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.

#ResearchNote – RAF Centre for Air Power Studies Interviews

#ResearchNote – RAF Centre for Air Power Studies Interviews

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Oral history is challenging. It is challenging to conduct and to use as a source. It takes a skilled oral historian, such as Peter Hart, to conduct an interview that brings the best out of an interviewee. Much of this has to do with the ability of the interviewer to put the interviewee at ease to allow them to discuss their experiences as openly as possible as well as having an understanding and empathy for the subject matter. As a source, arguably, the principal criticism of oral history remains the charge of viewing the past through ‘rose-tinted glasses.’ In short, the passage of time can distort the remembrance of the past; however, as someone with an interest in military culture, this is also a strength. Culture has as much to do with perception as it does with the archival record of the time so how people remember and reflect on their service is just as important as what happened at the time.

As such, it is great to see that the RAF Centre for Air Power Studies is currently making available a number of interviews that were conducted from the 1970s onwards. The first two were conducted at the RAF Staff College at Bracknell in the early 1990s. It was not unusual to have after-dinner speakers at Bracknell, and it formed part of the pedagogical process at the Staff College. In these cases, the interviewees were Group Captain Sir Hugh Dundas and Wing Commander Roland Beamont. The final interview was conducted in 1978 by the RAF’s first Director of Defence Studies Group Captain Tony Mason. The interviewee was Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, and this talk formed part of a series conducted by Mason, which included an interview with Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris. The unifying theme of the videos is leadership through the participants experience of their service in the RAF.

Here are the videos with their respective descriptions:

In this interview, Wing Commander Roland Prosper “Bee” Beamont, CBE, DSO*, DFC* talks about his experiences during the Second World War with Group Captain (Retd) J P (Phil) Dacre MBE DL RAF at the RAF Staff College, Bracknell (April 1991). Wing Commander Beamont served as a fighter pilot with Fighter Command from the start of the War until he was shot down and captured in October 1944 on his 492nd operational mission. After the War, Wing Commander Beamont went on to become a leading test pilot on aircraft such as the Meteor, Vampire, Canberra and Lightning as well as writing several books.

In the second of the RAF Centre for Air Power Studies rarely-seen before historic ‘leadership’ themed videos, Battle of Britain legend Group Captain Sir Hugh ‘Cocky’ Dundas CBE DSO* DFC presents his thoughts on ‘Leadership in War’ followed by an informal question and answer session at an after-dinner speech given circa 1991 at the RAF Staff College, Bracknell. Group Captain Sir Hugh Dundas joined the Auxiliary Air Force as an acting pilot officer in 1938 before being called up to active service early in the war. Initially, he served on 616 Squadron flying Spitfires during the Battle of Britain fighting ‘hard and fiercely’ throughout. He went on to serve as a squadron commander and then subsequently as wing leader and had, by 1944, become one of the youngest Group Captains the RAF at the age of just 24. He left the RAF in 1947 to pursue a successful career in the media. His autobiography, Flying Start: A Fighter Pilot’s War Years, describes his wartime experiences in more detail.

In the third of the RAF Centre for Air Power Studies rarely-seen before historic ‘leadership’ themed videos, inspirational wartime leader and world-renowned humanitarian, Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, Baron Cheshire VC OM DSO** DFC is interviewed by Group Captain (later Air Vice-Marshal) Tony Mason CB CBE DL at the RAF Staff College, Bracknell, February 1978. During the interview Group Captain Cheshire discusses his now legendary record of achievements throughout his service during WWII.

Group Captain Cheshire received a commission as a pilot officer in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve on 16 November 1937. Although he demonstrated considerable prowess in training as a single seat pilot, by a vagary of the system he was destined to be posted to Bomber Command. During the War, his command appointments included 76 Squadron, 617 Squadron, and RAF Marston Moor and he was, at one time, the youngest group captain in the RAF. By July 1944 he had completed a total of 102 missions, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. His citation simply states: ‘Cheshire displayed the courage and determination of an exceptional leader’. After the war, Cheshire founded the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability and devoted the remainder of his life to pursuing humanitarian ideals. His obituary in the Independent (1992) declares that ‘LEONARD CHESHIRE was one of the most remarkable men of his generation, perhaps the most remarkable’.

Dr Ross Mahoney is an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum, and he is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He blogs at Thoughts on Military History, and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header Image: Flying Officer Leonard Cheshire, while serving his second tour of operations with No. 35 Squadron RAF, stands with his air and ground crews in front of a Handley Page Halifax at Linton-on-Ouse, Yorkshire. (Source: © IWM (CH 6373))

From Balloons to Drones – Top Posts of 2016

From Balloons to Drones – Top Posts of 2016

By Ross Mahoney

Happy New Year!

