The Air Force's dual approach: Adopting and integrating with Air Force Doctrine

  • Published
  • By Maj Matthew S. Stalford

Two personas who helped create the United States Air Force left an indelible mark on its culture with their drastically different approaches. While Brigadier General Billy Mitchell immortalized a brazen and maverick approach that involved breaking rules and challenging authority to advocate for airpower, General Mason Patrick championed a more calculated, cautious approach that emphasized preservation and working within the system to achieve the same goal.[1] While both modes are permanently branded into the very fabric of Airmen's culture, the echoes of these two foundational approaches, the bold nonconformist style and the calculated cautious style, can still be heard by modern Air Force leaders.  The Air Force can harness the strengths of both approaches by formally recognizing and integrating these two styles into doctrine. Furthermore, being able to articulate the strategic balance between the two styles allows for a more adaptable and responsive force in the face of modern conflict.

Therefore, the Air Force should incorporate the "Vanguard" and "Guardian" lexicon into its doctrine. Inspired by Brigadier General Mitchell, the Vanguard approach represents a daring, innovative, and rule-breaking style that fosters rapid adaptation and agility in the face of conflict. The Guardian approach, drawing from General Patrick, embodies a more cautious, calculated, and system-preserving style that prioritizes stability and long-term strategic planning. The Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF) can then decide which side of the spectrum to emphasize based on the demands of the current strategic environment.

In light of the rapidly changing character of war anticipated over the next decade, the Vanguard approach emerges as the most suitable mental framework for the current era. As technological advancements, geopolitical shifts, and emerging threats continue to reshape the global landscape, the need for agility, innovation, and adaptability becomes paramount. Emphasizing the daring and rule-breaking spirit of the Vanguard approach will empower the Air Force to swiftly respond to evolving challenges, harness new technologies, and maintain a decisive edge over potential adversaries in this complex and dynamic environment.

Air Force Doctrine can be a key component to implement this culture change. To enhance the vitality of Air Force doctrine, it is essential to transform it into a living, breathing tool that can readily respond to the ever-changing demands of modern conflict. By fostering a culture of continuous improvement and evolution, we can ensure that our doctrine remains relevant, up-to-date, and capable of guiding Airmen as they navigate the complexities of the global security landscape. The transformation will ultimately create a more resilient and agile Air Force, prepared to confront emerging challenges with confidence and decisiveness. The Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF) must have the tool to direct emphasis on either the Vanguard or Guardian approach and be codified in Air Force Doctrine Publication 1 (AFDP-1). By placing this authority in the hands of the CSAF, the Air Force can ensure a more efficient and flexible response to the evolving security landscape, maintaining a competitive edge in a world of adapting to threats and challenges.


The Changing Security Environment

Advances in technology, the increasing complexity of conflicts, and geopolitical shifts have created a highly dynamic and challenging global security environment. Non-state actors have gained prominence and state-sponsored hybrid warfare has become more prevalent. War has become an increasingly intricate and multi-faceted affair as exemplified by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the asymmetric military tactics of its pseudo-state forces.[2] The use of cyber operations, disinformation campaigns, and rapid adoption of personal technology further complicate the strategic landscape. Geopolitical shifts, such as the rise of China as a global power, the revival of Russia's influence, and the increasing prominence of other regional powers, have added to the complexity of the security environment. Technological advancements are also putting new tools, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), in the hands of potential enemies of the United States at such a relatively low cost that it will permeate the battlefield at the lowest levels. In addition to amplifying several existing national security threats, technology is altering the methods by which states seek leverage against adversaries and exercise coercion and influence in other societies.[3] The openness of free and democratic societies, combined with their growing reliance on inadequately secured digital networks, renders them particularly vulnerable.

This new global situation presents a challenge current Airmen have not experienced in their careers. Having had the luxury of being the world’s sole superpower since the Cold War, the US can no longer operate as if it has no challengers as the gap has shrunk significantly if not disappeared altogether.[4] Therefore, in order to effectively respond to this wide range of threats and challenges, the Air Force needs to adapt its doctrine to incorporate the Vanguard approach in the near term. Characterized by its daring, innovative, and rule-breaking spirit, this Vanguard approach is perfectly suited to deal with this evolving security environment. With its focus on rapid adaptation and integration of emerging technologies, the Vanguard approach is particularly important as the development of generative AI, low and no-code software development, autonomous systems, and cyber capabilities continue to redefine the characteristics of the operating environment. By fostering a culture of innovation and encouraging Airmen to embrace new technologies, rather than limit their usage, the Air Force can maintain its technological edge and stay ahead of near-peer adversaries. The Vanguard approach also promotes a proactive and agile mindset by empowering Airmen to make bold decisions and take calculated risks.

