Innovation Madness: Accepting Risk Today to Avoid Defeat Tomorrow

By: Taylor “Bender” Gifford
Estimated Reading Time: 10 minutes

Excerpt: The United States Air Force (USAF) recognizes a need for future innovations as near-peer competitors make rapid advancements in military capabilities. However, the current USAF system does not facilitate keeping up with these competitors. Innovation requires a cultural shift regarding risk acceptability at all levels, starting with leaders. The USAF can facilitate this shift by further addressing regulatory guidance and Professional Military Education programs. Until the USAF as an organization is willing to accept risks and ultimately failures to achieve success, mission impacting innovations will continue to be elusive.

The idea of “innovation” has become a priority for the USAF, and subsequently a buzzword. Innovation is simply the process of finding unique solutions to challenging problems. The concept of doing something in a new, more efficient, and more effective way is tantalizing to an organization challenged by a global mission while contending with reduced manpower, aging equipment, and inconsistent funding. However, the USAF approach toward achieving innovation could be likened to putting a bandage on a septic wound; addressing the surface issues without dealing with the internal driving force. Truly effective innovation is not something that comes from an annual contest or summit, it requires a cultural shift regarding risk.

For decades, a culture of risk aversion and fear of failure has permeated the USAF. General Bernard Schriever recognized this in 1960 while he developed the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile program, and subsequently stated that, “if you do not have failure every now and then, you are not taking enough risks.” Unfortunately, the USAF risk-averse culture has never subsided. If anything, today’s globalized, information age has caused it to grow. There are certainly missions that must uphold a “black and white” standard in training and operations, such as nuclear operations or aircraft maintenance. However, general risk aversion has morphed the USAF into a culture of fear. Fear of making the wrong decision, or worse, fear of making any decision at all. Institutional risk aversion is instilled into officers and enlisted Airmen from the beginning of their careers and further developed through observed overreactions to mistakes and a systemic intolerance for failure.

As an example of this culture, I will provide a personal experience from my past. I was responsible for deployable equipment at a fighter wing, and we had an issue with the generators allocated to the equipment. The generators would fail regularly, forcing the deployed squadron to eventually switch power over to another supporting unit’s generator. We reached out to eight other active duty and Air National Guard fighter wings, and seven identified their generators as an issue. The USAF equipment manager acknowledged that the generators were only designed for temporary use until “shore power” could be procured locally. However, not all austere or forward operating locations have reliable, compatible, or available power. When addressing the issue through our Major Command (MAJCOM), we were not allowed to replace the generators based on the “approved equipment list,” and the MAJCOM directorate repeatedly redirected responsibility for the issue and questioned the legitimacy of our claim. After a couple months of engagement, we had to circumvent the system to ensure combat readiness by finding a loophole for generator allocations, associating the upgraded generator with other authorized deployable equipment. This temporarily solved our issue, but did not fix the long-term, USAF-wide challenge regarding deployed power requirements for this equipment in austere locations. The superior staff had lost sight of the mission, and gotten trapped in indecision based on a risk-averse culture.

Risk Aversion Through Over-Regulation
Rather than encouraging risk and accepting failure in order to spark advancement, the USAF fosters a thoughtless, by-the-book approach in accordance with Air Force Instructions (AFI). For example, at the wing-level, there are more than 130,000 compliance items and rules which must be followed. It is impossible to know or understand that many rules, and trying to follow them is an all-consuming task which makes the easiest answer to any “may I” question, “no.” The culture must change from a “no” culture to a “how do we get to yes?” culture, as demonstrated by the 1st Special Operations Wing commander’s aggressive leadership at Hurlburt Field.

Mission accomplishment should be the focus. The USAF must develop leaders and Airmen who are willing and able to maneuver around the confines of the system, leverage waivers, and operate in the “gray,” in order to get the mission done; just as General Schriever did in the 1960s to streamline the US ballistic missile program. This also means learning to recognize when the mission/situation warrants breaking the rules altogether. While the USAF has slowly attempted to review and reduce AFIs, the 24-month effort is not enough to unburden the force at the squadron level. I would argue that going back to square one is the right approach to actually overcome the cultural inertia AFIs pose towards innovation. The USAF must change the way it approaches AFIs and regulations.

