The Strategic Triangle: The Air Corps Tactical School and Its Vision of Future Warfare

The Strategic Triangle: The Air Corps Tactical School and Its Vision of Future Warfare

By Dr Heather Venable

It is evil to approach war with fixed ideas; that is, without an open and flexible mind, but it is certain to lead to disaster to approach it with the inapplicable formulas of the past.[1]

To the U.S. Army’s Air Corps Tactical School’s (ACTS) Class of 1936, Major Harold George proclaimed, ‘[W]e are not concerned in fighting the past war;–that was done 18 years ago.’[2] Having dismissed much of the value of studying the First World War for insights into air power, George emphatically returned to this theme a few minutes later, reminding his students that they sought to ‘peer down the path of future warfare. We are not discussing the past.’[3] Similarly, Major Muir Fairchild emphasised the problems caused by the ‘lack of well established principles, developed from past experience, to guide the air force commander.’[4] Suggesting that little of value could be derived from a study of the First World War, it is no wonder that one monograph focusing on the impetus for the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Forces’ strategic bombardment campaign of the Second World War highlighted the inter-war period as a source of problematic thinking. Tami Davis Biddle’s Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare has stressed the ACTS motto as fittingly emblematic of its institutional culture: ‘we progress unhindered by tradition.’[5]

A_Concise_History_of_the_U.S._Air_Force_Page_14-1
Austin Hall at Maxwell AFB. Austin Hall was the home of the Air Corps Tactical School before the Second World War. (Source: Wikimedia)

Paradoxically, however, ACTS instructors struggled not to mine the First World War for historical lessons. Fairchild spent almost one-tenth of his lecture reading from the British official history of the First World War in the air, The War in the Air.[6] Similarly, George identified one historical lesson as central to future warfare: Germany had been defeated in the First World War not because its army had surrendered but because its people had crumbled.[7] As Lieutenant Colonel Donald Wilson explained, it was the ‘collapse of the German nation as a unit’ – largely because the people constituted the ‘weak link’ – that explained the war’s end (emphasis in original). As a result, ACTS ought to focus primarily on targeting civilian morale, albeit indirectly.[8]

Their vision can be modelled in order to depict how ACTS conceived of strategic bombardment and how these ideas changed as they began contemplating how to apply these ideas against Germany in the Second World War. Air War Plans Division (AWPD)-1 and AWPD-42, drafted in July of 1941 and August 1942, respectively, demonstrated important shifts in thinking about air power’s application. Moreover, they presaged a far more tactically minded employment of American air power in the Combined Bomber Offensive than has been recognised generally.[9]

This model draws on a modern interpretation of Carl von Clausewitz’s famous triangle, which is often thought of today as consisting of the following three legs: the government, the people’s passions, and the military.[10] The ACTS model could be depicted as follows: air power is best used at the strategic level to bend the enemy’s will; thus it should focus on affecting an opponent’s government and people because this approach provides the most direct path to achieving one’s desired political ends. A tactical focus on fielded forces, by contrast, is far less desirable because it is fundamentally inefficient. On occasion, however, a focus on the military might have a significant strategic effect. In other cases, an effect on electricity, for example, might have a strategic effect on the government and people as well as a more tactical effect on the military.

Diagram 1 Venable

This thinking went beyond ideas of an ‘industrial web,’ which continue to dominate many scholars’ discussions of ACTS thinking.[11] By zeroing in on the concept of a national structure, ACTS worked to link kinetic effects on industrial targets to the military as well as to the population, thus helping to refresh some aspects of strategic thinking in the wake of the Industrial Revolution – albeit with critical flaws. This thinking can be seen in ten recently published lectures of ACTS edited by and commented upon by Phil Haun. Of the more than 60 lectures presented at ACTS, Haun has identified these ten as representing the school’s ‘most mature thinking’ while reaching the greatest number of officers.[12]

A kind of national structure potentially could make room for a wider array of effects than an industrial web theory could, even if it struggled to make causal links between effects and political ends. By 1936, for example, ACTS envisioned a strategy that targeted the ‘vulnerabilities’ of ‘modern industrial nations’ aimed primarily at one point of the triangle: the people, as reflected in two lectures by George and Captain Haywood Hansell.[13] These lecturers advocated the destruction of carefully selected points in societies to cause ‘moral collapse’ – or effects on the population – as the immediate effect of strategic bombardment. The nation’s ‘will to resist’ was ‘centered in the mass of the people,’ as Hansell explained. Attacks on ‘vital elements upon which modern social life is dependent’ allowed for a focus on an opponent’s will rather than the more circuitous and inefficient focus on its means.[14] Hansell struggled to connect the effect on the people to any ‘express[ion] through political government.’[15] In effect, he wished away the government leg of the triangle. George further reasoned that even if strategic bombardment failed to have the desired effect on the population, it could have a positive effect on the military leg of the triangle due to the abundant material requirements of industrialised warfare.[16]

As such, George’s lecture anticipated a more mature 1939 lecture by Fairchild, which better integrated the effects of selected industrial attacks on two legs: people and the military, with the hope of simultaneously:

[r]educing the capacity for war of the hostile nation, and of applying pressure to the population both at the same time and with equal efficiency and effectiveness.[17]

Fairchild’s carefully parsed assumption about equal effect is dubious; after all, airpower thinkers have been infamous for their promises to be able to quantify the effect. Moreover, again, the government leg of the triangle remains absent. His point that the enablers of industry such as electricity and oil are ‘joined at many vital points’ places these critical aspects within the triangle, thereby potentially affecting each point, at least in theory.[18] Fairchild reasoned regarding the importance of preventing one’s opponent from acquiring key materials, such as petroleum, as well as the transportation system and electricity.[19] Today it is common to describe ACTS as efficiently identifying key industrial bottlenecks, but such a characterisation falls short of Fairchild’s greater vision. He did not seek to attack industry so much as ‘national structure,’ as he described it.[20]

For Fairchild, this vision appealingly provided a convenient shortcut to waging war so common to advocates of strategic attack. The ‘resulting shock effect’ and the ‘degree of facility with which these installations may be destroyed’ lured airmen with the perennial promise of being home by Christmas.[21] In doing so, Fairchild made assumptions emblematic of ACTS thinking by envisioning a kind of paralysis complemented by efficient destruction.[22] These effects allowed the ‘maximum contribution toward the Allied aim in the war at that time,’ unlike what he regarded as a more ineffective and tactical focus on the fielded forces, which airmen viewed as synonymous with slow attrition.[23]

This theory came to life in AWPD-1, hurriedly envisioned over nine days in July of 1941 by former ACTS instructors such as Lieutenant Colonel Harold George, Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Walker, Lieutenant Colonel Orvil Anderson, Major Haywood Hansell, Major Laurence Kuter, Major Hoyt Vandenberg, and Major Samuel Anderson. All but one of these officers had attended and/or taught at ACTS. The plan posited 154 targets of strategic attack to be destroyed in six months in the following priority:

  1. Electricity;
  2. Transportation;
  3. Oil;
  4. Aircraft factories;
  5. Aluminium sources;
  6. Magnesium
  7. Air support in joint operations.

In compiling this list, air planners claimed to adhere to the strategic vision of the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy’s War Plans ABC-1 and Rainbow 5, which in Europe required an air offensive designed to reduce German air and naval assets and material while preparing for a ground offensive. However, the planners did not set out a traditional air superiority campaign with an array of targets, including airdromes, aeroplanes, and factories. Rather, they adhered to Fairchild’s emphasis on national structure, relegating aeroplane assembly plants – the first hint of an air superiority campaign – to the fourth priority.[24]

The emphasis of ACTS continuing into AWPD-1 is modelled below, showing the split emphasis on the military and the people as two legs of the triangle, with the people receiving the primacy of focus. A plan focused on enablers such as electricity and oil doctrinally targeting national structure represented the most matured form of ACTS thinking, albeit with a problematic hope in the efficacy of strategic attack.

Diagram 2 VenableBy September of 1942, however, this vision underwent a substantial change in focus, as the emphasis shifted down the spectrum toward more tactical means. AWPD-42 prioritised the destruction of the Luftwaffe, albeit still attained primarily through industrial means in the form of attacks against aeroplane and engine factories. Regardless, such a change represented a significant change in thinking away from more general enablers such as electricity to war material itself that had a less immediate effect on society as a whole. Second, the US Army Air Forces needed to concentrate on submarine building yards, before finally turning its attention to transportation in order to sever the ‘vital link in the Germany military and industrial structure.’[25] Electricity, the epitome of a structural target, had dropped from first to fourth place.[26] In effect, AWPD-42 represented a more traditional and tactical focus, designed as it was to interdict material, though admittedly at its source, before seeking to paralyse the economy.[27] The model below reflects this distribution with more emphasis placed on the military rather than the people, as the general trend in thinking shifted toward destroying a military’s ability to meet its material requirements. Production to strike at the enemy’s fielded forces – rather than the dual enablers of the people’s will and military means – received the greatest focus in AWPD-42.

