“The military advantage we possessed for the last 30 years is now being
challenged, equaled, and in some cases, surpassed”
(Manasco et al., 2020).
THE WAR FOR TALENT
The U.S. Air Force (USAF), like the other Services, must reshape itself for a new great power competition, consistent with the National Defense Strategy (DoD, 2018). That competition, involving both Russia and China, will be more complex than the late 20th century Cold War. Potential adversaries pose different military problems, each with advanced technologies available that rival those of the United States. The Air Force will need to meet this new challenge with a numerically much smaller force than it enjoyed in the Cold War. In order to offset its limited size, it will pursue technological advantages, but there is no guarantee it can count on the same technological margin that once provided a solid foundation for American air and space dominance.
Fortunately, the Air Force enjoys another advantage from which it has long benefitted—the high quality of its people. It continues to attract and retain some of the country’s best talent, providing a rich resource of “human capital.” In principle, that human capital might allow the Air Force to have an advantage over its opponents. However, as General Brown, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, emphasized in his written confirmation testimony, the Air Force is in a “war for talent.” This requires the Air Force to leverage the authorities granted to it by Congress to allow it to “continue
to innovate . . . and to challenge convention to ensure that [it] has the talent [it needs] within the resources made available to it” (Brown, 2020, p. 80).
THE FLIGHT PLAN: THREE PRIORITIES
To assist the Air Force in preparing now for the challenges its Airmen will face in the future, this report offers a Flight Plan to strengthen the USAF human capital management (HCM) system through three priorities, each with the committee’s overarching recommendation (included here) and specific implementable action items (included in the Flight Plan).
The Data Priority
Human capital data is the most important strategic asset to optimize Airmen to fly, fight, and win in uncertain futures.
Recommendation: The USAF should deliberately manage Airmen through a connected HCM system, using data-driven decisions based on data systematically collected and analyzed.
The Airmen Priority
Ensuring the right Airman is in the right job at the right time is the best way to maximize performance and retention of the most effective Airmen.
Recommendation: The USAF should ensure Force effectiveness through evidence-based practices across a connected HCM system to optimally match Airmen to career fields, training, and job assignments.
The Research Priority
A connected and effective research system that informs USAF human capital decisions is critical to develop the future force and will provide substantial return on investment.
Recommendation: The USAF should invest in research that ensures that decisions about Airmen from accession to separation reflect professional best practices, evolve with changing technology and mission demands, and are integrated across the HCM system.
The Air Force is at a critical crossroads: continuing its traditional approaches to HCM risks the loss of high-quality talent. Alternatively, it can embrace and implement changes in the way it manages its people, specifically advancing these three priorities and their recommendations and action items across the entire USAF HCM system. The Air Force understands the challenges it faces, and many of the areas where improvement is needed were identified in the 2015 Human Capital Annex to the USAF Strategic Master Plan.
This report identifies a strategic approach to assist the Air Force to identify how to improve human capital decisions across an Airman’s career from accession through separation. To successfully implement the Flight Plan, change must be data-driven and requires a “Human Capital Data Superstructure” to enable exploitation of data in a purposeful way across a connected HCM system. Only this can ensure that those making human capital decisions can reach the evidence-based standard to which the Air Force properly aspires. As such, in the committee’s judgment, many elements within the Data Priority must be addressed very early in the process to provide accessible and accurate data that do not now exist and that are fundamental to the Airmen Priority and the Research Priority.
SUMMARY OF STUDY APPROACH
In 2019, to better understand where and how to implement changes, the Air Force requested that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (National Academies) conduct a study to examine how to strengthen the USAF HCM system in support of optimal mission capability. This report represents the final consensus of the inter-disciplinary expert committee appointed by the National Academies to conduct that study, under the auspices of the National Academies’ Board on Human-Systems Integration. Members of the committee served as volunteers and represent relevant academic and other research areas (e.g., industrial and organizational psychology, economics, human-systems integration, computer sciences, and cybersecurity) and HCM practitioners, including experts in Department of Defense and USAF human capital. In conducting its study, the committee received input from numerous stakeholders located across the United States who provided unique perspectives representing multiple communities inside and outside the Air Force. Additionally, the committee also considered relevant information provided by invited expert speakers from academia, government, and private industry, as well as numerous previously published products including published research and professional guidelines and standards and Air Force doctrine, strategic documents, and studies.
The USAF HCM system is not easily defined or mapped. It affects virtually every part of the Air Force because workforce policies, procedures, and processes impact all offices and organizations that include Airmen and responsibilities and relationships change regularly. To ensure the readiness of Airmen to fulfill the mission of the Air Force, strategic approaches are developed and issued through guidance and actions of the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower, Personnel and Services (AF/A1) and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Manpower and Reserve Affairs (SAF/MR). The committee’s Flight Plan is designed to assist those offices.
In conducting its study, the committee focused on understanding the opportunities and challenges associated with related interests and needs across the USAF HCM system as a whole. To begin to understand the dynamics of the system, the committee developed a model of the ecosystem of the USAF HCM system that emphasizes influential internal (e.g., standards for enlistment) and external (e.g., local unemployment rates) variables and relationships rather than specific Air Force offices or organizations. The resulting ecosystem model makes very clear the cascading or rippling effects of policy decisions felt throughout the organization, sometimes with far-reaching and unanticipated effects.
THE PATH AHEAD
The recommendations and action items of this report’s Flight Plan offer the Air Force a strategic approach, across a connected HCM system, to develop 21st century human capital capabilities essential for the success of 21st century Airmen. Although some elements of the needed system now exist, this report and its Flight Plan point to a number of critical gaps. Should these gaps be left unfilled, the Air Force will fall short of the excellence in HCM essential to meeting its responsibilities under the National Defense Strategy. Executing the agenda laid out by the Flight Plan will be demanding, but the rewards will be commensurate with the investment made into the USAF HCM system.
Brown, C.Q., Jr. (2020). Senate Armed Service Committee Advance Policy Questions for General Charles Q. Brown, Jr., U.S. Air Force Nominee for Appointment to be Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Available: https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Brown_APQs_05-07-20.pdf.
DoD (Department of Defense). (2018). Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America. Available: https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf.
Manasco, S., S. Wilson, & D. Thompson. (2020, March 3). Fiscal Year 2021 Budget Request for Military Readiness. Presentation before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness. Department of the Air Force. Available: https://docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/AS03/20200303/110633/HHRG-116-AS03-Bio-ThompsonD-20200303.pdf.
United States Air Force. (2015). Human Capital Annex to the USAF Strategic Master Plan. Available: https://www.af.mil/Portals/1/documents/Force%20Management/Human_Capital_Annex.pdf.
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