Until cumbersome regulations are removed entirely, learning to selectively circumvent rules that impede the mission and disrupt the status quo is essential to actually developing a culture of innovation. I am not advocating for breaking the law or insubordination. On the contrary, this cultural shift only works when it is demonstrated and supported by senior leaders. However, for whatever reason, whether it is institutionalism, years of risk-averse indoctrination, or careerism, Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF) guidance to empower decision making at lower levels and accept risk is not reaching the squadrons. The squadron is where the true understanding of organizational and bureaucratic encumbrances rests. The squadron is also the greatest single source for diversity of thought and tactical expertise, two key ingredients required to truly generate effective innovations that target current and future problems. Squadron leaders understand what is and is not required for their team to effectually execute their mission.

Autocratic near-peer competitors like China and Russia are far more willing to take risks in the pursuit of advancement, giving them a specific advantage when it comes to development and implementation of future technologies and tactics. This has allowed the US’ competitive advantage to erode as our global competitors move faster and more decisively regarding research, development, and implementation of future capabilities. We cannot wait any longer to cut through the red tape in order to accelerate Department of Defense (DoD) and USAF processes and equipment to keep up. This implies inherent assumption of risks, which must be accepted and encouraged in order to find unique solutions to current and future challenges.

Decisions in Information-Denied Environments
At an operational level, near-peer conflict will require elevated risk by decision makers at low levels, well below combatant commanders and component commanders. China and Russia have demonstrated a willingness and capability to leverage the full Electromagnetic Spectrum (including cyber) in their operations. US Command and Control, Computers, Communications, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) will be impeded during any future near-peer conflict. Degraded C4ISR will slow information flow and decision-making processes. However, in a high-intensity, near-peer conflict, the side which can maintain a faster speed of decision-making, subsequent speed of maneuver, and cohesion across all domains will be victorious. The only way to achieve that desired outcome is to have empowered leaders operating under clear commander’s intent and delegated mission command authorities at all levels, down to the warfighters executing at the tactical level.

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The idea that the US can fully insulate itself from the counter-C4ISR capabilities of near-peer adversaries is unreasonable. While efforts spent developing more robust Multi-Domain Command and Control have value, they are incomplete and will never be sufficient to fully secure future operations. There will always be vulnerabilities and risks, and our future adversaries will undoubtedly exploit those vulnerabilities. The USAF must develop a culture that ensures future leaders are prepared to assume risks appropriately and are practiced at making difficult decisions with confidence, based on years of empowered development and learning from failures.

By fostering a culture that avoids risk for even the most inconsequential decisions throughout officer and enlisted development, the USAF is potentially building leaders and Airmen who will be unprepared to assess risk and make critical decisions when they matter most. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson stated at the 2018 Air Warfare Symposium, “In a high-end conflict, we must anticipate that we will not have exquisite command and control. Communication will be degraded or intermittent. We will expect you (Airmen) to take mission orders and do your best to accomplish the objective. If we expect you to fight that way in wartime, we have to treat you that way in peacetime. This is a warfighting imperative.” It is every USAF leader’s responsibility to ensure their subordinates are prepared to adapt and respond to future challenges, as they mold future combat leaders. This capability is shaped through an innovative organizational culture that encourages calculated risks, confident decision making, and mentorship through failure.

A Path Forward
How can such a large organization shift a culture that has developed over decades? I will give a few ideas based on the discussions above. Regarding AFIs, the USAF should implement an approach similar to the US Navy (USN). For example, naval aviation utilizes limited and common guidance for all operations. When comparing the regulations of being a USN F/A-18F pilot to those of a USAF F-15E pilot, the contrast in overarching rules and associated risk aversion is clear. A USN pilot is accountable for an aircraft-specific operations manual and tactics manual, common wing and squadron Standard Operating Procedures, and finally, a single, all-encompassing regulation (CNAF M-3710.7) that is common to all USN flying units. Anything not listed as “unauthorized” is considered to be allowed. In contrast, a USAF pilot is accountable for thousands of pages of regulations and procedures located across countless volumes of manuals and instructions. Most USAF organizations take a conservative approach toward their governing AFIs; anything not listed as “authorized” is considered to be prohibited. This interpretation of AFIs has created the endless growth of USAF regulations and subsequent barriers to new ideas and innovations.