Diagram 3 Venable

The notion of a quick and easy path to victory through strategic attack proved a chimaera, as it has so often in history. Germany responded to attacks against its aircraft factories, for example, by dispersing them.[28] It also fully mobilised its economy in 1944, although it could do only so much to make up for poor strategic choices. Germany had a price to pay in reduced efficiency; but so too did the Allies in terms of the very kind of attrition that they sought to avoid in the first place. It was not enough to wage an air superiority campaign against factories. German fighters and American fighters and bombers battled each other well into 1945, especially during the Battle of the Bulge.[29]

Modelling and parsing out how ACTS envisioned strategic bombardment provides a historical case study in conceptualising strategic attack and changes in thinking over time. Doctrinally, the US Air Force continues to insist that air power used in strategic attack has the ‘potential to achieve decisive effects more directly without the need to engage enemy fielded forces.’ It cited several operations over the last 50 years in which the Air Force denied its opponents

[a]ccess to critical resources and infrastructure, defeat[ed] enemy strategies, and decisively influence[d] the enemy to end hostilities on terms favorable to US interests.[30]

Amidst the U.S. military’s reemphasis on great power conflict, it is useful to return to the fundamentals to consider how, exactly, a strategic attack might help to achieve its desired ends through a focus on the military, the people, and the government.

Dr Heather Venable is an Assistant Professor of Military and Security Studies at the U.S. Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College and teaches in the Department of Airpower. She has written a forthcoming book entitled How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique, 1874-1918.

Header Image: A Boeing Y1B-17A in flight near Mount Rainier in Washington state, c. 1938. (Wikimedia)

[1] Quoted in Lieutenant Colonel Donald Wilson, ‘Principles of War’ in Phil Haun (ed. and commentator), Lectures of the Air Corps Tactical School and American Strategic Bombing in World War II (Lexington, KT: University Press of Kentucky, 2019), p. 71.

[2] Major Harold George, ‘An Inquiry into the Subject ‘War” in Haun, Lectures, p. 35.

[3] George, ‘Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 37.

[4] Fairchild, ‘Air Power and Air Warfare’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 48. For another similar lecture opening, see Captain Haywood Hansell, ‘The Aim in War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 73. This same tension between rejecting history yet almost immediately jumping to a discussion of historical examples can be seen in Major Frederick Hopkins, ‘Tactical Offense and Tactical Defense’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 100-8. Hopkins also sought relevant lessons from the Spanish Civil War, for which Biddle has argued some airmen were too dogmatic to do. See Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 171.

[5] Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare, p. 138.

[6] Fairchild, ‘Air Power and Air Warfare’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 52-4.

[7] George, ‘Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 40-1. George even concluded his lecture by returning to this theme. Ibid., p. 44. Also see Lieutenant Colonel Donald Wilson, ‘Principles of War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 62 and Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 144. Also see Haun, ‘Introduction’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 8.

[8] Major Muir Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 140. Of course, one’s intent can differ from one’s effects, as occurred in the Second World War due to bad weather and the challenges of precision bombing. For this ethical discussion, see Douglas P. Lackey, ‘The Bombing Campaign: The USAAF’ in Igor Primoratz (ed.), The Bombing of German Cities in World War II (New York: Berghan Books, 2010), pp. 39-59.  Even with precision, indirect effects on civilians can be highly problematic. See Daniel T. Kuehl, ‘Airpower vs. Electricity: Electric Power as a Target for Strategic Air Operations,’ Journal of Strategic Studies, 18:1 (1995), pp. 237-266.  

[9] See, for example, Heather Venable, ‘The Strategic Bombardment Campaign that Wasn’t? The Army Air Forces in the European Theater of Operations, 1942-1945,’ The Strategy Bridge, 6 May 2019.

[10] For background on how those ideas are improperly attributed to Clausewitz, see Christopher Bassford and Edward J. Villacres, ‘Reclaiming the Clausewitzian Trinity.’ By contrast, Clausewitz himself set out elements of emotion, chance, and reason. See Christopher Bassford, ‘Teaching the Clausewitzian Trinity.’

[11] For this characterisation of an ‘industrial web theory,’ for example, see Scott D. West, ‘Warden and the Air Corps Tactical School: Déjà Vu’ (Thesis, School of Advanced Airpower Studies, 1999), p. v and 1.

[12] Haun, Lectures, p. xv.

[13] George, ‘An Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 43.

[14] Hansell, ‘Aim in War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 78, 81 and 84. Even as Hansell insisted this was the ‘primary strategic objective’ of Air Forces, he did not make this link for navies’ ability to blockade, instead taking the more Mahanian view that the primary role of the Navy was to destroy other navies. In this way, he highlighted his bias for air power as offering unique shortcuts. Ibid., p. 84.

[15] Hansell, ‘Aim in War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 77.

[16] George, ‘An Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 43. Fairchild similarly highlighted the importance of this military capacity. See Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 188-9.

[17] Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 143.

[18] Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 189.

[19] Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 152-7.

[20] Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 182.

[21] Ibid., p. 185.

[22] Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 166.

[23] Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 166. For the very rare recognition that ground operations occasionally could be decisive, see Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces,’ p. 186.

[24] ‘Appendix 2: AWPD-1’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 232-3.

[25] ‘Appendix 3: AWPD-42’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 258.

[26] ‘Appendix 1 – Trenchard Memo,’ p. 232 and ‘Appendix 3: AWPD-42,’ p. 258 in Haun, Lectures.

[27] While highlighting the more overt focus on supporting an invasion, Robert Futrell argued that the ‘strategic philosophy of the two studies was virtually the same.’ See Robert Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1989), p. 131. For a discussion of strategic interdiction as compared to operational interdiction, see Robert Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 75.

[28] Haun, Lectures, p. 3.

[29] See Danny S. Parker, To Win the Winter Sky: The Air War over the Ardennes, 1944-1945 (Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books, 1994), pp. 248-305.

[30] Curtis E. LeMay Center for Doctrine Development and Education, Annex 3-70 Strategic Attack, ‘Fundamentals of Strategic Attack,’ last reviewed 25 May 2017.

#ResearchNote – The RAF Staff College and ‘Learning’ from the French

#ResearchNote – The RAF Staff College and ‘Learning’ from the French

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Editorial note: Defence-in-Depth, the blog of King’s College London’s Defence Studies Department based at the Joint Services Command and Staff College and The Wavell Room have been running a series of interesting articles about military education. The author has read these articles with some interest given his interest in the education of air forces. This research note covers an interesting episode in the process of the establishment of the Royal Air Force (RAF) Staff College in the early 1920s.

The opening of the RAF Staff College at Andover in 1922 marked a crucial step in the early development of the RAF. Andover gave the RAF its own institution that provided higher education tailored towards the needs of the Service. However, many historians have been critical of Andover. For example, Tony Mason, the RAF’s first Director of Defence Studies, suggested that Andover ‘lamentably failed’ in providing a developed air power theory for the RAF while Vincent Orange argued that the Staff College served, ‘as a disseminating station for approved doctrine, seasoned by essays on riding, hunting and how to cope with the bazaars of Baghdad.’[1]

However, one aspect not often considered is how the RAF went about preparing for the Staff College’s formation. Key to this is the role played by its first Commandant, Air Commodore Robert Brooke-Popham who was adamant that the RAF should learn from the teaching methods used by both the British Army and Royal Navy at their Staff Colleges at Camberley and Greenwich.[2] Brooke-Popham was a pre-First World War graduate of Camberley, and it is clear that this educational experience played a role in how he approached his position as Commandant. More broadly, before the opening of Andover, it was to the Army and Royal Navy that the RAF looked to provide a staff college education for nurtured officers. Indeed, it is significant that, apart from Group Captain Robert Clark-Hall, the initial Directing Staff – Wing Commanders Philip Joubert de la Ferte, Wilfrid Freeman and C.H.K. Edmonds and Squadron Leader Bertine Sutton – were all graduates of Camberley or Greenwich. However, while the British experience of higher military education was a significant influence, it was not the only source of information.

LD 764
A half-length portrait of Air Marshal Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferté in uniform by James Gunn, c. 1940 (Source: © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 764))

More interesting is that Brooke-Popham also considered whether anything could be learnt from the methods utilised by the French Army at the Écoles Supérieures de Guerre in Paris, which in the early 1920s was commanded by General Marie Debeney.[3] Before the opening of Andover, Brooke-Popham and Joubert visited Paris to examine French pedagogical methods, and the critical source concerning this visit comes in the latter’s 1952 autobiography The Fated Sky.[4] Joubert’s recollections provide an insight into the teaching methods at the Écoles Supérieures de Guerre. However, it is clear that he was not impressed with the quality of education present although, as he recalled, the Écoles Supérieures de Guerre was considered, ‘the centre of all military knowledge.’[5]

Joubert’s criticisms fell broadly into three categories. First, Joubert was critical of the lack of cooperation with the French Navy and their equivalent school for higher education. Second, instructors lacked familiarity with the students they were teaching. Finally, Joubert was not impressed with the formality of the lectures and lack of what in modern teaching is often referred to as ‘white space’ in the timetable to allow for reflections and questions.[6]

Joubert’s criticisms raise several interesting observations about the differences between the British and French militaries in this period. Notably, the lack of co-operation between the French Army and Navy at the staff college level maps to many of the problems that plagued the French military in the interwar period. Joubert recalled Debeney’s ‘look of blank amazement’ when asked about co-operation with his naval counterpart.[7] Conversely, while there were definite problems at the strategic level, the British military regularly co-operated via combined operations exercises at the staff colleges that Joubert himself described as ‘one of the most pleasant periods’ of his time at Camberley, which he attended in 1920.[8] This perhaps suggests something about Britain’s pragmatic military culture in this period. Individual service cultures certainly existed, but when co-operation was required, the British military appeared to be able to do this.