Now we have reached 2017, and that From Balloons to Drones has been up and running for around six months, it thought it would be worth posting our top five posts of 2016 based on views.

  1. At the head of the list is ‘Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 1: Training.’ This is the first of a three-part article by Jeff Schultz that examines the use of the North American T-28 during the war in Laos in the 1970s. Parts two and three can be found here and here.
  2. In second place is my research note on ‘Air Power and the Challenge of Professional Military Education’ that was based on my thoughts on an excellent conference at the Royal Military College of Canada in November. An important subject that I hope to return to in 2017.
  3. In third is Brian Laslie’s commentary, ‘TheF-35 is here!’, which deals with some of the issues surrounding this program and the important role that training will play in developing the aircraft’s use.
  4. In fourth, and timed in conjunction with the types eventually retirement for the United States Air Force, Mike Hankins provided a timely discussion of the development of the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II in his piece ‘Remembering the F-4 Phantom – Part 1: A Product of Its Time.’ The second part of this article can be found here.
  5. Finally, but no means last, Alex Fitzgerald-Black’s research note ‘Operation HUSKY’s Air Battle by the Numbers’ provided a useful discussion of the importance of the air battles fought during the invasion of Sicily in 1943.

These are just a selection of the highlights of our half year in existence. We are keen to expand our list of contributors and if you are interested in writing about air power issues – both historical and contemporary – then you can find out how here. If you have any questions then please leave a comments here or emails us at airpowerstudies@gmail.com.

Header Image: A row of T-28s in Laos. (Source: USAF)

#ResearchNote – Air Power and the Challenge of Professional Military Education

#ResearchNote – Air Power and the Challenge of Professional Military Education

By Dr Ross Mahoney

I have just come back from a conference at the Royal Military College of Canada on the theme of the ‘Education of an Air Force’ that was well worth the visit. I am sure most readers will agree that the subject of education is of vital importance and this is something that has been increasingly realised in recent years as modern air forces seek to grapple with the challenges that confront them in the operational sphere.

Ideas such as conceptual innovation have become catchphrases for efforts such as the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Thinking to Win programme, the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Plan JERICHO and the Royal Canadian Air Force’s (RCAF) AIRpower in Formation process. Underpinning these, to a greater or lesser degree, is the importance of air power education. Indeed, as Lieutenant-General Michael Hood, Commander of RCAF, recently noted in the introduction to an article in the Royal Canadian Air Force Journal on air power education and professional air power mastery:

There is also a requirement to continually review the training and education we give to all ranks to ensure that it is configured to deliver what we need within the contemporary environment.[1]

Nevertheless, phrases like the one above can often be a case of rhetoric versus reality, though having heard General Hood speak at the opening of the conference; I do believe he means what he says about the importance of education. The conference was historically focussed, but by observing the past, as historians, we can identify areas that can be points of friction and that need to be considered when attempting to introduce reform in the education process. What follows are just a few key areas I pondered during the conference.

Training or Education?

Perhaps the first thing that came to mind was what were we considering? The conference included the word education in the title but was this the case? Indeed, one key question that needs to be asked is whether those we study understand the distinction we make today between training and education. For me, at the most simplistic of levels, training is about skills development while education is about knowledge, understanding and critical thinking. Is this what was expected by those responsible for creating the institutions that delivered programmes related to professional development such as staff colleges. I suspect the answer is yes but the vernacular used in different eras leads to confusion. For example, Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, first Commandant of the RAF Staff College, was clear that one issue he needed to deal with was anti-intellectualism and this is a matter of education though the term was infrequently used in the 1920s. By the 1960s, the RAF had begun, as it created a ‘progressive’ system of staff education, to differentiate between the two subjects. Nevertheless, we must be clear about what we are talking about if reform is to be achieved.

Culture

Military organisations are conservative in character. This is not to suggest that they are not innovative but rather to reflect that they are predominantly reactive rather than revolutionary. Thus, change, unless triggered by defeat, public opinion or budgetary cuts, can be difficult and challenging. This is ultimately a cultural issue and one that needs to be considered when introducing change. Leaders need to bring people along with them on the journey they seek to engender rather than just demanding that it happens. This applies to education as well. If education is to be improved, the organisation’s employees need to understand the need for this process. They need to be shown its value, and this has to be enunciated in a clear and meaningful manner. Indeed, in the modern era where most air forces have been in continuous operations for at least the past decade and a half, it needs to be illustrated why education is of value for those with operational experience. This comes back to the first point above, for example, we train an officer to fly rather than educate them.