The Guardian Approach

In the wake of the Cold War, the US, by accident and design, adopted the Guardian Approach. It has served as a cornerstone for maintaining stability and long-term strategic planning within the US Air Force. The Guardian approach is an essential component of Air Force culture that emphasizes calculated decision-making, adherence to established systems, and long-term strategic planning. In modern conflict, this approach plays a vital role in maintaining the stability, effectiveness, and discipline of the Air Force while fostering strong relationships with allies and partners. Even in the face of rapidly evolving security challenges, the Guardian Approach remains critical to the success of the Air Force. This method contributed significantly to the success and global dominance of the force during the Cold War and over the past twenty years during the Global War on Terror. The mindset and planning of the era forged American hegemony in an unprecedented way.[5] Therefore, the Guardian culture that emerged in the post-Cold War era was very effective, so the challenge is shifting from an approach that has been wildly successful for the past two decades.

With its focus on deliberate decision-making, the Guardian approach encourages Airmen to avoid hasty actions and to prioritize careful analysis and consideration of all available information in order to thoroughly evaluate potential consequences and outcomes. This cautious approach to decision-making enables the Air Force to identify and mitigate potential risks and vulnerabilities, ensuring that the force is prepared to respond effectively to challenges in modern conflict.

The Guardian Approach also underscores the importance of adhering to established rules, regulations, and procedures to maintain order, discipline, and cohesion within the Air Force. These guidelines have been put in place to ensure operational efficiency, safety, and the overall effectiveness of the force. By fostering a sense of stability and predictability, the Guardian Approach helps to build trust and confidence among partner nations, ensuring that the Air Force can effectively collaborate and coordinate with other forces in times of crisis.

With its strong emphasis on long-term strategic planning and foresight, the Guardian Approach has also enabled the Air Force to develop and implement comprehensive strategies that address evolving threats and challenges in the global security landscape. The Guardian Approach allows the Air Force to prepare for future conflicts while ensuring that it remains agile and adaptable in the face of change. Furthermore, this approach promotes resource management by carefully considering the costs and benefits of each decision, minimizing waste, and maximizing the impact of limited resources.

Despite the increasing need for agility and innovation in modern conflict, the Guardian Approach remains relevant and necessary. Its emphasis on collaboration and consensus-building promotes teamwork and cooperation within and across different units, as well as with allied forces and partner nations. This approach values the input and perspectives of all stakeholders, encouraging Airmen to work together towards a common goal. However, the Guardian Approach can also be limiting in modern conflict as it may hinder rapid adaptation and innovation as the focus on adherence to established systems and procedures can create bureaucratic roadblocks, slowing down decision-making processes and reducing the Air Force's ability to respond swiftly to emerging threats and challenges.

The Vanguard Approach

In “Accelerate Change or Lose,” General Brown calls for Airmen to “move forward with digital, low cost, high tech, warfighting capacities.”[6] The current strategic problem set dictates the need for the Air Force to emphasize the Vanguard approach. The Vanguard approach, characterized by its daring, innovative, and rule-breaking spirit, aligns with the current demands for agility, adaptability, and responsiveness in the face of technological advancements, complex conflicts, and geopolitical shifts. By fostering a culture of innovation and encouraging Airmen to embrace new technologies, the Air Force can maintain its technological edge and stay ahead of near-peer adversaries.

The Vanguard approach encourages a risk-taking mindset, which is crucial in the face of increasingly complex conflicts. This agility will enable the Air Force to effectively counter threats in multiple domains, such as space and cyberspace, and synchronize its capabilities to achieve desired outcomes. As Sam Altman, CEO of technology company OpenAI, states, "Most people overestimate risk and underestimate reward.”[7] His lessons learned from a large, pioneering technology company translate well into the Air Force. Those who take bold leaps are rewarded with success. Airmen’s needs should not be restricted by predetermined dictates or prescriptions. Instead, by providing them with additional decision-making perspectives, they can be empowered to leverage modern tools and technologies at the lowest levels to achieve their missions and, if necessary, defeat the enemy. Trusting Airmen to make wise decisions without excessive limitations is essential to embracing the Vanguard approach and fostering innovation in the face of modern conflict.

In January 2022, a story published by Audacy revealed that service members within the Department of Defense (DoD) were using the encrypted messaging app Signal to conduct official military business, despite it being against regulations.[8] The lack of issued cell phones and approved messaging services that can be used on personal devices left soldiers with little choice but to take operational security (OPSEC) into their own hands, using encrypted applications even if they were not approved. This situation highlights the urgent need for the military to adapt and integrate modern, open-source, and user-acquired tools and technology for individual servicemembers to enhance their operational proficiency. This example exemplifies the inherent adaptability and resourcefulness of the Vanguard approach.

Airmen recognized the importance of the mission and did not allow policy to block execution. They remained OPSEC-focused by choosing a technology that was known to be secure so they could continue to operate while appreciating the need for security. Although against regulations, their efforts highlight how a user-led and open-source approach to integrating technology-enhanced communication, improved situational awareness, and increased operational efficiency while taking minimal risk. While the use of unauthorized tools is not ideal, this example highlights the need for the Air Force to be more adaptable and responsive in providing its Airmen with the tools and technologies they need to succeed in a complex environment.           