Furthermore, Joubert recalled of his time at Camberley that while heated discussions between students occurred, ‘it was always possible to come to an agreement over a round of pink gins in the Mess’ thus highlighting the importance of socialisation between the services as means of breeding understanding between them.[9] It also seems clear that Joubert’s perception of the lack of formality in British Staff Colleges bred a willingness to question accepted views while the French military maintained a ‘Maginot’ mentality for much of this period. However, even this must be understood within the context of differing service cultures. Joubert himself reflected on these differences when he wrote that:

Naval officers would discuss Naval affairs freely amongst themselves and before members of another service and would unhesitatingly attack any ideas which they thought themselves were wrong. But let an outsider in the audience offer a criticism and Naval ranks closed up solidly. The Army seldom, if ever, discussed their problems in the open. If they were asked for a statement of policy Field Service Regulations and Army Council Instructions were solemnly quoted. As for the Air Force, they would fight amongst themselves in private and in the open, and would quite ruthlessly disagree with their instructors before a mixed audience. Nothing was sacrosanct.[10]

The final criticism of the lack of ‘white space’ in the timetable is significant as this is considered a crucial element of the pedagogical process and differentiates higher education from training. The lack of this ‘white space’ in the French Staff College system suggested an unwillingness to allow French officers to think more broadly about their place within the profession of arms and the conduct of war more generally. This raises fundamental questions concerning leadership development within the French Army such as whether the French system was developing senior leaders or staff officers. Moreover, it is clear that the French system differed from the British with the existence of the Centre des Hautes Études; a war college, which existed to educate senior Colonels and Brigadiers.[11] A ‘war college’ was something the RAF lacked, and as such an exact comparison between the two systems is fraught with challenges.

While Joubert’s recollection should, as with any autobiography, be treated with some care, from the perspective of the provision and development of military education in the RAF they are useful. This is primarily because of Joubert’s affiliation with education in the RAF. As noted, he attended Camberley and was Directing Staff at Andover. However, he would also go on to be the first RAF member of the Directing Staff at the Imperial Defence College as well as going on to being Commandant at Andover in the early 1930s. As such, he was well placed to comment on such issues.

In conclusion, this episode shows that the RAF was willing to move outside of national confines to learn lessons for what was the world’s first air force Staff College. However, that the methods examined in France were not adopted also highlights issues related to how militaries perceive themselves. As Joubert himself noted, ‘[i]n the event we did not adopt […] the French Staff College methods [and] [w]e went our own perfectly normal and unspectacular British Way.’[12] This reflection says as much about the RAF and its culture as it does the perceived failings of the French system of higher military education. The final important point is that in looking to other Staff Colleges, whether in Britain or France, the RAF were looking to similar institutions with similar objectives – the education and nurturing of future senior leaders – but axiomatically these educational establishments were not similar. Putting aside national proclivities, the critical difference was the military service these institutions served. The Écoles Supérieures de Guerre served the French Army, not an air force, though of course at this time, the French air service formed part of the army. Similarly, Camberley and Greenwich served the British Army and Royal Navy respectively. As such, while the RAF could, and did learn from their counterparts, it still had specific service challenges that it would have to solve on its terms. Indeed, the focus of Brooke-Popham and Joubert’s visit to Paris was more on ‘how’ to teach rather than ‘what.’

Dr Ross Mahoney is a contract Historian at the Departments of Veterans’ Affairs in Australia as well as the owner and Editor of From Balloons to Drones. 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 a Vice-President of the Second World War Research Group. He can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header image: The modern day Ecole Militaire, which previously housed the Écoles Supérieures de Guerre (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Tony Mason, ‘British Air Power’ in John Andreas Olsen, Global Air Power (Washington D C: Potomac Books, 2011), pp. 26-27; Vincent Orange, Churchill and his Airmen: Relationships, Intrigue and Policy Making, 1914-1945 (London: Grub Street, 2013), p. 87.

[2] Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, ‘The Formation of The Royal Air Force Staff College,’ The Hawk, 12 (1950), p. 19.

[3] For a British overview of the Écoles Supérieures de Guerre, see: ‘The “Ecole Superieure De Guerre,” Paris,’ Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, 70:477 (1925), pp. 1-7.

[4] Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferte, The Fated Sky: An Autobiography (London: Hutchinson, 1952), pp. 87-88. Joubert also recollected that Brooke-Popham also considered ‘Madam Montessori’s ideas.

[5] Ibid., pp. 87

[6] Ibid., pp. 87-88

[7] Ibid., p. 87.

[8] Ibid., p. 84.

[9] Ibid., p. 83.

[10] Ibid., p. 88.

[11] ‘The “Ecole Superieure De Guerre,” Paris,’ p. 1.

[12] Joubert, The Fated Sky, p. 88.

#ResearchNote – Redefining the Modern Military: An Airman’s Perspective

#ResearchNote – Redefining the Modern Military: An Airman’s Perspective

By Dr Brian D. Laslie

Editorial Note: In this Research Note, Assistant Editor, Dr Brian Laslie reflects on his contribution to a new volume about military professionalism entitled Redefining the Modern Military: The Intersection of Profession and Ethics that has been edited by Ty Mayfield and Nathan Finney and published by Naval Institute Press.

In the Summer of 2015, I packed up some clothes and (a lot of) books and moved down to Montgomery, Alabama to attend the United States Air Force’s (USAF) Air Command and Staff College (ACSC). I had been selected along with about a dozen other civilians to attend the 10-month course. I looked upon those ten months in front of me as something of a sabbatical and a chance to research and write.

Redefining

On the back end of my time at ACSC, I received a call from Ty Mayfield, of The Strategy Bridge, about a book project he and a team of authors were working on. This forthcoming project, Redefining the Modern Military: The Intersection of Profession and Ethics, published by the phenomenal people at Naval Institute Press, was an effort by the team at The Strategy Bridge to push the ball forward on the discussion of professionalism, ethics, civil-military relations, and professional education in the modern U.S. military. Following in the footstep of Samuel Huntington, Ty and co-editor Nate Finney collected chapters from a group including international and American officers as well as six academics holding both college and professional military education (PME) positions. It was a robust group, especially considering that most of the chapter authors only knew each other through Twitter. It turns out, Ty and Nate had covered all of their bases except one. In the end, they had no one writing about the USAF, the air domain, or the Airmen’s perspective. Thus, the phone call to me.

It turns out Ty and Nate decided to reach out to me at a somewhat fortuitous time. Ty asked me if I had any thoughts about professionalism and the USAF. As a current student at a PME institution who had spent the better part of seven months pouring over USAF history, I had plenty to say. I titled my chapter, ‘Born of Insubordination: Culture, Professionalism, and Identity in the Air Arm,’ and I am somewhat taciturn that my chapter contribution turned into something of “Oh and ANOTHER THING!” ranting about problems of USAF PME and the Air Force writ large. Ty and Nate did not see it that way.

What I produced, at least the way Ty and Nate ended up describing it was a chapter about the:

particularities inherent in the air arm of the U.S. military. Born from a culture of insubordination, Laslie describes three case studies that display how the positive aspects of this trait, one he titles “pragmatic professionalism”, has shaped – and will continue to shape – the Air Force. Using a historical lens to show the USAF’s unique history, identity, and culture Laslie uses these contemporary case studies to demonstrate that while the Air Force has long suffered with an internal identity crisis amongst its officer corps, the “stovepipes” that developed over the course of the past 70 years are actually conduits for professional advancement in different career fields and not something that needs to torn down.

My chapter on the USAF is but one of twelve. Other chapters include: ‘Questioning Military Professionalism,’ by Pauline Shanks-Kaurin, ‘Professionals Know When to Break the Rules,’ by H.M. ‘Mike’ Denny, ‘Ethical Requirements of the Profession: Obligations of the Profession, the Professional, and the Client,’ by Rebecca Johnson, plus eight others as well as an introduction and conclusion from the editors.

The book proper opens with:

[t]he challenging task of self-assessment for the military profession going into the twenty-first century. Crafted by military officers with recent experience in modern wars, academics who have trained and educated this generation of combatants, and lawyers and civilians who serve side by side with the defense enterprise at all levels, this volume seeks to begin the process of reevaluation for the 21st century.’

While discussing professionalism is not our usual milieu here at From Balloons to Drones, we have been known to stray into the realm from time to time; for example, see our recent post on John Boyd. Indeed, we believe that self-examination in any organisation is an essential part of development and Mayfield, and Finney should be commended for seeing this project through to publication. (We would encourage anyone interested in writing about issues related to professionalism within the context of air arms – air force, naval or army – to get in contact. Ed.)

In the age of social media, we have an entire generation of company and field grade officers who are taking their professional military education into their own hands. Through mediums like The Strategy Bridge, the Military Writer’s Guild and From Balloons to Drones, younger officers are studying and communicating about their profession in new ways. Ty and Nate seized on this moment to produce, what I hope, is a book that will generate discussion across the services and the military establishment at large. My contribution is modest, but this book surely has something for everyone.  From company grade officers to flag and general officers, I hope it will do what it sets out to do, which is nothing less than ‘Redefine’ the modern military.

Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). He is an Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones and a 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies. He received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. He is the author of Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force (2017) and The Air Force Way of War (2015). The latter book was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list and the 2017 RAF Chief of the Air Staff’s reading list. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: A flight of Aggressor F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons fly in formation, 5 June 2008, over the Nevada Test and Training Ranges. The jets are assigned to the 64th and 65th Aggressor Squadrons at Nellis Air Force Base. (Source: US Department of Defense)

The Role of History in Educating Air Power Strategists

The Role of History in Educating Air Power Strategists

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Editorial Note: On 19 September 2018, our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney delivered a paper on the subject of ‘The Role of History in Educating Air Power Strategists’ at a seminar organised by the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Air Power Development Centre in Canberra. A precis of this paper was published in the Pathfinder bulletin issued by APDC, which can be found here. The Pathfinder series covers a range of issue from strategy, historical analyses, operations, administration, logistics, education and training, people, command and control, technology to name a few. Irrespective of the subject though, Pathfinders will always be focused on the relevance to air power; they are not intended to be just a narrative but deliver a measure of analysis. Apart from the addition of some minor changes to make this precis applicable to From Balloons to Drones as well as the inclusion of footnotes and further reading suggestions, this article appears as published in Pathfinder. We are grateful to APDC for permission to re-publish the piece, and the views in this article and the associated Pathfinder are not necessarily those of the RAAF.

‘[t]he study of military history lies at the foundation of all sound military conclusions and practice.’

Rear-Admiral A.T. Mahan, ‘The Naval War College,’ The North American Review, (1912)[1]

‘The word history carries two meanings […] It refers both to what actually happened in the past and to the representation of that past in the work of historians.’

John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, Third Edition, (1999)[2]

What is history? What is its relevance to an air power strategist? These are important questions; however, as Richard Muller, a senior member of the faculty at the US Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, reflected in 2016, ‘as a rule air forces have not embraced historical study to the same extent as have their army or navy counterparts.’[3] Nevertheless, in 1912, a year after an Italian aeroplane dropped the first ‘bomb’ over Libya, noted US naval historian and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan reflected on the link between military history and ‘sound military conclusions.’ However, history does not provide clear lessons. Nevertheless, the study of the past does offer a lens through which to analyse, understand and reflect on the challenges currently faced by modern air forces.

Air Corps Tactical School
The Air Corps Tactical School (created as the Air Service Field Officers School in 1920) went beyond its mandate of training officers to also become an engine for air power theory development in the interwar period. (Source: US Air Force Air University)

This article considers some of the issues related to applied military history beginning with an outline of the purpose of history and the challenges of applying the past to the present. It also considers how air forces have used the study of the past as a tool for education while concluding with some tentative thoughts on how history can be used to educate strategists in the continuing challenge to achieve professional mastery.[4]

To start with, the term ‘education’ is used in this narrative in a broad context and incorporates both formal and informal learning. Similarly, the term ‘strategist’ is used in a collegiate manner and assumes that modern air forces seek personnel who are professional masters, well-versed in the core knowledge that underpins the application of air power.

As the British historian John Tosh reflected, the term history is ambiguous at best. Is history a collection of facts related to what has happened or is it the scholarly discussion and representation of the past? If the latter statement is accepted as being correct, then it can also be assumed that the interpretation of the past is an argument without an end. While a hackneyed observation, history is a dynamic field of study, one where historians continually re-examine evidence and reinterpret the past. Linked to this is the extent of historical information available to historians and, by default, strategists who seek to apply lessons from the past to the present. The archival records and evidence that underpin the interpretation of the past are normally incomplete. For example, the National Archives of Australia only preserves a small amount of the material generated by the Australian Government.

Moving beyond the above understanding of history, the field of military history can be split into three subfields: popular, academic, and applied history.[5] There is a degree of overlap between the latter two. The main criticism of applied military history is that it is a form of weaponising the past to cater for the present.[6] Underpinning this criticism is a view that those writing such history do so without sufficient understanding of the context in seeking to deduce lessons learnt. Unfortunately, this criticism is currently directed at academics working at institutions delivering professional military education. These institutions use history to illuminate and provide context to the ambiguous challenges that officers attending them are likely to confront in the future.

Historically, the criticism of weaponising the past does carry some weight, and therefore air power strategists could be criticised for the poor use of history to support their arguments. Indeed, as Sir Michael Howard, a distinguished military historian, noted in his 1961 lecture on ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History’:

[W]hen great [interwar] pioneers of air war…advocated striking at the homeland and at the morale of the enemy people…they were basing their conclusions on their interpretation of past wars’. (emphasis added)[7]

Warden

More recently, Colonel (retired) John Warden III’s book, The Air Campaign, has been criticised for his use of a selective reading of history to fit the theory being propounded in it.[8] Admittedly, Warden is not a historian. However, such selective use of history becomes problematic to the broader task of delivering professional education when such texts appear in, for example, Staff College reading lists where they can reinforce a narrow, and at times wrong, understanding of some of the officers they are meant to educate. Despite this criticism, it is clear that many air power thinkers have recognised the value of a broad reading of history. For example, in a 1921 article on ‘Strategy and Air Strategy,’ Group Captain John Chamier of the Royal Air Force reflected on the challenge of deducing appropriate principles for the use of air power given the brief history of air warfare till then. Nevertheless, Chamier recognised that ‘strategic principles are derived from the study of history’, and he recognised that examples from ‘naval and military strategy’ could provide the necessary framework for a discussion of ‘air strategy.’[9]

While history and the application of its lessons by air forces is fraught with challenges, its importance as a didactic tool for the military cannot be underestimated. Indeed, the study of history has been, and remains, an element of the curricula at educational establishments of most air forces. However, considered in a broad manner, the study of history has been unbalanced. For example, in the late-1940s and 1950s, history and related subjects featured little on the curriculum at the RAAF College. As Alan Stephens has noted, the RAAF of this period identified itself as a ‘narrow technocracy’ with knowledge of the Air Force’s core business to be deduced from its ‘technical components’ rather than a ‘study of its history and ideas.’[10]

To conclude, there are several areas where the contemporary study of history plays a key role in the education of air power theorists and strategists. Perhaps most important is that a deep and contextual study of history provides an important understanding for military personnel seeking to gain professional mastery of the profession of arms. Indeed, if it is accepted that the aim of learning is to develop the cognitive ability to understand and deal with ambiguity, rather than to provide clear-cut answers to current problems, then the study of history has a role to play.

The skills associated with historical analysis refines human cognitive areas such as the ability to make considered judgements. An important contributor to the effectiveness of this learning process has been the increasing civilianisation of the academic delivery at institutions catering to professional military education. At a practical level, the use of Staff Rides as a learning tool could also ensure that history could be used as a means to explore ideas outside of the confines of the traditional education environment. However, this process also has its own challenges.[11] In the final analysis, Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely’s remark that the study of history needs to form an essential part of a ‘balanced diet’ of education for the military professional in order for them to develop the knowledge to be effective, rings completely true.[12]

Key Points

  1. Even though history may not provide clear lessons, the study of the past offers a lens through which to analyse, understand and reflect on the challenges currently faced by modern air forces;
  2. History could be considered a rather dynamic field of study, one where historians continually re-examine evidence and re-interpret the past;
  3. It is recognised that ‘strategic principles are derived from the study of history.’

Further Reading

  • Gray, Peter, ‘Why Study Military History?,’ Defence Studies, 5:1 (2005), pp. 151-64.
  • Muller, Richard R., ‘The Airpower Historian and the Education of Strategists’ in Bailey Jr., Richard J., Forsyth Jr., James W., and Yeisley, Mark O., (eds.), Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016).
  • Murray, Williamson, and Sinnreich, Richard Hart (eds.), The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Dr Ross Mahoney is the editor and owner of From Balloons to Drones as well as being an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. 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 an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header Image: An Architect’s perspective drawing of the proposed RAF (Cadet) College at Cranwell. (Source: © IWM ((MOW) C 1081))

[1] Rear-Admiral A.T. Mahan, ‘The Naval War College,’ The North American Review, 196:680 (1912), p. 78.

[2] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of Modern History, Third Edition (Harlow: Pearson Education, 1999), p. viii.

[3] Richard R. Muller, ‘The Airpower Historian and the Education of Strategists’ in Richard J. Bailey Jr., James W. Forsyth Jr., and Mark O. Yeisley (eds.), Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016), p. 113.

[4] On professional mastery in air forces, see: Sanu Kainikara, ‘Professional Mastery and Air Power Education,’ Working Paper, 33 (Canberra: RAAF Air Power Development Centre, 2011).

[5] John A. Lynn III, ‘Breaching the Walls of Academe: The Purposes, Problems, and Prospects of Military History,’ Academic Questions, 21:1 (2008), p. 20.

[6] Kim Wagner, ‘Seeing Like a Soldier: The Amritsar Massacre and the Politics of Military History,’ in Martin Thomas and Gareth Curless (eds), Decolonization and Conflict: Colonial Comparisons and Conflicts (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), pp. 25-7.

[7] Michael Howard, ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History (lecture),’ Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, 107:625 (1962), p. 10.

[8] John Andreas Olsen, John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power (Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2007), pp. 78-9. In a similar vein to Warden, Colonel John Boyd’s work ‘cherry-picked’ history ‘to provide illustrations and empirical validation for patterns he observed in combat.’ However, it should be recognised that Boyd was an airman who was a general strategist rather than an air power thinker per se, though his ideas do have applicability to the air domain. See: Frans Osinga, ‘The Enemy as a Complex Adaptive System: John Boyd and Airpower in the Postmodern Era’ in John Andreas Olsen (ed.), Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015), pp. 53-4.

[9] Group Captain J.A. Chamier, ‘Strategy and Air Strategy,’ Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, 66 (1921), p. 641.

[10] Alan Stephens, The Australian Centenary History of Defence: Volume II – The Royal Australian Air Force (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 188.

[11] On the challenges associated with staff rides, see: Brigadier R.A.M.S. Melvin British Army, ‘Contemporary Battlefield Tours and Staff Rides: A Military Practitioner’s View,’ Defence Studies, 5:1 (2005), pp. 59-80,Nick Lloyd, ‘Battlefield Tours and Staff Rides: A Useful Learning Experience?,’ Teaching in Higher Education, 14:2 (2009), pp. 175-84.