USAF innovations, from equipment acquisitions to combat operations, are routinely hindered by the current system. The USAF should shift its regulations and guidance from growing lists of things Airmen “can do” to a much smaller lists of things Airmen “cannot do.” AFIs should provide bounds while also allowing situational flexibility. Then the USAF Inspector General evaluations and inspections process should assist the CSAF’s directive to reduce AFIs and promote a mission focused force by not only inspecting how wings properly follow rules and procedures, but also identifying AFIs and regulations that hinder expeditious and effective mission readiness and execution.

To address the USAF risk-averse culture during leadership development, the USAF must leverage Professional Military Education (PME) programs like Squadron Officer School, Air Command and Staff College (ACSC), Non-Commissioned Officer Academy, and commander’s courses to increase the focused instruction future leaders receive in regard to aggressive decision making that balances risk and mission effectiveness. Initial steps have begun to take shape, as the USAF and Air University attempt to implement the CSAF’s focus on innovation in ACSC core curriculum and electives. Additionally, the CSAF-directed Leadership Development Course for Squadron Command and Air University Leadership Institute both focus on propelling innovation through culture and climate. However, developers of new curriculums must ensure they are targeting the root cause of USAF innovation deficiencies, which is the risk-averse culture. The individuals going through those PME courses still have moldable and developing leadership philosophies, and it would be a missed opportunity to not leverage their leadership training with the specific intent of increasing individual risk tolerance.

In application, leaders must provide commander’s intent, empower subordinates, and mentor subordinates through failure. More specifically, leaders must resource and reward those that try creative and innovative new ideas, even if they do not always succeed. To change the culture, leaders must provide “top cover” for innovation failures and shield subordinates from the bureaucracy that they will likely have to fight through during this process. All the PME educational programs in the world will not change the culture if they are not put into application. The USAF must correspondingly demonstrate that it values good leaders who are willing to take risks by promoting them and elevating their responsibilities. The next generation of USAF leaders must be ready to prepare young officers and flight leads to execute combat operations in dynamic and C2-denied environments, without decision paralysis.

The greatest future challenge for the DoD will likely revolve around the US’ ability to maintain an advantage over near-peer competitors, as highlighted by the strategic shift in the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy. Despite bureaucratic and budgetary restrictions, the USAF must find a way to maintain its previously established technological and operational superiority. Senior leaders recognize that this will be partially accomplished through innovation, but there is a bureaucratically upheld culture of risk aversion that stands in opposition. A culture of innovation must start with wing, group, and squadron leaders, and must be supported by senior leaders and their staffs. Leaders must counter the pervasive “no” culture that entrenches the USAF’s ability to innovate and must set the example by breaking established norms, challenging bureaucratic processes, pushing decision-making to the lowest possible level, and encouraging their Airmen to take calculated risks; demonstrating trust, freedom of thought, and acceptance of failure to optimize lethality and mission effectiveness. Once leaders set that aggressive tone, their subordinates will follow suit. I once heard General Robert Neller, Commandant of the US Marine Corps, make an apt statement regarding the actions of future leaders, “they must be willing to be immortalized or court-martialed.” Until the culture of risk aversion is broken down, reaching to the squadron level, systemic and effectual innovation for tomorrow’s challenges will continue to be merely an annual competition and buzzword within the USAF.

Major Taylor Gifford is a student at Air Command and Staff College in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist program. He is a senior pilot with more than 2,000 flight hours, and is a F-15E instructor pilot, evaluator pilot, and mission commander. Email:

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US Government.

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