The Approaches in Doctrine

Given the benefit of both approaches, it is crucial that the ability to emphasize either the Vanguard or Guardian approach be granted to the CSAF and be codified in Air Force Doctrine Publication 1 (AFDP-1). Incorporating these concepts into AFDP-1 gives CSAF an additional tool to adapt the Air Force's focus, allowing for a seamless transition between the two approaches as needed to address emerging challenges and evolving missions. With the CSAF's guidance and leadership embodied in doctrine, the Air Force can effectively balance the strengths and advantages of both the Vanguard and Guardian approach, adapting to the demands of the modern battlefield and maintaining a competitive edge in a world of constantly shifting threats and challenges. While these concepts can then be incorporated in other doctrine, such as Agile Combat Support (ACE),  Mission Command will be essential to their proper utilization.

ACE is an ideal concept for incorporating the Vanguard and Guardian Approaches into Air Force operations. In the near term, the Vanguard Approach is central to ACE’s ability to create “operational dilemmas for the enemy, and [create] flexibility for friendly forces.”[9] ACE emphasizes the need for a flexible, resilient, and adaptive force that can swiftly respond to changing circumstances, leveraging both the innovative and rule-breaking spirit of the Vanguard Approach and the stability and strategic planning of the Guardian Approach. Integrating both approaches under the ACE concept will enable the Air Force to maintain a decisive edge over potential adversaries, regardless of conflict complexity or nature.

Adopting the Vanguard and Guardian Approaches and facilitating their flexible usage within the Air Force requires Mission Command. By emphasizing decentralized decision-making, Mission Command allows commanders to tailor their leadership style to the unique circumstances of their mission. With the approaches embedded within Mission Command, commanders will have the flexibility to choose the most appropriate approach for their specific mission, empower their Airmen to act with their best judgment, and then return course and shift to the other approach when appropriate.    


In light of the dynamic and ever-evolving nature of modern warfare, the Air Force must strike a balance between the Vanguard and Guardian approaches, employing the best aspects of each to ensure mission success. By fostering a culture that embraces innovation and adaptability while upholding the importance of collaboration and adherence to strategic planning, the Air Force can develop a well-rounded and versatile force. This articulation of the two approaches will enable Airmen to navigate the complexities of modern conflict with confidence and effectiveness, preparing them for the challenges that lie ahead. Formally incorporating the techniques into Air Force doctrine, particularly in AFDP-1, gives the Air Force an additional tool to effectively lead and manage warfighters into the future.

Although Brigadier General Billy Mitchell often erred in judgment and demonstrated a lack of respect for authority, he was a visionary who saw the potential of airpower long before others did and his legacy still remains a vital part of the Air Force's history. While his Vanguard approach has its place, it also is likely detrimental to long-term Air Force strategic goals, benefits from General Patrick’s approach. Therefore, both are needed to forge through the fog of modern warfare. Air Force doctrine needs the ability to influence the culture of decision-making in order to achieve the objective set out in Gen Brown’s “Accelerate Change or Lose,” otherwise it risks the latter.


Major Matthew S. Stalford
Major Stalford is an Intelligence officer in the Air National Guard and is currently serving in the Pentagon as the Compartmented Information Integration Officer for the National Guard Bureau.

This article received an honorable mention in the inaugural Inspiring Doctrinal Innovation essay contest by LeMay Center.


[1.] Michael J. Mastromichalis, “Billy Mitchell’s Concept of Command Leadership and the Relevance for Air Force Officers” (Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama: Air Command and Staff College, April 20, 1986),; Robert Paul White, “Air Power Engineer: Major General Mason Patrick and the United States Air Service, 1917-1927” (Doctoral dissertation, The Ohio State University, 1999),

[2.] Jānis Bērziņš, “The Theory and Practice of New Generation Warfare: The Case of Ukraine and Syria,” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 33, no. 3 (July 2, 2020): 355–80,

[3.] Joan Telo, “Smart City Security Threats and Countermeasures in the Context of Emerging Technologies,” International Journal of Intelligent Automation and Computing 6, no. 1 (February 27, 2023): 31–45.

[4.] Yuen Yuen Ang, “Reinventing Multilateralism: What to Do, What to Study, and Why,” Global Perspectives 4, no. 1 (March 6, 2023): 72709,

[5.] Hal Brands, “Choosing Primacy: U.S. Strategy and Global Order at the Dawn of the Post- Cold War Era,” Texas National Security Review, The Scholar, 1, no. 2 (March 2018): 25.

[6.] General Charles Q. Brown, Jr., “Accelerate Change of Lose” (Washington DC: Department of the Air Force, 2020)

[7.] Keagan Stokoe, “Lessons From Sam Altman: On Belief, Ambition, And High-Impact Careers,” Medium, March 1, 2023,

[8.] Jack Murphy, “Soldiers Use Signal despite Defense Department Regulations,” Audacity, January 12, 2022,

[9.] Department of the Air Force, Agile Combat Employment, Air Force Doctrine Note 1-21 (Maxwell AFB: LeMay Doctrine Center, 23 August 2022),