[12] John P. Kiszely, ‘The Relevance of History to the Military Profession: A British View’ in Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich (eds.), The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 32.

#BookReview – Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower

#BookReview – Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower

By Dr Peter Layton

Richard J. Bailey, James W. Forsyth Jr. and Mark O. Yeisley (eds), Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. xii + 279 pp.

Strategy

It may seem somewhat odd to be reviewing a book about thinking strategically on a website concerning air power and history. But not so. This book is written by past and present faculty members of the US Air Force’s (USAF) School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS) located within the Air University at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Air power thus permeates the book, running in parallel with the notion that history is a particularly useful discipline when educating future strategists.

For From Balloons and Drones readers though there is a deeper interest. With all the hubris of a fast jet aviator Richard Bailey tells us that SAASS is the ‘premier strategy school in the US Department of Defense (if not the country at large)’ (p. 1).[1] Arguably, make that ‘the world at large’, at least regarding influence on air power thinking. The USAF dominates modern air power theory and practice. This book nicely illuminates the culture that underpins such dominance.

Strategy: Context and Adaptation comprises 11 main chapters each written by a different faculty member. Academics are notoriously averse to standardisation, delighting in holding differing opinions and employing diverse writing techniques. This book accepts this and seeks to make it a virtue, with each chapter entirely different regarding structure, content, style, and tone. Coherence and unity of purpose are then meant to be achieved not at the chapter level but in the book overall. The book’s design is meant to take the reader along an ‘optimal arc’ so that they complete ‘an intentional full circle academic journey’ (p. 3). Does it work? For me, not quite. The book seems more a compilation of disparate articles – all insightful, many outstanding, most cutting-edge – that is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

StrategyBook

The book’s subtitle is ‘context and adaptation,’ both good threads to discuss its contents. There is much made of the need for individual strategies to be developed appropriate to the context within which they are to be implemented. Understanding context, getting ‘to know the key actors, relationships, factors and challenges’ is seen as the first step in ‘doing strategy’ (p. 241).

The argument is though considerably more sophisticated than it may first appear. The notion is developed that strategy and context interact, continually changing each other and simultaneously evolving together. Everett Dolman writes ‘so now we are all constructivists, of course’ (p. 33). A somewhat surprising statement given that the American armed forces strategic culture overall is often seen as being realist, so privileging relative material power rather than ideas.

For air power thinkers and historians there is some importance to this reflectivist notion as made clear in Jeffrey Smith’s excellent chapter. Smith develops the idea that the USAF has generally been tardy in adapting its strategy, force structure and training in the context of the times.

Air Corps Tactical School
The Air Corps Tactical School (created as the Air Service Field Officers School in 1920) went beyond its mandate of training officers to also become an engine for air power theory development in the interwar period. (Source: US Air Force Air University)

The interwar Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) devised the strategy of precision daylight bombing of vital industrial targets, but this was found wanting when employed in the context of a capable air defence system and needed adaptation. In the nuclear age post-Second World War, the strategy of large-scale nuclear strikes using long-range bombers dominated but was again found wanting in the context of the Vietnam conflict, a limited war fought with conventional munitions. In the post-9/11 era of small wars and insurgencies, the strategy of short-range fighters delivering precision-guided weapons was again found wanting in a context where population security was deemed key and the enemy elusive. Smith argues that in each case ‘translating the theory into a feasible strategy [was] flawed because it failed to consider, understand, or incorporate the full context in which it would be applied’ (p. 139). Adaptation then became necessary to achieve success, but this was often too slow, proving costly in blood and treasure.

Smith then extends this insight from history to the future of air power. He argues that contemporary air power theories, strategies, force structures and training may prove inadequate in the future context in which they are applied. It seems adaptation will be required again albeit with nuance.

Dolman considers (p. 32) that it is not perfect adaptation to the context that is key but rather having a diverse range of force capabilities available that become progressively useful however the context changes. As Smith notes, fast jets were perfect for 1991’s Desert Storm but inadequate for the different operational contexts later encountered. The importance of Dolman’s conceptual call for diversity is nicely illustrated by Smith’s outline of post 9/11 air operations that required ‘tactical airlift, special operations, ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], close air support and tightly integrated action with ground forces’ (p. 145) not high-flying strike packages comprising mainly supersonic fighters.

SAASS

This step from historical analysis to tomorrow’s battles reflects the SAASS motto of From the Past, the Future (p. 129). When one considers that the ACTS’ motto of the 1920s was Proficimus More Irretenti (We Progress Unhindered by Tradition) (p. 115) you can get a sense of how modern USAF strategic education has evolved, or as airmen might say, of its current vector.

Richard Muller’s chapter on using history to educate strategists explores this aspect further. The USAF, born after the Second World War straight into the revolutionary new nuclear age determined that military history be mostly irrelevant; technology studies and current affairs accordingly dominated the Air University’s curricula. In the wake of the Vietnam War though doubts arose and the study of history crept in. After some travails, this inclination became institutionalised following some vigorous prodding from the US Congress and the activism of the remarkable Ike Skelton (D-MO). SAASS was one of the results albeit it should be highlighted that the use of history at this school has a decidedly utilitarian flavour.

When this book was written in 2015, only two out of 11 SAASS courses were ‘explicitly historical in orientation’ (p. 129) with emphasis placed instead on the curriculum being interdisciplinary. Muller usefully sets out four ways history should be used to educate airmen (pp. 123-5). Firstly ‘to instil corporate spirit and foster awareness of airpower’s rich heritage’; secondly ‘to illustrate or even legitimise current doctrine, operational concepts, organisational reforms or weapon systems’; thirdly as part of the ‘systematic attempt to extract useful insights from a thorough examination of previous wars, campaigns or other historical events’; and lastly ‘to inculcate the ability to think in terms of cause and effect or to work through complex interactions of personalities, contextual factors, friction and so on’. As Muller himself notes, professional historians would be aghast about the first two somewhat proselytising functions.

The last function, however, that of developing critical thinking skills, is particularly noteworthy given that air forces are culturally inherently technocratic organisations. This essential characteristic needs some balancing when conflict erupts and the need for successful strategising arises. Steven Wright (pp. 234-6) considers most air force personnel are linear thinkers that excel at getting things done correctly but that this is not enough. Air forces also need abstract thinkers that excel at understanding what the correct things are that need to be done. Studying history can help improve people’s abstract thinking skills by giving them an understanding of how to think about context and its relationship to strategy. History then helps people understand what the correct things are to be doing and is accordingly an indispensable element in a strategist’s education.

Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower is a snapshot of SAASS at a specific time in history, after the 9/11 wars and before the emerging era of contested skies. The book is excellent in guiding the reader to think more thoughtfully about strategy, what it is and how it should be made while providing an interesting window into contemporary USAF senior staff college education. Eclectic by design, the book offers much for military professionals, academics and all concerned with deeply understanding the business of strategising and its teaching.

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book ‘Grand Strategy’.

Header Image: Austin Hall at Maxwell AFB. Austin Hall was the home of the Air Corps Tactical School before the Second World War. (Source: Wikimedia)

If you would like to contribute to From Balloons to Drones, then visit our submissions page here to find out how.

[1] While Bailey is not a fast-jet aviator, this reviewer used to be one and so feels able to use such an analogy shamelessly.

Unpacking the Black Box: Air Force Culture and #HighIntensityWar

Unpacking the Black Box: Air Force Culture and #HighIntensityWar

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this last article in the series, Dr Ross Mahoney, editor of From Balloons to Drones, considers the need to understand the culture of air forces as a starting point for analysing the challenges they face in preparing for future warfare.

To say that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ is a hackneyed quote is an understatement. Indeed, the critical problem here is that the phrase is used so often that it has increasingly lost any meaning to be useful as a lens through which to analyse organisational behaviour. What do we mean by culture? Why does it eat strategy for breakfast? What is the relevance of culture to air forces and how can we conceptualise its meaning for a force structure seeking to grapple with the challenge of high-intensity warfare.

Broadly speaking culture is the values, beliefs and assumptions that shape the behaviour of a group. Culture exists at several levels and finds its outgrowth in both ideational and materialist areas. Regarding levels of culture, authors often discuss strategic, organisational, sub- and countercultures as critical areas of analysis, though not often together. However, while understanding the culture of an organisation is useful for conceptualising the ideas that underpin the behaviour of a group, the term is not without its challenges. Primarily, the issue of definition remains contested, and the term culture has become malleable and nebulous. Added to this is the unwillingness of some to engage deeply with the anthropological origins of culture.  Nonetheless, several of the articles in this joint high-intensity war series run by From Balloons to Drones and The Central Blue have alluded to the importance of establishing the ‘right’ culture in an organisation. As such, this article, which forms part of a larger project by the author on the culture of small air forces, seeks to offer some thoughts on the meaning of culture and unpack its ‘black box’ of tricks.[1]

Sources of Culture

Broadly, military culture is derived from two sources. ‘First, culture is derived from what individuals bring to the military from broader society and second, it is a consequence of military experience and training.’[2] Concerning the former; social, educational, and economic backgrounds are essential frames of reference. For example, due to the social background of its officer class, many of the ideas underpinning early Royal Air Force (RAF) culture, such as honour, strength of character, sympathy, resolution, energy, and self-confidence found parallels with those present in public schools of the period. This was because it was from this source that the RAF sought its preferred recruits. The latter issue of operational experience is especially critical for small air forces, such as the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), as they typically operate in a coalition context. As such, it is axiomatic that large air forces with whom small air forces operate will have influenced their cultural evolution. Indeed, in the RAAF, and other Commonwealth air forces, we see a degree of mimetic isomorphism in their evolution at both the ideational and materialist levels with regards to the influence of the RAF. However, in more recent years, the US military has become a more pervasive influence, and this is especially noticeable in areas such as the such as operating American military hardware.

