Best Defense

What I learned at a think tank

By Lt. Col. Tom Cooper, USAF Best Defense fine fellow After a year as the Air Force Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, I think I finally understand how think tanks help make the world work. Prior to this, I had no practical sense of how think tanks are useful in policy ...

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By Lt. Col. Tom Cooper, USAF

Best Defense fine fellow

After a year as the Air Force Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, I think I finally understand how think tanks help make the world work. Prior to this, I had no practical sense of how think tanks are useful in policy debates in Washington. During Air Force Fellows orientation in August of 2011, Peter Singer from Brookings Institution told us, "Think tanks are like the bicycle chain that links the policy world with the research world, applying academic rigor to contemporary policy problems." This analogy became even more clear when I examined what one military service might do with a report published by a think tank.

A recent CNAS report titled "Sustaining Preeminence: Reforming the U.S. Military at a Time of Strategic Change" is a great example of how think tank reports are useful. Recommendations in the report impact diverse organizations and will upset some and please others. The tension created by pleasing some and angering some is exactly what powers the bicycle chain described by Singer. How the pedals are turned by policy actors is what makes the report useful and can help shape future dialogue.

Two issues in the report related to the Air Force can be examined to understand how one organization can turn the cranks moving the chain — even if in different directions. The first is the ongoing debate about force structure changes and how a think tank recommendation can be used. The second is the report’s misperception of how the Air Force has changed over the past decade and how a service can use the report to correct or improve messaging efforts.

In "Sustainable Preeminence," the authors take a stand on a contentious Air Force issue — cuts to the Air National Guard in the FY13 budget. Based on independent examination, the authors conclude that "reductions to the reserve component proposed by the Air Force in the FY2013 budget are reasonable." This statement is incredibly useful for the Air Force. The authors, not known for their support of air issues, conclude these changes are good and should be encouraged to explain their conclusion. The Air Force could use the support presented in this report and work with CNAS to reinforce this message on Capital Hill.

The second issue in "Sustainable Preeminence" relates to what the Air Force has been doing to support recent conflicts and how it has transformed to support the other services. The report states: "The infusion of billions of dollars in the past decade has moved the services away from deeper integration and interdependence, as each service has sought greater self-sufficiency rather than rely upon the capabilities of other services." This statement is not true for the Air Force.

Over the past decade, the Air Force has changed air mobility methods, ISR force structure (everything from the number of remotely piloted aircraft patrols to a 4000 percent increase in processing, exploitation, and dissemination of intelligence to tactical forces), how combat air support is directly connected to the warfighter, and modifying aircraft and weapons to support ground force engagements. These examples are proof the Air Force has moved towards greater integration and interdependence, all while reducing end-strength and force structure. The lack of understanding demonstrated in the report is an example of how services, and the Air Force in particular, can identify misperceptions and help inform the research world. The Air Force can use this to plan future interactions with the think tank community.

In spending the last year at CNAS, I’ve learned how the think tank research process is useful in creating policy. By watching how reports like "Sustainable Preeminence" are produced, I’ve seen how important it is to work with think tanks to achieve policy outcomes. The process that sometimes creates tension shouldn’t lead to greater tension, instead policy actors would do better to recognize how to turn the pedals and use the "chain linking the policy world and the research world" as a way to help advance their interests.

Lt. Col. Tom Cooper is the Air Force fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He flew the E-3 Sentry, SAMFOX C-9s in the 89 AW and C-40s as commander of the AF Reserve’s active associate 54 AS.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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