Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Air Force Mission Statement

One of the first things I did when moving to Portland was to get a PO box (as I moved here without a job and assumed I would be moving around a fair amount for the next couple of years). The box is in a "Post Net" store in a mall. Next to it is the local recruiting office for the military.

As I was walking by the recruiting office I noticed a sign in the window entitled "Air Force Mission Statement" and read it.

It said, "The mission of the United States Air Force is to deliver sovereign options for the defense of the United States of America and its global interests - to fly and fight in Air, Space, and Cyberspace."

This sign struck me as very funny, particularly because of the following:
* It seems to be modeled on corporate mission statements that use "key words" in sentences in which they don't really make sense but just sound good
* Along the same lines, it reminded me of the "Dilbert Mission Statement Generator"
* The idea of flying and fighting in cyberspace in the defense of the USA struck me as very sci-fi - but not in a good way, rather in a completely laughable way

So today I decided to blog a bit about what makes this statement sound so inane. I decided to research the issue first, and found this press release about the mission statement, which is less than a year old, apparently: Air Force releases new mission statement

The article offered "definitions" for the "two new concepts" of:
* sovereign options
* cyberspace

In their discussion of what they mean about cyberspace, they seem to mean that they have some air force members working to make sure their websites cannot be hacked.

So, everyone who works on network security is flying and fighting in cyberspace?

Look. The problem with mission statements like this (or like the ones created at the Dilbert Generator, which are really quite representative of the genre) is that the SENTENCES don't have any meaning. It is not enough to put a few nouns/adjectives with cool associations together using random verbs that also have cool associations.

Making websites hackproof is a laudable thing (although if I were a military leader, I would hesitate to admit that it is of such overwhelming importance to the Air Force that this pretty normal function needs to be mentioned in the mission statement - unless they mention other equally important functions, such as radar communicator, or payroll accountant, as well). But it is not flying, nor is it fighting (except in a really, really metaphorical sense). (I have to admit that the first thing I thought of is a bunch of Air Force people sitting at their computers playing on-line role-playing games.)

However, the press release made me realize that not only was the mission statement silly, but disturbing as well.

The "sovereign options" phrase was not only meaningless in context (delivering? To whom?) but the definition the article gave for it was creepily imperalistic sounding:

"They said having sovereign options is the essence of being a superpower."

OK, this is pretty damned honest - almost refreshingly so. It brings up a few other questions, though. e.g., why, then, call the entire shebang the "Department of Defense"? It seems to me you should be the Air Force within the "Department of Imperial Offense" if this is truly your aim.

The article also said that the "leaders" [of the Air Force] said that America's "adversaries" would use "any method or venue necessary to contest America".

Contest America? As what? A nation? A concept? A city on a hill? What about America is being contested? What is America anyhow? Don't you have to define that, first?

I realize that the various entities in the Armed Forces have differing purposes in that they use specific methods of "defense" (the Air Force using planes, the Army using ground forces, the Navy using the sea, etc. etc.). However, it seems to me that they have a single goal, which is the goal that all their new members take an oath about:

"I, _____, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same."
(source: Oaths of Enlistment)

I took that oath once, upon joining the U.S. Foreign Service.

It strikes me as pretty pithy and does not contain any nonsense about flying in cyberspace, yet somehow it gives enough information to help me remember what my job is supposed to be. As an oathtaker, when in doubt, I am supposed to refer to the Constitution for help. For example, if I were ordered to torture someone, I would probably find that this is directly in opposition to the Constitution's eighth amendment and thus I would have to disobey that order to obey my oath.

It is U.S.-centric to argue that the U.S. constitution is the pinnacle of right or justice. And I am not arguing that.

But the U.S. Constitution, however imperfect, is a heck of a lot closer to truth and justice than a mission statement that defines the US project as the essence of being a superpower ("delivering sovereign options"), and that refers to flying through the Internet ("fly and fight in cyberspace") in all seriousness.


Tassled Loafered Leech said...

Good Point, but the Chinese have active hacker programs to disrupt not only military sites, but commercial as well. They recognize that our ecenomy is our strength, and much of it is enabled by our technology. Defense against those types of attacks should fall to somebody in DoD, don't you think?

Anna in PDX said...