2005-S0347_04
F-111s from No. 6 Squadron, RAAF Base Amberley, arrive over Melbourne on the eve of the Australian International Airshow at Avalon, c. 2005. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

As well as societal factors and experience, broader environmental considerations also influence culture. Specifically, the environment in which air forces operate has helped shaped their culture. As Ian Shields reflected, the conception of time and space by air force personnel is different from those of the other services, in part, because of the nature of the air domain. Characteristics such as speed, reach and height are seen as defining the use of the air domain, and factors such as the large area of operations, flexibility, tempo, and the number of personnel directly involved in the delivery of air power continue to shape the culture of many air forces.[3] While it is possible to suggest that this is a parochial single service observation, it is worth considering that this is not limited to air force personnel. For example, Roger Barnett, a retired US Navy Captain, has suggested that the US Navy thinks different to its sister services, in part, because of its maritime context.[4] However, while differences do exist, there are often shared aspects of culture between the services, which have been underexamined.

A Transnational Air Force Culture?

National air forces have, like any other organisation, their own inherent culture and ethos. The ideas underpinning air force culture frames the way in which air forces view their role in a countries national security structures. It is the values and ethics of these organisations that make them distinct. These values are often derived from a countries national character and influenced by sources such as social background. For example, in 1919, Air Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard espoused the RAF’s values as that of the ‘Air Force spirit.’[5] Underpinning this value was a recognition that for the RAF to develop and survive, there was a need to generate a culture commiserate with the organisation’s defence mission. For Trenchard, central to this process was the development of the RAF’s social capital through the ‘Extreme Importance of Training.’

While national character and environmental factors have influenced the values of air forces, it is possible to suggest that there are several broad ideas that can be seen to transcend national barriers when it comes to discussing the culture of air forces. Specifically, the belief in command of the air and assumption of independence pervades the structure of air forces to a greater or lesser degree depending on national proclivities. Command of the air stems from the belief that to enable the effective use of the battlespace requires control of the air. This view is as much cultural as it is conceptual as it resonates with the idea that to command air power efficiently requires a force well versed in the employment of aviation at the strategic level. However, this is an idea that increasingly became associated with strategic bombing rather than a broader conception of the strategic use of the air domain to achieve effect. This is unfortunate as while bombing may have for a time been seen as the means through which to employ air power it ignores broader thinking on its application often evident in doctrine. Indeed, if doctrine is not only a guide on how to apply military force but also an illustration of how military organisations think, then a careful analysis of these critical ‘stories’ illustrates a more nuanced way of thinking than often suggested. For example, AP1300, the RAF’s capstone doctrine of the interwar years, dealt with more than just bombing. Moreover, while written in the context of a period when the RAF provided Britain’s strategic nuclear deterrent, the fourth edition of AP1300, published in 1957, recognised the need for a balanced air force to deal with different contingencies.[6]

The assumption of independence has become the cornerstone of most air forces and has been a contentious area for debate amongst the services and external parties. Indeed, some have viewed the emergence of independent air forces as an impediment to national security. For example, as Robert Farley has written, ‘The United States needs air power, but not an air force.’[7] While it is true that the emergence of a third service in many countries has generated tension between the services, it is overstating the argument to lay much of this blame at the door of air forces. For example, many of the interwar debates between the RAF and its sister services can be seen as an issue of control and the desire of the British Army and Royal Navy to see returned what they perceived as their air arms. However, if military aviation is to be efficiently utilised in any future conflict, then there is a need to have personnel well versed and educated in the strategic application of air power who can sell its relevance and use in the joint sphere to both the other services and policymakers. Indeed, in many respects, it is this idea that underpins recent developments in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). It can be argued that since unification in 1968, while Canada had military aviation, it did not do air power thinking at the strategic level.[8] This has begun to change.

The Need for Strategic Builders

CH 10979
Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Trenchard visiting Royal Canadian Air Force Fighter squadrons at their airfields in the UK, c. 1943. Left to right – Group captain D.M Smith, Squadron Leader R.A Dick Ellis, Wing Commander E.H Moncrieff, Trenchard, Air Vice-Marshal W.F Dickson, Squadron Leader H.P ‘Herbie’ Peters. (Source: © IWM (CH 10979))

While the ideas underpinning the culture of an air force has many sources, senior leaders are central to driving the development of the organisation. A crucial role of the senior leader is that of the strategic builder, in that they set the vision and pace for an organisation’s development. Senior leaders provide the necessary architecture that ensures an organisation moves in a consistent direction and is fit for purpose.[9] The clearest example of a strategic builder in the development of an air force’s culture comes from the experience of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Viscount Trenchard. When Trenchard returned as the RAF’s Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) in 1919, he had to deal with several crucial strategic challenges as the Service transitioned from wartime to peace. First, Trenchard had to deal with demobilisation, which linked to the second challenge of establishing the permanency of the RAF. This, of course, was also linked to the final issue of finding a peacetime role for the RAF. Trenchard quickly recognised the utility of aerial policing in the British Empire as a means of ensuring the final challenge. However, to ensure the longevity of the RAF, Trenchard espoused the value of the ‘Air Force spirit,’ which focused and the development of the Service’s personnel. Central to this was the establishment of three key institutions that helped transfer the RAF’s culture and ethos. These were the RAF (Cadet) College at Cranwell, the RAF Staff College and the apprentice scheme at RAF Halton. Through these institutions and other schemes such as Short Service Commissions, Trenchard ensured the RAF’s independence. As the RAF noted in 1926 a ‘spirit of pride in [the RAF] and its efficiency permeates all ranks.’[10] However, this was not without its problems.

Modern air forces also face numerous challenges in a disruptive world ranging from issues of retention to dealing with the changing geostrategic environment while still operating in persistent counterinsurgency operations. To deal with these challenges, air forces such as the RAF, RCAF, and the RAAF have launched several initiatives to reinvigorate themselves and promote cultural change in their organisations. For example, the RAAF’s Plan Jericho, launched in 2015, seeks to:

[t]ransform [the RAAF] into a fifth-generation enabled force that is capable of fighting and winning in 2025; a modern, fully integrated combat force that can deliver air and space power effects in the information age.[11]

Such a forward-looking aim will not only need to see a change in the way the RAAF works and operates but also supportive strategic builders who will provide the support and architecture that will lead the project to fruition and success. Indeed, Trenchard’s advantage over his modern-day counterparts is that he served as CAS for just over a decade and was able to leave the RAF when he felt it was safe to do so. In the modern era, no air force chief serves for such a tenure. As such, it will be necessary for the successive chiefs to buy into the vision created by their predecessors to ensure cultural change is not only generated but becomes established in the way air forces think and operate. For example, the ideas promulgated this series on the need for Australian expeditionary air wings and exploitation of the electromagnetic spectrum will require the support of senior leaders who not only support such ideas but can communicate their effectiveness to the other service and government departments. This, as Randall Wakelam suggested, will need air force officers who emerge into senior leadership positions to be well educated in the profession of arms and air power.

Power and Consent

The maintenance of a culture that allows air forces to fulfil their stated defence mission requires not only strategic builders but also the development of a power and consent relationship between the many ‘tribes’ that make up these organisations. Air forces consist of several different subcultures, or tribes, such as pilots, aircrew, and ground crew. The emergence of such cultures can potentially affect the performance of air forces. As such, it is a crucial role of strategic builders to ensure that the challenges created by the existence of these different ‘tribes’ in air forces are managed to ensure the organisation is fit for purpose. All personnel need to feel as if they are members of the same organisation seeking to achieve shared goals. It is arguably for this reason why we have seen the emergence of management phrases such as the ‘Whole Force’ in modern air forces such as the RAF. However, such constructs are made challenging by the dominance of pilots who only make up a small proportion of air force personnel but dominate senior leadership positions. As Air Marshal Sir John Curtiss reflected, ‘It’s a pilots air force,’ and ‘pilots have always been more equal than others.’[12] Curtiss was the Air Commander during the Falklands War and a navigator in RAF Bomber Command during the Second World War. Curtiss’ reflection neatly sums up the ethos of the RAF and many other air forces with their focus on pilots and flying. For the RAF, this ethos was codified by the emergence of the General Duties Branch in the interwar years and that, apart from professional branches, officers had to be pilots and then specialise.[13] While this model became increasingly untenable and a bifurcation of the RAF branch system emerged, pilots remain the Service’s preferred senior leaders. This remains true of many air forces. For example, while the RAAF have had an engineer as their CAS, Air Marshal Sir James Rowland was required to transfer to the General Duties (aircrew) Branch to take up his position thus illustrating the power of this construct.[14] Rowland had also served as a pilot during the Second World War. The United States Air Force has taken this model even further with senior leaders being broadly split between the so-called ‘Bomber Barons’ during the Service’s early years and then the emergence of the ‘Fighter Generals’ after the Vietnam War.

