By Dr Ross Mahoney
I have just come back from a conference at the Royal Military College of Canada on the theme of the ‘Education of an Air Force’ that was well worth the visit. I am sure most readers will agree that the subject of education is of vital importance and this is something that has been increasingly realised in recent years as modern air forces seek to grapple with the challenges that confront them in the operational sphere.
Ideas such as conceptual innovation have become catchphrases for efforts such as the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Thinking to Win programme, the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Plan JERICHO and the Royal Canadian Air Force’s (RCAF) AIRpower in Formation process. Underpinning these, to a greater or lesser degree, is the importance of air power education. Indeed, as Lieutenant-General Michael Hood, Commander of RCAF, recently noted in the introduction to an article in the Royal Canadian Air Force Journal on air power education and professional air power mastery:
There is also a requirement to continually review the training and education we give to all ranks to ensure that it is configured to deliver what we need within the contemporary environment.
Nevertheless, phrases like the one above can often be a case of rhetoric versus reality, though having heard General Hood speak at the opening of the conference; I do believe he means what he says about the importance of education. The conference was historically focussed, but by observing the past, as historians, we can identify areas that can be points of friction and that need to be considered when attempting to introduce reform in the education process. What follows are just a few key areas I pondered during the conference.
Training or Education?
Perhaps the first thing that came to mind was what were we considering? The conference included the word education in the title but was this the case? Indeed, one key question that needs to be asked is whether those we study understand the distinction we make today between training and education. For me, at the most simplistic of levels, training is about skills development while education is about knowledge, understanding and critical thinking. Is this what was expected by those responsible for creating the institutions that delivered programmes related to professional development such as staff colleges. I suspect the answer is yes but the vernacular used in different eras leads to confusion. For example, Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, first Commandant of the RAF Staff College, was clear that one issue he needed to deal with was anti-intellectualism and this is a matter of education though the term was infrequently used in the 1920s. By the 1960s, the RAF had begun, as it created a ‘progressive’ system of staff education, to differentiate between the two subjects. Nevertheless, we must be clear about what we are talking about if reform is to be achieved.
Military organisations are conservative in character. This is not to suggest that they are not innovative but rather to reflect that they are predominantly reactive rather than revolutionary. Thus, change, unless triggered by defeat, public opinion or budgetary cuts, can be difficult and challenging. This is ultimately a cultural issue and one that needs to be considered when introducing change. Leaders need to bring people along with them on the journey they seek to engender rather than just demanding that it happens. This applies to education as well. If education is to be improved, the organisation’s employees need to understand the need for this process. They need to be shown its value, and this has to be enunciated in a clear and meaningful manner. Indeed, in the modern era where most air forces have been in continuous operations for at least the past decade and a half, it needs to be illustrated why education is of value for those with operational experience. This comes back to the first point above, for example, we train an officer to fly rather than educate them.
The Role of Senior Leadership
This brings me to the next important issue; the role of senior leaders. These are the people who lead change. Indeed, at the conference, when I made a comment about the culture of military organisations, Harold Winton, Professor Emeritus at the United States Air Force’s (USAF) School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS), quite rightly made the impassioned argument that when a leader who believes in education comes along, perhaps once every 15 to 20 years, then we should take advantage of that person. I completely agree, a champion who can provide top cover is essential, and it appears that RCAF have that in Hood while in the 1970s, the RAF had Marshal of the RAF Lord Cameron, who supported the creation of the position of Director of Defence Studies. Furthermore, support from senior leaders can help shape the culture and values of the organisation by providing an example to subordinates.
What I mean here is the use of non-staff college education for officers, mainly higher research degrees such as MPhils and PhDs. In modern militaries, it is usual that officers going through the staff college system receive some form of credits towards a postgraduate degree, typically an MA. For example, British officers can work towards an MA in Defence Studies that builds on the Advanced Command and Staff Course at the Joint Services Command and Staff College. However, this is a relatively standard route and one that has been developed within the Staff College environment. What appears to be less typical, though needs to more readily embraced, is the encouragement of nurtured personal to undertake further research in the form of MPhils and PhDs. USAF do a good job of this through SAASS, and the RAF has a good fellowship scheme that not only encourages Masters work but also supports PhDs through the Portal Fellowship. This need to be promoted as higher research encourages critical thinking and air forces need such people to help develop their conceptual understanding of air power in the defence sphere. Nevertheless, air forces also need to encourage and reward personnel for taking ownership of their education irrelevant of whether the service sponsors it or not. Personnel need to be shown that in developing their critical thinking skills these are as valued as their operational ones. Also, where applicable, personnel should be encouraged to write in various forums from websites, such as this one, The Central Blue, War on the Rocks and The Strategy Bridge, to professional journals. However, this requires encouragement and critical mass and it is interesting to reflect that the RAF, RCAF and USAF all have journals but the RAAF does not, though the latter’s Air Power Development Centre does produce useful material. Overall, by encouraging ‘non-standard education’, air forces have the opportunity to develop knowledge and encourage informed discussion about air power in the public and policy sphere rather than what often currently occurs.
Officers or NCOs? Alternatively, Both?
An interesting point that came up in one discussion phase of the conference was the question of NCOs. All of the papers dealt with officer education with most focussed on the staff college scenario. However, what of NCOs and their education? We often hear phrases such as ‘whole force’ used to describe the personnel of an air force. As such, should we not be educating the NCO corps? Another challenge is that the current NCO corps is becoming better educated; it not unusual to find airmen and women entering service with degrees. If we are to develop the ‘whole force’ then similar opportunities afforded to the officer corps should be made available to NCOs especially as they are promoted and take on senior leadership roles. This is probably a conference of its own but a subject area that deserves consideration both in a contemporary as well as historical sense.
What I have written here is by no means the panacea for professional military education, and indeed much of this is axiomatic of any analysis of the field. Indeed, most of these challenges are just as applicable to each of the services; however, I would suggest that these difficulties need to be overcome and also understood in the context of air forces seeking to improve education provision. Nevertheless, the conference provided plenty of food for thought on the subject of the education of air forces as modern services strive to deal with operational and personnel challenges that they currently confront and will continue to do so into the 21st century. Another key positive of this conference was the involvement of the RCAF both regarding the opportunity to visit the Canadian Aerospace Warfare Centre but also to hear how they are dealing with current challenges.
This post also appears at The Central Blue.
Dr Ross Mahoney is an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum, and he is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He blogs at Thoughts on Military History, and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.
Header Image: Aerial view of the completed RAF College at Cranwell in the 1930s. (Source: © IWM ((MOW) C 4070))
 Lieutenant-General Michael Hood, ‘Introduction’ to Brad Gladman, Richard Goette, Richard Mayne, Shayne Elder, Kelvin Truss, Pux Barnes, and Bill March, ‘Professional Airpower Mastery and the Royal Canadian Air Force: Rethinking Airpower Education and Professional Development,’ Royal Canadian Air Force Journal, 5(1) (2016), p. 9.