.”

“We have a window of opportunity, a window of opportunity to change and exploit the air domain to the standard our nation expects and requires from its Air Force,” Brown said in his 24-minute address.

“If we don’t change, if we fail to adapt, we risk losing. We risk losing in a great power competition; we risk losing in a high-end fight; we risk losing quality Airmen; we risk losing budget dollars and our credibility and aspects of our national security,” he said at AFA’S 2020 Virtual Air, Space & Cyber Conference.  

Brown’s comments before thousands of Airmen, industry representatives, congressional officials and others attending the virtual conference echoed a strategic approach entitled “Accelerate Change or Lose” he released two weeks ago. That document captured his focus areas as the Air Force’s senior military leader, the “why” behind his intent. It emphasized that the Air Force must go fast, that it must break free from some past practices and mindsets, and that the Air Force as an institution must continue collaborating with Congress and military, industry and allied partners. 

Doing that, the 8-page document says, will open the path to “accelerate the transition from the force we have to the force required for a future high-end fight.”

Brown offered those same points while also adding additional context and depth in his AFA remarks.

“We have two options. We can admire the problem and talk about how tough this is going to be, how hard the decisions will be to make,” he said. “Or, we can take action. I vote for the latter. We must take action. We must accelerate change or lose.”

Achieving the goals, he said, demands change in four broad areas that he itemized as A through D.

“We must accelerate change now. How do we do that? 

“A: Airmen.

“B: Bureaucracy. 

“C: Competition. 

“And Design Implementation.”

Airmen, he said, “are our most valuable resource” and setting conditions allowing them to develop and become leaders is paramount. The goal, he said, is to find and develop leaders at all levels who are “comfortable enough where they can delegate down to the lowest capable and competent level and that we have trust throughout all levels of command.”

Brown noted that moving to meet that standard is already underway. He pointed to decisions such as eliminating “Below the Zone” promotion and creating Promotion Developmental Categories that allow officers to compete for promotions against others with similar experiences and mission focus.

He explained that he expects the Air Force to continue evaluating and adjusting as needed. He also values effort. “If we fail, it won’t be for lack of trying,” he often says.  

Brown said he wants to address Air Force bureaucracy to make it leaner, more efficient and focused so it can “outpace our competitors’ decision cycle.”

Achieving that, he said, requires close-in change. 

“The first step is, we have to look ourselves in the mirror and clean up our own house. That starts on the Air Staff. We need to amend our decision processes; we need to make decisions with an enterprise-wide approach versus in silos,” he said.

“I want to make decisions for the good of the entire Air Force, not for just parts of the Air Force. How do we do that? We increase collaboration and communication across our staff.”

Another key is candor, he said, noting that often the important discussions take place unofficially and in smaller groups after the main meeting ends.

Brown said his goal is to “have ‘the meeting after the meeting’ during the meeting” so a full array of viewpoints and knowledge can be shared and considered. 

Brown also said that a hard but disciplined analysis is needed of the Air Force’s structure to weed out redundancy and inefficiency. That could result in a reorganization.

“And if we do reorganize, form must follow function. Any efficiency we gain we need to turn into opportunities to repurpose manpower so we can put that manpower against emerging missions or under-resourced missions,” he said.

When the question turns to competition and why changes are needed, Brown was direct. 

“China and Russia will still be our great power competitors,” he said, adding that the Air Force must understand the challenges and threats those adversaries present as well as those from other nations.

“If we don’t understand our adversary, we will show up with the wrong capability, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, competing on the wrong field,” he said.

Many of the changes and actions Brown outlined at AFA were already underway before he became Chief. But Brown said there is a need for action, discipline and innovative thinking as well as the ability to make hard decisions.

“I fully realize that future budgets will drive us to make some difficult force structure decisions,” he said. “Whatever decisions we make, they need to be affordable, defensible based on analysis and congressionally supported.” 

Brown said he wants a change in mindset as well as one that moves from thinking solely about “platform” to capability. 

“I think it’s better to have a force of quality than a force of quantity that’s missing parts, parts like manpower, sensors, command and control, weapon systems and sustainment,” he said.

“We have to be proactive, not reactive. And so, we’re proactive; we’re already moving out,” he said, adding yet again, “I want to go fast, I want to go fast, I want to go fast.”

While Brown acknowledged the challenges presented to meet his goals, he reminded the audience of history. “We’ve done this before; we can do it again.” 

“I plan to lead change. And by leading change we’re going to have to take some risks … As you take that risk, it needs to be measured and informed. I hope you will come with me as we make some of these risk decisions,” he said.

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