Changing the Military: Improve Prediction and Agility in the Air Force

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Written by Thomas Higginbotham, Captain, United States Air Force

How can the military adjust to keep pace in a changing world? Serving military officers answer here in a new series of features in collaboration with Military Leadership Circle (MLC).

In his 2015 book Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal described how the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) vastly improved its ability to adapt and respond quickly and precisely in a challenging and dynamic environment. With a similar goal in mind, the United States Air Force has highlighted agility as a strategic imperative, with Chief of Staff David Goldfein reiterating the need for organizational agility at all levels of command. But while its necessity is indisputable, the path to increased agility is less clear for the entire Air Force than it was for JSOC. Thankfully, private sector companies have led the way in developing effective agility, and the Air Force can learn from their techniques and best practices.

One area in which private industry excels is in predicting future events. Indeed, there is much to profit from accurately forecasting asset prices or consumer behavior, and the models used to do so can be adopted for military purposes as well. While some may argue that accurately forecasting something like war in a complex world is impossible, the same argument could have been made about the 2008 global financial crisis. However, Bridgewater Associates, one of the world’s largest investment firms, used probabilistic modeling and Bayesian reasoning to predict the crisis, and was one of the first firms to sound alarms of impending collapse. The Air Force must learn from companies like Bridgewater, invest in better probabilistic modeling, and increase its predictive capacity.

Such capacity, however, must then be applied in a manner that produces the agility required in a dynamic environment. As General McChrystal advocated, organizational structure must be better designed to “increase responsiveness in a constantly shifting environment.” Private industry has known this truth for decades—especially in the tech industry, where a “first to market” mindset dominates.  Facebook, for example, has the motto, “move fast with sound infrastructure” to remind decentralized teams of programmers that they have the freedom to take the risks necessary to be first as long as they have the tools and processes in place to succeed (i.e. “sound infrastructure”). While many structural concepts that work for startups and tech companies do not scale to military bureaucracy, where standardization and order are critical, the principle that organizational structure affects adaptive capacity is pertinent. The Air Force must take a serious look at how to decentralize control and empower officers to make decisions “with sound infrastructure”.

Learning from the private sector, then, can help the Air Force to make the types of transformations that General McChrystal oversaw in JSOC. Specifically, a more adaptable organizational structure combined with improved predictive capacity will afford the Air Force the organizational agility necessary for the dynamic global security environment of the 21st century. 

About the author: Thomas Higginbotham is a Captain in the United States Air Force and a member of the Military Leadership Circle. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent the positions of the Department of Defense, United States Air Force, or any government agency. More information on the Military Leadership Circle can be found at https://militaryleadershipcircle.com.