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MISSION: The task, together with the purpose, which clearly indicates the action to be taken and the reason therefor. --Joint Pub 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms
USAF MISSION: Our mission--the job of the forces we bring to the fight-- is to defend the United States through control and exploitation of air and space. --Gen Merrill A. McPeak USAF Chief of Staff
FOR NEARLY 50 years, the United States Air Force has been without the very essence that defines both military action and institutional identity. Since 1947 we have organized, trained, and equipped air forces without establishing authoritatively the purpose for doing so. For nearly 50 years, we have been without a mission.
We have paid a price--in institutional identity and in our ability to define air power's unique contributions to joint and combined military action. But in the midst of turbulence and change, Gen Merrill A. McPeak, chief of staff of the Air Force, has offered us a way to break into the clear. His contribution is a compass bearing that gives us a heading into the future--a mission statement for the Air Force.
On 19 June 1992 at Maxwell Air Force Base (AFB), Alabama, in a low-key but powerful message to air power leaders and critics alike, the chief gave his best definition of a mission statement by identifying the task ("control and exploitation of air and space") and the purpose and reason for the task ("to defend the United States").1
There is room to critique his choice of words, and some people will no doubt take issue with his audacity in giving the Air Force an operational mission when Department of Defense (DOD) Directive 5100.1, Functions of the Department of Defense and Its Major Components, declares us to be a functional department.2 Others will argue that the Air Force already has a mission (e.g., Global Reach--Global Power; organize, train, and equip; etc.) or--better yet--many doctrine-based missions (ranging from strategic attack to aerial refueling).
No stranger to controversy, the chief made clear that he welcomed such debate. Having laid his cards on the table, he challenged the audience to fold, call, or raise against his definition of mission: "Discuss it. Argue about it. Use it to help bind us together."3
For all of the controversy he has generated over reorganization, uniforms, and the primacy of "manly men," General McPeak has made a tough and accurate call--one that should touch the heart and soul of airmen in an institution undergoing massive change in an uncertain world. He said we need a mission to tell us who we are and what we do, and to bind us together. He is right.
What our mission should be and how it should be described are issues for argument and debate. What should not be at issue, however, is our critical need--as an institution facing a future that holds both danger and opportunity--for an official, recognized mission. Woven throughout the chief's speech was his conviction that we must generate, along with a shared mission and identity, "a rebirth of the traditions associated with the Air Corps Tactical School [ACTS]."4 Of all the opportunities presented in his speech, this one holds the most promise and, indeed, the most challenge.
It was no accident that General McPeak asked Lt Gen Charles G. Boyd, commander of Air University, to host the gathering at Maxwell AFB. According to the chief,
The time, the place and the audience for this address were chosen with care. Some sixty years ago, the Air Corps Tactical School moved to Maxwell from Langley [Field, Virginia]. Here, men like Hal George, Ken Walker, and Muir Fairchild laid the theoretical and doctrinal foundations for an independent Air Force.5
Here, General McPeak implied, during a time that is now recognized as the apex of air power vision and debate, the fledgling Air Corps defined who it was and what it did. For a short time, we had an identity, a purpose, and a clear reason for being.
On 15 September 1939, in an Air Corps Board report approved by the secretary of war, we "established `for the first time'" what Gen George C. Marshall declared to be "`a specific mission [for] the Air Corps'."6 It was a simple statement: "`Air Power'," the report declared, "`is indispensable to our national defense, especially in the early stages of war'."7 The implications, however, were profound. Air power's contribution to the Allied victory over Germany was, to quote the Strategic Bombing Survey, "decisive."8 One of the results of this performance was that the Air Force earned its independence in 1947.
But part of the price of independence was the severance of the new Department of the Air Force, as an institution, from its operational orientation, putting into peacetime practice the command logic of World War II. Theater commanders--not individual services--fight wars. Implicit in this logic was the assumption that the services did not need a combat mission statement to rationalize the functions which came to characterize their reason for being.9 Chartered to "organize, train, and equip air forces," the 1947 Air Force, perhaps unknowingly, came out of the starting gate without an operational framework that gave it a purpose for doing these things. In short, the new Air Force had a function but not a mission. It had nothing that told airmen who they were, what they did, and why. There was nothing to give shape and dimension to the concept of air power--nothing to give the Air Force an institutional identity.
