Strategic Planning for the Air Force

By Westphal, Deborah L.; Szafranski, Richard et al. | Air & Space Power Journal, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Strategic Planning for the Air Force

Westphal, Deborah L., Szafranski, Richard, Parnell, Gregory S., Air & Space Power Journal

Leveraging Business Planning Insights to Create Future Value

If you are going to try to go to war, or to prepare for war, in a capitalist country, you have got to let business make money out of the process or business won't work.

-Henry L. Stimson

THE RAISON D'ETRE of our national Air Force is force application: possessing the capabilities to apply force, on command, to an adversary state as part of the United States and alliance joint operations team. We have two tenets regarding airpower. The first tenet is the belief that planning for the future of airpower is so critical to the United States, our friends, and our allies that it must be done right. To help ensure it is done right, we could gain much by examining how planning is accomplished in the fiercely competitive world of "for profit" business. The second tenet is that some commercial planning initiatives offer the potential to improve the Air Force planning process. This article explores strategic planning for the Air Force, illuminating how Air Force planning might incorporate some of the best planning practices used by competitive businesses. We have one hypothesis: The institutional planning process should drive the efforts and effectiveness of a 500,000-person firm, and it can and must be improved.


Over the past several years, the Air Force created an environment encouraging debate and promoting innovative thinking about the future. Sponsored efforts resulted in major studies and lengthy reports such as those created by Spacecast 2020, Air Force 2025, and New World Vistas.l Creation of a "Revolutionary Planning Office"2 as the precursor of a new Air Force-level deputy combining planning and programming allowed planners across the Air Force to look into the future and question where the Air Force was going, thereby identifying potential new vectors and new demands. The Air Force also created battlelabs3 to explore new concepts of operations and to allow the discovery of creative operational concepts.

Perhaps the most significant of all of these initiatives was creation of an institutionalized process linking planning functions to budgetary decisions. At the beginning of this ambitious endeavor, there were many naysayers to convince and many hurdles to overcome. Threatened by the thought of losing control over the ability to make decisions, many Air Force representatives debated the utility of the nascent planning function and its methodology. The constant questioning, debate, investigation and examination helped bring a stabilizing force to the Air Force's quest for planning for the future. But is this the desired effect the Air Force intended to achieve through a major overhaul of its planning processes? Was the outcome visionary and creative, pedestrian and stabilizing, or something else? Can the Air Force institutionalize a more creative process? Can the Air Force establish a process for creativity and innovation at every level? What will happen when all the "plans" at all the levels have been completed? What products does the Air Force now expect from its research and development? Will it still be important for the Air Force to support innovative thinking when the details of the plan are complete? If so, then maybe by striving for stability in Air Force plans for the future, the Air Force will find itself actually stifling creativity and innovation. If creativity and innovation in developing airpower's tools or in the application of airpower are impeded, then airpower's contributions are limited. Can this be so? It can be so, unless leaders and planners are willing to think in the boundary between order and chaos.

Long-Range Planning, Strategic Thinking, or Strategic Planning?

As a starting point, consider the apparent difference between long-range planning for the future, on the one hand, and leveraging chaos to help develop strategies that allow for the creation of more desirable futures or the creation of future value on the other.

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Strategic Planning for the Air Force


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