CF 248
Pilots of No. 67 Squadron RAF sitting in a jeep in front of ‘Mary Ann,’ the commanding officer’s Supermarine Spitfire Mark VIII, at Akyab, Burma, on the day after a section led by the OC shot down five Nakajima Ki 43s from a force of Japanese aircraft which attacked the port following its reoccupation. (Source: © IWM (CF 248))

There are undeniable examples, such as in the early years of the RAF, where the development of an ethos framed around pilots and flying was essential both for the maintenance of independence and for maintaining the focus of air forces on the delivery of air power. However, a critical question that needs to be asked by modern air forces is whether this ethos needs to change so that they remain effective in the twenty-first century. While having an aviator as the professional head of an air force makes a degree of sense, that person need not necessarily be a pilot. They need to have experience in the delivery of air power and have professional mastery of the subject but does the number of hours flown make them well suited for senior positions? Also, are aviators, in general, the right people to run, for example, the personnel department of an air force? Indeed, there is a need to change the organisational models used by air forces to broaden the base of power and consent and diversify the opportunities for all tribes by efficiently managing talent. This will require a change in culture to ensure air forces remain effective.

Summary – Why does this Matter?

Culture remains a complex and contested area of study, and some might argue whether it matters in the modern world. However, in a disruptive world where military forces are called on to operate in increasingly complex environments, having the right culture is paramount. Moreover, while this series of articles have focused on the requirements of so-called high-intensity warfare, the reality is that while future warfare is likely to be a case of Another Bloody Century, conflicts will be conducted in and across all domains utilising both conventional and unconventional means. Additionally, as the UK Ministry of Defence’s Future Air and Space Operating Concept noted in 2012, the ‘future operating environment is likely to be congested, cluttered, contested, connected and constrained.’[15] As such, air forces will need to adapt to the changing character of warfare and ask some complicated questions about both their culture and organisation to be effective and fit for purpose. For example, should air forces be the controlling agencies for the overall management of the space and cyber domains? Alternatively, does the management of these domains by air forces move them away from their primary task of generating air power? To answer these questions, it is imperative that air forces understand their culture and from whence it comes as it shapes how they confront and adapt to emerging challenges. This is not something that air forces, and the military more broadly, has been good at and that needs to change.

Dr Ross Mahoney is an independent historian specialising air power and the history of air warfare. He is the editor of From Balloons to Drones, an online platform that seeks to provide analysis and debate about air power history, theory, and contemporary operations. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum in the United Kingdom, and he is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (BA (Hons) and PGCE). To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. In 2016, he was elected as a member of the Royal Historical Society, and in 2011 he was a West Point Fellow in Military History at the United States Military Academy as part of their Summer Seminar in Military History programme. He is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group

Header Image: RAF Remotely Piloted Air System ‘Wings’, which differ from the current RAF pilot badge by having blue laurel leaves to identify the specialisation. (Source: UK MoD Defence Imagery)

[1] For this author’s discussion of early RAF culture, see: Ross Mahoney, ‘Trenchard’s Doctrine: Organisational Culture, the ‘Air Force spirit’ and the Foundation of the Royal Air Force in the Interwar Years,’ British Journal for Military History, 4:2 (2018), pp. 143-77.

[2]Ibid, p. 146.

[3] Ole Jørgen Maaø, ‘Leadership in Air Operations – In Search of Air Power Leadership,’ RAF Air Power Review, 11:3 (2008), pp.39-50.

[4] Roger Barnett, Navy Strategic Culture: Why the Navy Thinks Differently (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2009).

[5] The National Archives, UK (TNA), AIR 8/12, [Cmd. 467], Permanent Organization of the Royal Air Force, A Note by the Secretary of State for Air on a Scheme Outlined by the Chief of the Air Staff, 11 December 1919, p. 4.

[6] AP1300 – Royal Air Force Manual: Operations, Fourth Edition (London: Air Ministry, 1957), p. 24.

[7] Robert Farley, Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (Lexington, KT: University Press of Kentucky, 2014), p. 1.

[8] Brad Gladman et al, ‘Professional Airpower Mastery and the Royal Canadian Air Force: Rethinking Airpower Education and Professional Development,’ Royal Canadian Air Force Journal, 5:1 (2016), p. 10.

[9] David Connery, ‘Introduction’ in David Connery (ed.), The Battles Before: Case Studies of Australian Army Leadership after the Vietnam War (Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, 2016), pp. x-xi.

[10] TNA, AIR 8/97, The Organisation of the Royal Air Force, 1919-1926, p. 5.

[11] Anon, Jericho: Connected, Integrated (Canberra, ACT: Royal Australian Air Force, 2015), p. 3.

[12] Air Marshal Sir John Curtiss, ‘Foreword to the First Edition’ in Wing Commander (ret’d) C.G. Jefford, Observers and Navigators: And Other Non-Pilot Aircrew in the RFC, RNAS and RFC, Updated and Expanded Edition (London: Grub Street, 2014), p. vii.

[13] The RAF did at one point have airman pilots in the interwar years and during the Second World War.

[14] Alan Stephens, The Australian Centenary History of Defence: Volume II – The Royal Australian Air Force (Melbourne, VIC: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 296.

[15] Development, Concept and Doctrine Centre, Joint Concept Note 3/12 – Future Air and Space Operating Concept (London: Ministry of Defence, 2012), para. 202.

Education for 21st Century Aviators

Education for 21st Century Aviators

By Colonel (ret’d) Dr Randall Wakelam[1]

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Dr Randall Wakelam examines the importance of education for aviators in the 21st Century. While drawing on the experience of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Wakelam argues that while the value of education is often hard to quantify, it is nonetheless an essential aspect in the development of airman who needs to master the profession of arms and the challenges associated with that idea. His argument transcends national boundaries and applies to any large, medium, or small air force seeking to prepare for the challenges posed by the future operating environment.

I have a prejudice: My prejudice is that airmen do not like thinking: Airmen are obsessed with bombs, fuses, cockpits and screens and are actually rather uncomfortable exploring the underpinning logic and doctrine: So producing a thinking air force is a strategic requirement.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Brian Burridge, RAF Air Power Review, 2004

In Burridge’s statement from the early years of this century, one can readily see that education for air power professionals has been and will continue to be important for the successful management of air forces both regarding national and international processes like procurement and collation operations and the day to day conduct of air operations. However, the caution that he offers about discomfort for education is equally important, and his concern is not new. Indeed one of the central themes of Carl Builder’s study of the USAF – The Icarus Syndrome – was that leaders had too often shifted their focus from the tough questions of running the institution to a more limited attention to technologies and air vehicles.[2] Moreover, we see a similar tendency to eschew non-technical aspects of air power in the early days of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) College where of a 5,500-hour, four-year syllabus, fully 1,955 hours were spent on the sciences, while only 230 were dedicated to history, war studies, and imperial defence issues. There was no non-technical course on air power theory. In the view of former RAAF historian Alan Stephens, ‘the Air Force [was] very plainly identifying itself as a technocracy.’[3]

Building on these examples and concerns I want to argue that education is good for the RCAF, both for individuals and for the institution. A recent RCAF Journal article ‘Professional Airpower Mastery and the RCAF’ also makes the point, stating that Canada’s air force is very good tactically, but that beyond this it lacks the ability to be as effective as it might at higher levels of warfighting or in the broad domain of national and international security.[4] At those levels, we, again both individually and institutionally, tend to muddle through problems – sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. To put that article in context for an Australian audience, it should be noted that one of the many sources used by those authors was Sanu Kainikara’s 2011 work At the Critical Juncture: The Predicament of Small Air Forces.[5]

Returning to a Canadian context, a late 1960s study, The Report of the Officer Development Board (ODB), posited that all officers move away from hands-on tactical and technical expertise fairly early in their careers, replacing those technical and tactical ‘occupational skills’ with broader pan-service and then pan-Canadian Forces/whole of government ‘military expertise’ competencies.[6] This progression is as true of the RCAF as it is of the Royal Canadian Navy or the Canadian Army. More to the point of this article, the ODB also stated that officers needed to start their service with a strong intellectual ability and then have to grow that as the challenges they confront become less predictable. The ODB made this point in the context of a world which was dominated by tense geopolitical circumstances, burgeoning technological advances and security challenges that ranged from superpower standoff to asymmetric conflict to the full range of peace support operations.[7]

Things are not much different today. We are called upon to deal with the often abstract and chaotic problems of the 21st century using what the ODB labelled called ‘executive and military executive abilities’. Major-General David Fraser, then just returned from commanding Regional Command South in Kandahar, made a similar observation in a 2006 lecture at the Canadian Forces College, pointing out that at the tactical level leaders need to have the intellectual agility, and associated confidence to be able to deviate from a plan when circumstances dictate.[8] However, he went on to argue that while at the tactical level circumstances can be complicated, at the operational and strategic levels of war decision makers often face complexity, overlaid with ambiguity and chaos – what is often called the wicked problem.

Wakelam

We learn technical and tactical skills through training for the most part, but the broader competencies are more generally the product of education. Training allows for standardised responses to predictable circumstances whereas education permits reasoned responses to unpredictable circumstances.[9] Training can be relatively well measured as we can see in the course training standards and training and education plans that form the basis of hundreds of qualifications. From Robert Smith-Barry’s reforms to pilot training that he implemented a century ago today we implicitly understand the value of standardised training for aircrew and more broadly for all air force hands-on competencies. Knowing that your winger knows what she or he is doing; knowing that the techs have done their snag rectification by the book and that battle managers understand clearly what they can do to assist in the fight allows each of us to perform confidently. Moreover, all these skills and knowledge are based on a validated training system which ensures technical and tactical competence.