As a result, airmen identified with organizations that did tell them who they were and what they did: squadrons, wings, and--ultimately--major commands (MAJCOM). Ironically, each of those organizations was required by regulation to have a mission statement, and the mission of each MAJCOM came to define and separate air power, weapons systems, and airmen, robbing the Air Force itself of an institutional identity.10 Instead of integrated air power, MAJCOMs embodied different air power and support capabilities (e.g., strategic-nuclear, tactical-conventional, airlift, etc.). Further, the MAJCOMs developed separate weapons system "road maps" that led to no common destination. Instead of airmen, we had MAC, TAC, and SAC troops, with infinite and intricate hierarchies within. Instead of one Air Force, we had many--each with its own internal identity, mission, culture, and agenda for the future. No single, unifying mission for the Air Force as a whole was officially set above the functions of "organize, train, and equip"--functions which each MAJCOM pursued down its own separate road. And along each MAJCOM road, highway markers reflected separate concepts of procurement, doctrine, and air power application.
The cumulative effects of 50 years without a common purpose were finally recognized in 1989 in an internal white paper produced by Headquarters USAF, Director of Plans. The theme of the paper was not politically correct at the time, but it was right:
The Air Force has lost a sense of its own identity and of the unique contributions airpower makes to warfighting. . . . The lack of [such] an integrating vision [reveals] a tendency to be tied only loosely to the larger institution, a sense of loyalty more commonly given to airframes or commands, an inclination to focus on systems before missions. . . . Fragmentation thus permeates our internal planning and consequently the way we present ourselves to others.11
Graphic evidence of our failure to present a "coherent, strategic vision" to Congress, the white paper continued, was the Air Force's declining budget share: "Between 1985 and 1989, Congressional cuts to the Air Force budget exceeded Army and Navy cuts combined." Even more telling, perhaps, was our inability to articulate to what strategic end our desired billions were going. As a result, concluded Inside the Air Force in its review of the white paper, "without a clear mission unique to the Air Force, the service ends up in a subordinate role to the Army or Navy."12 After undergoing a "narrow but important" circulation, the white paper, as could be expected, caused a great deal of controversy inside the Pentagon. The authors eventually decided not to publish it.
Nevertheless, they had at least put into limited circulation a gutsy appraisal of our fundamental problem as an institution. General McPeak both validated and vindicated their effort on 19 June 1992 when he posed this powerful question to his audience: "How can you reorganize, restructure, how can you build a Quality Air Force if you cannot say, in clear, simple language, what the purposes of our organization are . . . in brief, what our mission is?"13 The answer he gave to the first part of the question was, You can't. His answer to the second part was a simple, clear, and brief statement of the mission, meant to encompass a purpose for an institution and its people: "Our mission . . . is to defend the United States through control and exploitation of air and space."14 Does the Air Force need a mission? Yes. Is this the right mission? For the first time in 50 years, airmen are challenged and encouraged to debate the fundamental and enduring questions of air power to find the answer.
Will the chief get the quality debate that he and his cause deserve? The move toward physical integration, reflected in our current restructuring, is fertile ground for the next logical step: an integration of purpose and spirit. But there is also some cause for concern. Will the "new generation of missionaries"15 he is calling for to preach the gospel of a single mission be stillborn? Will the new MAJCOMs be willing to subordinate their particular weapons systems, views of air power, and demands for resources to the greater interest of an Air Force mission? Will senior Air Force leaders, whose public self-images often reflect primary loyalty to a particular weapons system, foster and--above all--value argument and debate about an overarching mission that would relegate their weapons systems to simply one of many means available to achieve the mission's end? Airmen look to their senior leaders for priorities, attitudes, identities, and values. If these leaders give only lip service to the chief's call for joining the debate on mission, then the debate will be without substance. Where they lead, the force will follow.
To arrive collectively at who we are and what we do as a single, integrated institution, however, requires more than just individual effort or behavioral change. When the chief called for a "rebirth of the traditions . . . of the Air Corps Tactical School," he asked for a great deal. What was unique about ACTS was not just the quality, vision, and dedication of its faculty and students--it was the extraordinary value its leadership placed on the efforts of those people.
