More than Planes and Pickle Buttons: Updating the Air Force’s Core Missions for the 21st Century

Mission Complete: 53rd WEG concludes first post-Hurricane Michael Combat Archer

Every marine a rifleman, every airman a red-headed stepchild — that is, except for the few, the proud, the fighter pilots?

Today’s Air Force, as Mike Benitez and others have suggested, is divided into a number of distinct tribes working at cross-purposes and failing to identify with a central purpose. As a solution, Benitez proposes that the Air Force reconsider and pare down its core competencies while reevaluating its broader identity. But what should those core competencies be?

The Air Force needs to reconceptualize how it thinks about 21st-century airpower. In “Balanced Airpower, Not Bombers,” I proposed an alternative model for the service’s core missions. Here, I take an even more dramatic approach in order to solve two problems: 1) Only a far more drastic reconceptualization can enable every airman to identify with the service’s missions, thereby reducing the Air Force’s tribalism and revitalizing its airmen, and 2) Only a more holistic approach can push the Air Force beyond its limiting platform-centric mentality. Airpower is more than pilots, planes, and pickle buttons, and the Air Force’s core missions should reflect that. At the end of this article, I propose a reformulation of the service’s missions — one that seeks to break down traditional silos and allow the Air Force to think more holistically about the various domains in which it will operate in the 21st century.

History of the Air Force’s Missions

As Benitez notes, the Air Force has continually reevaluated and reconsidered what constituted its core missions, particularly in the 1990s as it responded to expected budget cuts after the Cold War. In 1994, the service declared it had three main responsibilities: “air superiority, global strike/deep attack, and air mobility.” The next year, it added two more. And in 1996, it released six, including “agile combat support” and “information superiority.” Experimentation continued, with the number only rising and permutations becoming more complicated.

Former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh, who came under fire in some circles for undermining the institution’s culture, was the last chief of staff to reformulate the Air Force’s core missions, doing so in 2013 in Global Vigilance, Global Reach, Global Power for America. Welsh sought to help airmen to “pinpoint how you do your part in contributing” to overcome the institution’s tribalism. But the Global Vigilance document’s vague admission that the Air Force undertakes all its core missions through air, space, and cyber space fails to identify precisely where a number of airmen belong. Where does personnel fit? What about the Air Force’s F-35 “quarterback” — intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance? Command and control?

Welsh’s narrative highlights a clear trajectory from the core missions that the Air Force outlined for itself in 1947 through today: “Since the Air Force was born in 1947,” the document argues, “the core missions of the United States Air Force haven’t fundamentally changed.” In this way, the document starkly contrasts with the post-Cold War Air Force, which repeatedly redefined its roles. The Welsh view ignores the instability of the last 20 years regarding core missions, instead painting a portrait of a steady, unshakeable foundation for the Air Force.

 Evolution of the Core Missions

Source: Global Vigilance, Global Reach, Global Power for America

The 2013 document is interesting because it is questionable whether the 1947 list of missions ever existed in the first place. And, if it did, it is worth speculating why the Air Force chose that list over the far more comprehensive one provided by President Harry Truman, who issued Executive Order 9877 in 1947 on the same day the National Security Act made the Air Force independent. Truman’s guidance provided a far more complex explanation of what the Air Force should focus on:

  1. Air operations, including joint operations
  2. Gaining and maintaining air supremacy, or at least local air superiority when necessary
  3. Strategic bombardment and reconnaissance
  4. Air lift, including assisting airborne operations
  5. Air support of the Navy and the Army
  6. Air transport for all services
  7. The coordination of air defense

This very joint-minded list made perfect sense considering the recent experience of World War II. The list also balanced more independent missions, such as strategic bombardment, with a number of important support roles for the Air Force in relation to the Army and the Navy, or what might be considered to be tactical airpower, which did not make its way into the 2013 list. In short, it provides a far more comprehensive list of missions than the 2013 Global Vigilance formulation.

One notable similarity between Truman’s list and the Air Force’s purported list from 1947 is that both place of “coordination of air defense” at the end. By 2013, however, the responsibility to coordinate air defense had morphed into a more general responsibility of command and control, which helps to enable all operations but is not an application of airpower in and of itself. Indeed, it is an enabler and organizer that runs through all military services. But as the owner of most space and many cyber assets, the Air Force in Global Vigilance lays a particular claim to this responsibility.  Indeed, the service views command and control as so essential that in 2015, when it re-envisioned its core missions for 2035, it bumped up command and control to the top:

  1. Multi-domain command and control
  2. Adaptive domain control
  3. Global integrated intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance
  4. Rapid global mobility
  5. Global precision strike

But, for the most part, the Future Operating Concept stuck with continuity, making only minor adjustments to the supposed  1947 list of missions. Perhaps the most useful was the update to its second mission, the notion of “adaptive domain control.” The Air Force explains this idea as follows:

If the ability to act in one domain becomes limited, AF forces apply efforts in and from the other domains to achieve the required objectives. Cyberspace and space assets act in concert with air assets to produce certain effects. Conversely, kinetic and non-kinetic air operations can be directed towards achieving space or cyberspace effects as well as effects in the air domain…

As such, space and cyber space might support air operations, or — in a shift in thinking — air might support space and cyber space. Incremental improvements have been made, but not in a way that provides meaningful correctives to the continuing disconnect between the constrained list of supposedly original missions disseminated by the Air Force in 2013 and the actual functions that Truman envisioned.