Sure, but again, why is it such a key thing that it should be in the mission statement?

And do you think the Chinese hacking commercial sites is what they mean when they say "contest America"? To me "contest America" sounds much more like having or promoting anti-American (whatever that may mean) opinions.

Tassled Loafered Leech said...

Yes, I think it is what they mean, given the absolutely idiotic papameters of mission statements. And this is clearly a budget issue within DoD, ie who is in charge of the geeks.

Zwack said...

First, Welcome to Portland.

Coincidentally I was looking at exactly that mission statement in Eastport Plaza the Saturday before last and thinking that it was fairly meaningless but that I didn't like it. I didn't like it not because of some "nameless red menace" but because it in essence is saying that "our job is to be capable of doing whatever is asked of us".

I don't buy the argument that "We need Hacker teams because the Chinese have them." What is that supposed to accomplish? Are "Our" hacker teams supposed to fight the Chinese hacker teams online like some badly written "Internet" movie from the late 80s/early 90s? If their job is to try and stop Chinese hackers going for Commercial targets then wouldn't their efforts be better spent helping harden American infrastructure?

Given that most of the (ever increasing) National Debt is owned by the Chinese do you think that they really want to disrupt our economy?


أبو سنان said...

The options bit is scary. To me it means reserving options, routes and tactics, for exclusive US use.

I read something about this the other day where the US government said it would not allow other nations to militarize space, that it viewed space pretty much as US territory and a vital US interest.

Ie, we can militarize space, you cannot. Kind of goes with the "Project for the New American Century" or whatever they call themselves.

It certainly is imperial, but not so much in the land grabbing, colonial model, but just as bad.

Anonymous said...

One reason for the emphasis on cybersecurity is that many bombing missions and the bulk of surveillance operations are performed by remote operators controlling unmanned drones. It's interesting that you should picture a bunch of guys sitting around playing online games, because that's more or less what they're doing -- but with real bombs on the other end. Many of the aircraft flying regular surveillance over Iraq and Afghanistan are operated from the American Southwest. So securing those lines of communication is more than just keeping websites from being hacked -- the military has developed its own internet separate from the public one that is used to perform all kinds of these command and control type operations.

As the technology progresses, more and more Air Force tasks will be performed this way -- it is possible to make vehicles smaller and much more maneuverable, for instance, if they don't have to have a cockpit and don't have to allow for the human body's limited tolerance for extreme gee pressures. The "Top Gun" style fighter pilot will soon be a thing of the past. The hot-shot "pilots" of the future will essentially be extremely proficient video gamers.

Which also ties in to the other appeal of all that verbiage - to sound cool to youngsters.

Anna in PDX said...

Wow! I am so glad I posted on this as I learned a lot of weird facts about the air force. Now, I just have tokeep this info from my computer game playing kids (as I am not into them joining the military) because they will think it is just too cool. Flying through cyberspace indeed.

Anonymous said...

I've been in the Air Force since 1981, and I remember when our mission statement was "To fly and fight". When I read this crap I didn't know whether to laugh or puke. When I'm asking someone to put their lives on the line, I guess that I will just have to remind them how important this mission is. After all, we will be excersizing sovereign options.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm a bit late in replying, but as flamingbanjo said... its so much more than defending a few websites. Our entire DoD is founded on technology. I know this may seem ridiculous, but look at the movie "Live Free or Die Hard" Now I'm not saying we should be wary of a firesale happening tomorrow, but that movie just goes to show how reliant we are on technology and how potentially devastating a cyber attack can be. Take a look at this if you have the time. It's a book called "Unrestricted Warfare" (translated from Chinese) written by two Col from the PLA. It details how technology has become an integral part of war and how it can be used by smaller countries against larger ones.

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JWH5173 said...

It is interesting when you see the diversity of non-mililtary vs military who have been in those untis with special missions see that mission statement as absolute truth. I had been in intelligence units for over 20yrs and have belonged to a few specail units like Spacecom and Specops where you see this type of warfare going on daily. You would be so amazed at things the military has been able to do 20 yrs ago much less now. When I was in a fighter jet unit I would have questioned the sovereign part except that indicates options that the DOD can use not otherwise available to them, which parts are owned by the AirForce.

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