The spirit of ACTS was one that valued the knowledge and study of air power and the art of warfare as much as it did its execution. George, Walker, and Fairchild, together with Haywood Hansell, Laurence Kuter, and Carl ("Tooey") Spaatz--to name a few of the great ACTS faculty in the 1930s--were not only warriors, but scholars as well. On the eve of World War II, they put their knowledge of mission, doctrine, tactics, and training together and built Air War Plans Division-1 (AWPD-1), the first strategic air war plan.16 Neither the president of the United States, nor General Marshall, nor Gen Henry H. ("Hap") Arnold, nor Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower called their effort "ivory-tower BS." The knowledge of air power contained in AWPD-1 and its successor plans was more than valued by these leaders--it proved to be invaluable to a nation at war.17
If General McPeak wants a new generation of missionaries to embody the spirit of those who studied, debated, and tested the true mettle of air power--and if he wants them to help him unify the Air Force under a single, overarching mission--he must support a change in culture among the very leadership of which he is the defining example. Senior Air Force leaders must reexamine the value they assign to the study of air power, strategy, and doctrine--all of which are fundamental to our ability to execute our mission, but none of which can be done properly unless framed by a mission. Senior leaders must create an incentive structure to encourage and reward warriors who choose to study the strategy, history, and doctrine of air power.
By asking for debate on the Air Force mission, General McPeak has also implicitly challenged our doctrine to support this mission in a thorough and systematic way. Without the common end of an institutional mission, however, there has been no real anchor for doctrine to develop this logical relationship with mission. Long fragmented among MAJCOMs and the Air Staff, our current process of doctrine development may not be up to the task of mission support.
If the chief wants a mission to help "build a Quality Air Force," he must also put the Air Force's process of doctrine development to the quality test--for the two should be linked. In March of 1939, Secretary of War Harry H. Woodring tasked the Air Corps Board to "consider and recommend the fundamental policies that would govern the tactical and strategical employment of the Army's air force under current national policies."18 In a private memo to General Arnold, chairman of the board, Colonel Spaatz (who served as a board member) indicated that the Air Corps Board "could not perform its tasks until it first determined the Air Corps' mission, the doctrines for its employment, and the characteristics of the forces it would require."19 Arnold concurred, and the board--in precise order--stated a mission for the Air Corps. This gave Spaatz the rationale to task his Air Corps plans section to finish the Air Corps' basic doctrinal manual, which had been stalled for many years.20
First mission, then doctrine, Spaatz insisted. Once this sequence was established, planners were able to build force requirements and produce AWPD-1 in just nine days. Forty-eight years later, eight days after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Gen H. Norman Schwarzkopf received and approved the first briefing on what became known as the strategic air campaign for Operation Desert Storm. Filed with that briefing of 10 August 1990 was an underlined copy of appendix 4, paragraph 2, of AWPD-1. Its title? "The Air Mission."21 With specific national objectives constituting our mission in the Gulf, the logic of Spaatz's sequence was repeated in Desert Storm. Air power doctrine--the fusion of experience and judgement--was the medium used by Desert Storm air planners to translate mission objectives into strategy, and strategy into force requirements. As our victory showed, the logic of this connection between mission, doctrine, and force requirements is fundamental to both strategic success in war and to a coherent, effective vision for the future of air power. And it begins with a common definition of a mission for an institution and its people.
General McPeak has offered us a beginning, not an end--a starting point, not a specific destination. "Understanding our mission," he said, "will [give] us a steady compass bearing to get through this heavy weather and into the clear."22 But understanding our mission means that we must make some fundamental changes to the culture of the Air Force as well as to its organization.
Organizational restructuring has already begun, and it is a decisive step in the right direction--forging a single Air Force identity. The real test will be our ability to subordinate command parochialisms to an overarching mission supported by a dynamic and effective doctrine. Taking up the chief's challenge to argue and debate, to restore the spirit of the Air Corps Tactical School, and to derive unity and identity from a single mission requires Air Force leaders who will recognize, encourage, and value the uninhibited, critical study of air power, doctrine, and strategy as much as they have the technical application of air power.
General McPeak has called it right. A reorganizing Air Force in an uncertain world must forge a common identity and state an institutional purpose in order to survive. Both identity and purpose are embodied in a mission statement. Are we ready, from the top down, to make the fundamental changes required to give that mission a chance to work--to make a single, powerful, and relevant Air Force out of the many that exist today? We should be more than ready.