Starting Fresh: Enablers and Effects

If, instead, we start with a blank slate, we can reconceptualize the Air Force’s core missions into two categories that open up more space for creative thinking. The first, “enablers,” refers to the types of airpower that serve an intermediary role along the way to a desired outcome. These include traditional missions like mobility, space superiority, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Air superiority, for example, is not an end in and of itself but a necessary state for the further employment of capabilities.

The second category, “effects,” by contrast, speaks to the more direct result of applying airpower in how it forces the enemy to respond. Or, as defined by Air Force doctrine, it centers on the “outcome of a particular action, not on the system or weapon itself that provides the effect.” These two categories seek to dispel some of the tension between the Air Force’s various tribes by blending air, cyber space, and space more holistically. They also notably erase the unhelpful debate over tactical versus strategic airpower by combining battlefield support and “strategic” attack, both of which ultimately are “tactical in the doing.” If the distinction between “tactical” and “strategic” airpower seems counterintuitive, blame Billy Mitchell for that original logical fallacy. His neat bifurcation has done airpower a significant disservice by unnecessarily “elevating” one aspect of airpower at the expense of an equally important application. More so now than ever, locally generated effects can have global — and thereby strategic — implications.

Enablers Effects

  • Oversees and directs all operations and personnel




  • Refocuses on deterrence in a world of great power conflict
  • On the ground and in the air: Deploying next-generation intercontinental ballistic missiles
  • In the air: B-2 flyovers of South Korea

  • Rapid provision of people and material
  • Delivery of information and communications capabilities to the entire military through cyber, space, and other capabilities




  • Options targeting the will of leadership, populations, or fielded forces
  • In cyberspace: Sowing division and distrust among Serbian troops
  • In space: Enabling effects that enhance the quality of life of a population such as GPS
  • In the air: Shoring up critical alliances shored by C-17 delivery of humanitarian aid

  • Gaining the necessary amount of domain control in order to deliver a range of desired effects
  • In cyberspace: Paralysis or destruction of IADS C2 enables follow-on destruction
  • In space: GPS enables use of some “smart” bombs
  • In the air: Destruction of integrated air defense system (IADS) enables follow-on destruction



  • Temporary or permanent effects that render a target unusable
  • In cyberspace: An operator temporarily disables an electric plant
  • In space: XB-37 uses maneuvering arm to knock another nation’s satellite out of orbit
  • In the air: F-15 drops weapon that temporarily disables electric plant; B-1 close air support; B-2 strike on Moscow (conventional or nuclear)


I break “enablers” down into three categories: sustainment, movement, and access. “Sustainment” refers to the tremendous resources and effort required to keep the Air Force functioning smoothly, from logistics to personnel. The sustainment strand speaks to the fundamental importance of people in military institutions. Air Force leaders have long recognized this challenge of helping airmen to identify their places in the core missions as Welsh intended; but they have not provided any place in the Air Force functions to recognize them.  “Movement” highlights the Air Force’s essential need to transfer people, material, and information globally. Finally, “access” replaces the 1947 idea of air superiority, highlighting instead the need to control enough of a domain to be able to accomplish one’s intended mission. Ideas about air superiority, which continue to dominate Air Force thinking, do not translate neatly to the domains of cyber space and space.

The “effects” category allows for a more comprehensive inclusion of assets than the Global Vigilance list. The idea here is to outline a trajectory from inhibiting the use of force to creating positive effects to more conventional kinetic destruction.  It begins with deterrence, which should be the starting place for how the service thinks about what airpower can achieve across a range of capabilities. Airmen of the 1970s and 1980s facing a resurgent Soviet Union supported by a modernized host of weapons had deterrence foremost in their minds; today should be no different in thinking about the return to great power conflict.

Next, the category of creation focused on positive effects. This reconceptualization helps to challenge the military’s reliance on the “high-tech projection of lethal military force worldwide” by reorienting our thought patterns to reflect and reinforce the increased importance Air Force planners have placed on non-kinetic effects in recent years.

Destruction rests at the end of the list and includes a range of effects, from permanent destruction to more temporary suppression. Putting destruction at the end might seem counterintuitive, as it is the kinetic Air Force’s bread and butter, with dramatic videos of precise destruction often constituting a virtual pep rally at service events. The Air Force is no doubt the best institution at destroying anything anywhere on the planet, but this should not be the starting point for thinking about how to use airpower creatively and effectively. Placing destruction at the bottom of the list provides more space for institutionalizing new approaches.


This list provides a number of important correctives. First, it enables the Air Force to craft a more holistic culture for all airmen. Second, it allows a forward-thinking institution to discard a selective list that differed in important ways from what its civilian oversight originally intended. Third, it fosters a multi-domain mindset by chipping away at historically stovepiped responsibilities. I make no claims to providing the definitive reconceptualization of the Air Force’s missions, but I do hope to offer a starting point for discussing how to reframe traditional airpower thinking to push away from the industrial age and into the information age.



Dr. Heather Venable is an assistant professor of military and security studies at the Air Command and Staff College, where she teaches classes on airpower and the historical experience of combat. She has a PhD from Duke University and a forthcoming book entitled How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps’ Mythos, 1874-1918.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Peter Thompson

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