Brown looks to accelerate while changing Air Force culture

  • Published
  • By Charles Pope
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. rarely disguises his intentions or pulls punches. He wants to go fast. He wants Airmen to succeed and feel enriched. He wants the best and most unvarnished information. Most of all, he wants to win.

Which is why, one day early in his tenure, he arrived at a Pentagon conference room and rather than taking a seat at the head of the table as is custom, he picked a seat on the side.

“At first it confused the heck out of people,” Brown said recently in a wide-ranging interview to discuss his approach to the job, his methods and expectations. He also discussed the progress so far meeting requirements of “Accelerate Change or Lose,” his philosophical blueprint for what the Air Force must do to succeed.

“I see myself as an action officer just like they see themselves and I like having more of a roundtable atmosphere,” Brown said in explaining his seat selection.

“We’re all in it for the same thing – making it better for the Air Force. If there’s too much deference you don’t get the dialogue. People will tell you what they think you want to hear. What I really want to hear is all the various feedback.”

Now, more than six months since becoming the Air Force’s highest-ranking uniformed officer, Brown continues to press his strategy for ensuring the Air Force meets every mission, every time. He’s focused on ensuring the Air Force successfully reshapes itself to satisfy the National Defense Strategy’s requirements while nurturing an environment that rewards ambition, innovation and excellence while repelling sexual harassment, racial inequality and extremist ideologies.

Brown’s plan for achieving all of this is included in the document “Accelerate Change or Lose” he released in August soon after becoming Chief of Staff. In December, he released a more detailed collection of “Action Orders” for how best to achieve those goals.

None of it is easy, Brown acknowledges.

To achieve the goals requires new technology, a rethinking of how the Air Force operates and in some cases organizing and shifting deeply ingrained cultural practices across the organization.

But, he says, the Air Force and the nation have no choice.

“Our Air Force must accelerate change to control and exploit the air domain to the standard the Nation expects and requires from us. If we don’t change – if we fail to adapt – we risk losing the certainty with which we have defended our national interests for decades,” Brown writes in “Accelerate Change or Lose.”

The “Action Orders” provide a pathway and are hooked to four priorities. The first emphasizes the Air Force’s mission to “recruit, assess, educate, train, experience, develop, and retain Airmen;” the second calls for a “tune up” of the service’s bureaucracy to make it faster, more efficient and focused.

The third priority requires the Air Force “to fully understand our competitors” and to adapt its decision-making, doctrine, capabilities and tactics with U.S. competition in mind. China is mentioned by name, illustrating the shift to great power competition and a geographic change in focus as well.

The final priority is called “design implementation,” a dense term that essentially means reconsidering the way the Air Force decides what the future might bring and how best to organize, train and equip the force to meet that anticipated threat.

“We need to identify systems and programs that are outdated and/or unaffordable to make way for capabilities that will make us competitive in the future high-end fight,” Brown states in Action Order D.

Like his predecessors, Brown says his highest priority is serving, supporting and sustaining Airmen. It’s no accident, he said, the first directive in his December document – Action Order A – is focused on Airmen.

“I want to create an environment where all Airmen can reach their full potential. That’s what they expect,” Brown said in the interview. “Parents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters send young people to our Air Force and what they expect is they will reach their full potential.

“The other part is the operational piece. We’ve had great success with air power in the United States Air Force and because of that success in various conflicts dating back to World War I we are expected to provide air superiority so Americans, our allies and our partners are not attacked from the air.

“That’s part of our challenge,” he said. “There is an expectation (for superiority) that’s taken for granted. We have an advancing threat so we must advance as well. You can’t keep an advantage just by sitting there, using the status quo. Just like any athlete, when somebody is pushing you, you have to push as well.”

For Brown that means a focus on “capabilities over platforms.” It means perfecting and refining still-evolving strategies such as Joint All Domain Command and Control and the Advanced Battle Management System. Those systems are able to collect, synthesize and analyze vast amounts of information from air, land, sea, space and cyber, and then share the crucial results instantly with commanders and forces on the battlefield.

It means fostering a new cadre of Airmen who are experts in software development, artificial intelligence, and joint operations in addition to the crucial traditional job categories that have fueled the Air Force’s excellence for generations.

Like the engineer and pilot he is, Brown has clear ideas for how to find the best answers to difficult questions. One major element is exposing him to information he may not want to hear.

“The analogy I’ve been using is, just like a Supreme Court decision, you’ll have the majority ruling and there’s also someone representing the dissenting view that’s packaged together,” he said.

“We want to figure out how to work together to be faster but also to eliminate blind spots. … There may be merit on both sides,” Brown said, noting he is meticulous about reading materials before meetings so the discussion can be robust, challenging and efficient.

On especially tough questions and issues, Brown has an approach as well.

“I look at it like a Venn diagram versus approaching it from points of disagreement,” he said. “What do we agree on already? Then how do we work on the parts where there’s disagreement?”

He also likes information, background materials and presentations provided in narrative form rather than bullets. Narratives, he says, provide important context and nuance; it can reveal the underlying rationale and motive that drives to a better and faster conclusion.

“When you do bullets, you can tap-dance around bullets when I ask a question,” he said. “If you put it in a paragraph, it means you’ve fully thought through it and you feel confident you can defend it. I like narratives because then they can fully put their thoughts down on paper.”

He is also determined to streamline – and speed up – decision-making.

“There’s a Harvard Business Review article I read that said, when you’re making a key decision you need to keep the group to about seven,” he said. “For every additional person you add to the decision making body you decrease your effectiveness by 10 percent. So once you get to 14 you’re pretty much stagnated; you’re trying to please too many people.”

Most of all, he understands the value of “reality checks,” which is another way of saying he travels to escape the Washington bubble.

On a recent trip to Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, for example, he met with each base’s senior leaders as well as with senators from both states. He also held several roundtables with Airmen.

The sessions were valuable.

“I get that candid feedback,” he said. “It helps me understand where they’re coming from. At the same time, it allows me to explain the things I’m trying to accomplish.

“There are a lot of good ideas that come out of the Pentagon but not every ‘good idea’ is as good as we think it is once it hits our Airmen,” he said. “They’re probably not going to tell me the bad news at the Pentagon; they’ll tell me how good everything is going. But with Airmen it’s unfiltered.”