Education, and its value is, on the other hand, a bit less quantifiable: does a Bachelor’s in aeronautical engineering equate to an effective aircraft designer or a skilled technical authority? Does a Master’s in International Relations make for an effective commanding officer (CO) when deployed on coalition operations or an astute policy analyst proposing changes to air force roles and structures? In these examples, the answers are probably yes, but there is no easily applied ‘training standard’ to tell us so. The ODB said that the undergraduate degree provided a necessary ‘training of the mind’ and a graduate degree in areas related to the profession of arms was a useful and necessary enrichment both in knowledge and intellectual capacity.[10]

Those thoughts from 50 years ago are all well and good, but those who do not have a degree, or an advanced degree often seem to do ‘just fine’.  However, what does just fine mean? It may mean that success has not come from an optimal application of thinking power – allowing a logical, viable solution. Rather, it may mean that a solution is derived from a limited perspective based on the individual’s limited or skewed sense of the issues. Education is not a guaranteed antidote to the latter problems, but it frequently offers the learner new ways of considering evidence and weighing alternatives. Indeed, this was the implicit message in the RCAF’s curriculum of the RCAF War Staff Course. Air Commodore George Wait, the Staff College’s first commandant, had an opportunity to offer his thoughts on the content and conduct of the syllabus and by extension the notion of a professional development philosophy that combined training and education. He wrote:

[t]he backbone of the course consists of a series of lectures on staff duties given by the Directing Staff, which leads students through service writing, precis writing, appreciations and orders and instructions.  The students then put their knowledge to work by doing a series of practical problems on the employment of air power.[11]

However, to give this routine staff training some added richness the programme of studies also included lectures given by well-qualified visiting speakers, both officers and civilian officials, on a variety of topics, including other services, allied and enemy forces, matters of the strategic direction of the war, and war production. ‘Only by such a means,’ Wait had said in earlier correspondence with Air Force Headquarters, ‘can the students be given the broader and more authoritative outlook that they will require in staff positions.’[12]

The same notion of broad education was stated more explicitly in the late 1950s in the RCAF Staff College’s syllabus:

The RCAF Staff College makes no attempt to graduate experts in a particular field, nor does it expound any easy universally applicable doctrines. Rather by providing its graduates with an education of the broadest scope and by developing habits of clear thinking, it attempts to provide them with the breadth of interest, openness of mind, reasoning ability, and a broad view of their Service and profession, which will enable them to master the specific tasks of any appointment and to make sound decisions in any situation. (emphasis added)[13]

Much of my original paper had been drafted before the 7 June 2017 release of Canada’s new defence policy ‘Strong, Secure, Engaged’. Reading through it and ‘blue sky’ imagining the work needed to implement the policy one cannot but think that it will require big and imaginative minds to deal with how we make good on the vision and indeed there are repeated references to flexibility of mind and the utility of education. Tactical excellence alone, one can surmise, will not guarantee success.

Practically, how do we do develop a learning strategy that ensures policy ends? The recently restructured and re-energised RCAF officer professional development system offers a flight plan towards realising this goal. First, we have confirmed the need for all officers to achieve, or in certain special cases to be on the path to achieving, an undergraduate degree before commissioning. As of 2016, in Canada, we now have a course – the Air Power Operations Course (APOC), that looks remarkably similar to the War Staff Course, albeit only 60 percent as long. Finally, there is a vision, yet to be defined and approved, for expanded senior officer education, this to be achieved through focused workshops of several days or a few weeks duration depending on the topic.

The APOC has six ‘performance objectives’, the first being a learning outcome to develop the air-mindedness of students, who are drawn from all RCAF occupations, so that they can work collaboratively with officers across all flying and technical communities within the RCAF and can explain and represent the air power concepts and practices to officers in joint headquarters and other services. The second objective is to develop staff officer competencies in clear and logical thinking and communications. The remaining objectives – planning of operations in deployed and coalition situations – build on the first two and expose students to the complexity of modern air operations, and this in a service where tactical and maritime helicopters (and everything else that flies) are air force resources.

What the more senior follow-on courses might look like is still very much undefined, but the wisdom of the 1959 syllabus would suggest that a tactically oriented curriculum will not do. What senior air force leaders need is something more. This same idea was much in evidence in a recent Australian Defence Force study. The following are extracts from ‘The Chiefs: A Study of Strategic Leadership.’[14]

The report reaches three major conclusions, relating respectively to individual development, organisational development and leadership style. These conclusions are that:

  • for the ambitious officer, “what got you here won’t get you there”;
  • for the military institution, “what got us here won’t get us there”; and
  • the principle that “leadership is a team sport” is just as valid at the senior level as it is lower in the organisation.[15]

It is recommended that:

  • the core JPME [Joint Professional Military Education] effort (or at least that from mid-career onwards) be oriented around the four strategic leadership roles of Strategic Leader, Strategic Builder, Strategic Director and Steward of the Profession.
  • such JPME be focused on preparing officers for future roles in both leadership and support for senior leaders.
  • officers from mid-career onwards periodically be exposed to and engage with contemporary and evolving issues at the strategic level, with exercises that require them to examine the responsibilities and skills needed for the Director-Leader-Manager-Steward forms within their own current and immediate-future career roles. (For example, as part of preparation for ship/unit command, O4 and O5 could examine the application of these four roles to that level of command and the level of command immediately above it.)
  • such engagement use active rather than passive modes of learner behaviour.
  • each Service continue with the current encouraging trend of introducing career models that enable selected officers to develop in-depth specialisations within relevant fields – not just within “personnel management” and “project management/technology” but also within economics, politics and military sociology.[16]

We can see that technical and tactical competencies are no guarantee to success at higher levels of command and leadership and that organisations that are similarly successful like likely need to approach institutional and national/international challenges with ways and means (intellectually and practically) that differ from what works in tactical situations.

20141208adf8588365_003
Chief of the Defence Force Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin AC, speaking at the 2014 Australian Command and Staff Course – Joint Graduation ceremony held at Llewellyn Hall, Australian National University, Canberra, c. 2014. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

Some, if not all the Australian Defence Force’s recommendations for learning could be implemented within the RCAF’s professional education programme, but there is much to be gained from learning environments outside the air force. The recent introduction of sponsored assignments to complete a Masters in War Studies at the Royal Military College (with a focus on air power topics) is one such avenue. Similarly, a new internship programme, with placements in think tanks, industry and government will expose air force officers to different ways of thinking, planning and operating.

Where does this leave us as we advance through the new century? As suggested at the outset a narrow focus on technical and tactical proficiency, while necessary, cannot be the nexus of professional education. Many observers and practitioners have noted this. A broad blend of intellectual dexterity coupled with both hands-on skills and broad knowledge would seem to have been and remains today the essence of professional effectiveness and thus the desired outcome of an aviator’s education.

Dr Randall Wakelam teaches military and air power history at the Royal Military College of Canada.  After graduating from RMC in 1975 he flew helicopters for the Army, becoming CO of 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron in 1991. Along the way, he also had staff appointments in aircraft procurement and language training policy. Since 1993 he has been an educator, first in uniform at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto and now at RMC. His research and publishing focus on air power and military education.

Header Image: A memorial to the establishment of the RCAF Staff College, which is now the Canadian Forces College. This establishment started life as the RCAF War Staff Course. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] A shorter version of this paper was first drafted for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in the Fall of 2017, but both it and this version are the products of about 30 years of thinking about how military professionals can best educate themselves. Where the examples used are largely specific to historical and contemporary Canadian experience there is, I believe, much that is common to most, if not all, modern air forces.

[2] Carl Builder, The Icarus Syndrome: Air Power Theory and the Evolution of the Air Force (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Press, 1998).

[3] Alan Stephens, Power Plus Attitude: Ideas, Strategy and Doctrine in the Royal Australian Air Force 1921-1991 (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1992), pp. 109–11.

[4] Brad Gladman et al, ‘Professional Airpower Mastery and the RCAF,’ RCAF Journal, 5:1 (2016), pp. 8-23.

[5] Sanu Kainikara, At the Critical Juncture: The Predicament of Small Air Forces (Canberra: Air Power Development Centre, 2011).

[6] Randall Wakelam and Howard Coombs (eds.) The Report of the Officer Development Board: Major-General Roger Rowley and the Education of the Canadian Forces (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010), p. 46. The same issue applies to senior warrant officers as they reach formation (wing, air group, etc.) and national level senior appointments where they must be able to understand the sorts of challenges their commanders face.

[7] Ibid, pp. 26-31.

[8] Major-General David Fraser, Lecture to the Advanced Military Studies Course, Canadian Forces College Toronto, October 2006.

[9] Ronald Haycock, ‘Historical and Contemporary Aspects of Canadian Military Education’ in Greg Kennedy and Keith Neilson (eds.) Military Education:  Past, Present, and Future (Westport, CT.: Praeger, 2002), p. 171.

[10] Wakelam and Coombs, Officer Development Board, p. 40.

[11] William R. Shields and Dace Sefers, Canadian Forces Command and Staff College: A History 1797-1946 (Toronto: Canadian Forces College History Project, Canadian Forces College, 1987), pp. 4-15.

[12] Ibid, pp. 4-16.

[13] R.C.A.F. Staff College Calendar Course 23 (1958-9), “Conclusion.”

[14] Nicholas Jans, Stephen Mugford, James Cullens and Judy Fraser-Jans, ‘The Chiefs:  A Study of Strategic Leadership’ (Canberra:  Australian Defence College, 2013).

[15] Ibid, p. 111.

[16] Ibid, p. 113.