1. Gen Merrill A. McPeak, "Does the Air Force Have a Mission?" text of speech to a dining-in at Air University, Maxwell AFB, Ala., 19 June 1992, 5.
2. The first major function of the Air Force, listed under the heading "Primary Functions of the Air Force," is "to organize, train, equip, and provide forces for the conduct of prompt and sustained combat operations in the air." DOD Directive 5100.1, Functions of the Department of Defense and Its Major Components, 25 September 1987, 19.
3. McPeak, 10.
5. Ibid. Capt Harold L. George, Lt Kenneth N. Walker, and Maj Muir S. Fairchild all held faculty positions at ACTS in the 1930s and were considered some of the premier thinkers in the fledgling Army Air Corps. Robert Frank Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force, vol. 1, 1907-1960 (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, December 1989), 109.
6. Futrell, 95. "Following the practice of other arms and services, an Air Service Board was established at Langley [Field, Virginia] in 1922." It was redesignated the Air Corps Board in 1926 and moved with ACTS from Langley to Maxwell Field, Alabama, in 1931. The board was comprised of those senior Air Corps officers who were available for creative thinking in the early 1930s and became, in effect, "an arm of the Office of Chief of the Air Corps on detached location at Maxwell Field," with senior ACTS faculty doubling as members of the board. By 1935 the board's mission included preparing uniform tactical doctrine for all types of Air Corps units, making recommendations on air force organization, making tactical evaluations of equipment, and wrapping all that up into long-range planning. Futrell, 62-79.
7. Ibid., 95.
8. The United States Strategic Bombing Surveys (European War) (Pacific War) (30 September 1945 and 1 July 1946; reprint, Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, October 1987), 37.
9. On 26 July 1947, President Truman signed the National Security Act, which "created the National Military Establishment and made substantial changes in the nation's defense organization to include a separate Air Force . . . nominated James Forrestal as the first secretary of defense and issued an executive order prescribing the functions of the several armed forces." Futrell, 196. Truman's executive order charged the Air Force to organize, train, and equip air forces for air operations, including joint operations.
10. Air Force Regulation (AFR) 20-, 21-, and 23- series require organization and mission statements for USAF general, department, and field units.
11. "Closely Held USAF White Paper Warned Lack of Vision Could Cost Service," Inside the Air Force 2, no. 20 (17 May 1991): 13-14.
12. Ibid., 12.
13. McPeak, 1.
14. Ibid., 5.
15. Ibid., 10.
16. Former ACTS faculty member Lt Col Harold George headed the Army Air Forces Air War Plans Division, which was tasked on 9 July 1941 by President Roosevelt and the War Department to determine the aircraft production and strategic concepts required to defeat potential enemies. George's entire Air War Plans Division consisted of only three other officers: Lt Col Orvil Anderson, Lt Col Kenneth Walker, and Maj Haywood Hansell--all former ACTS faculty. Quickly augmented by several other Air Corps officers (including Maj Hoyt Vandenberg and Maj Laurence Kuter), the Air War Plans Division began serious planning on 4 August 1941. On 12 August 1941, they completed AWPD-1, "Munitions Requirements of the Army Air Force." Futrell, 109.
17. Futrell's assessment of AWPD-1 reflects not only the value of the plan itself, but the high degree of faith and trust placed by the president and General Arnold in the efforts of a handful of air planners. "The completion of the first major strategic air war plan by the newly formed Army Air Forces staff in only nine days was a notable achievement, which marked both the apex of prewar air force doctrinal thought and a blueprint for the air war that would follow." Futrell, 109. For a short but compelling story of how AWPD-1 was created, read James C. Gaston's Planning the American Air War, Four Men and Nine Days in 1941: An Inside Narrative (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1982).
18. Futrell, 92
19. Ibid., 92-93.
20. Ibid., 93.
21. Ibid., 109.
22. McPeak, 9-10.
Lt Col Suzanne B. Gehri (BA, University of the Pacific; MA, University of California, Berkeley) is a military doctrine analyst at the Airpower Research Institute, Air University Center for Aerospace Doctrine, Research, and Education, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Previously, she was chief of Transportation Combat Readiness and Resources, Headquarters Pacific Air Forces, Hickam AFB, Hawaii; commander of the 62d Transportation Squadron, McChord AFB, Washington; and assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, USAF Academy. Colonel Gehri is a graduate of Air Command and Staff College.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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