The Role of Senior Leadership

eisenhower_visits_air_university
From left, General Dwight Eisenhower, US Army Chief of Staff; Major General Muir Fairchild, Air University commander; and Major General David Schlatter, the Air University deputy commanding general (education), review an Air University organizational chart during Eisenhower’s visit to Maxwell on 9 April 1947. (Source: Wikimedia)

This brings me to the next important issue; the role of senior leaders. These are the people who lead change. Indeed, at the conference, when I made a comment about the culture of military organisations, Harold Winton, Professor Emeritus at the United States Air Force’s (USAF) School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS), quite rightly made the impassioned argument that when a leader who believes in education comes along, perhaps once every 15 to 20 years, then we should take advantage of that person. I completely agree, a champion who can provide top cover is essential, and it appears that RCAF have that in Hood while in the 1970s, the RAF had Marshal of the RAF Lord Cameron, who supported the creation of the position of Director of Defence Studies. Furthermore, support from senior leaders can help shape the culture and values of the organisation by providing an example to subordinates.

Non-Standard Education

What I mean here is the use of non-staff college education for officers, mainly higher research degrees such as MPhils and PhDs. In modern militaries, it is usual that officers going through the staff college system receive some form of credits towards a postgraduate degree, typically an MA. For example, British officers can work towards an MA in Defence Studies that builds on the Advanced Command and Staff Course at the Joint Services Command and Staff College. However, this is a relatively standard route and one that has been developed within the Staff College environment. What appears to be less typical, though needs to more readily embraced, is the encouragement of nurtured personal to undertake further research in the form of MPhils and PhDs. USAF do a good job of this through SAASS, and the RAF has a good fellowship scheme that not only encourages Masters work but also supports PhDs through the Portal Fellowship. This need to be promoted as higher research encourages critical thinking and air forces need such people to help develop their conceptual understanding of air power in the defence sphere. Nevertheless, air forces also need to encourage and reward personnel for taking ownership of their education irrelevant of whether the service sponsors it or not. Personnel need to be shown that in developing their critical thinking skills these are as valued as their operational ones. Also, where applicable, personnel should be encouraged to write in various forums from websites, such as this one, The Central Blue, War on the Rocks and The Strategy Bridge, to professional journals. However, this requires encouragement and critical mass and it is interesting to reflect that the RAF, RCAF and USAF all have journals but the RAAF does not, though the latter’s Air Power Development Centre does produce useful material. Overall, by encouraging ‘non-standard education’, air forces have the opportunity to develop knowledge and encourage informed discussion about air power in the public and policy sphere rather than what often currently occurs.

Officers or NCOs? Alternatively, Both?

An interesting point that came up in one discussion phase of the conference was the question of NCOs. All of the papers dealt with officer education with most focussed on the staff college scenario. However, what of NCOs and their education? We often hear phrases such as ‘whole force’ used to describe the personnel of an air force. As such, should we not be educating the NCO corps? Another challenge is that the current NCO corps is becoming better educated; it not unusual to find airmen and women entering service with degrees. If we are to develop the ‘whole force’ then similar opportunities afforded to the officer corps should be made available to NCOs especially as they are promoted and take on senior leadership roles. This is probably a conference of its own but a subject area that deserves consideration both in a contemporary as well as historical sense.

What I have written here is by no means the panacea for professional military education, and indeed much of this is axiomatic of any analysis of the field. Indeed, most of these challenges are just as applicable to each of the services; however, I would suggest that these difficulties need to be overcome and also understood in the context of air forces seeking to improve education provision. Nevertheless, the conference provided plenty of food for thought on the subject of the education of air forces as modern services strive to deal with operational and personnel challenges that they currently confront and will continue to do so into the 21st century. Another key positive of this conference was the involvement of the RCAF both regarding the opportunity to visit the Canadian Aerospace Warfare Centre but also to hear how they are dealing with current challenges.

This post also appears at The Central Blue.

Dr Ross Mahoney is an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum, and he is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He blogs at Thoughts on Military History, and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header Image: Aerial view of the completed RAF College at Cranwell in the 1930s. (Source: © IWM ((MOW) C 4070))

[1] Lieutenant-General Michael Hood, ‘Introduction’ to Brad Gladman, Richard Goette, Richard Mayne, Shayne Elder, Kelvin Truss, Pux Barnes, and Bill March, ‘Professional Airpower Mastery and the Royal Canadian Air Force: Rethinking Airpower Education and Professional Development,’ Royal Canadian Air Force Journal, 5(1) (2016), p. 9.

#Commentary – A Rose by Any Other Name…

#Commentary – A Rose by Any Other Name…

By Dr Ross Mahoney

In a recent piece for The Central Blue, the blog of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation in Australia, Robbin Laird has suggested that rather than describing the F-35 Lightning II as a 5th Generation aircraft, we must think of it as ‘a first generation information and decision making superiority “flying combat system”.’[1] (Emphasis in original)

Arguably, this is an important shift in how we think about the capabilities of this new platform and the implications this has regarding how we think about air power. However, this labelling of platforms and capabilities raises several interesting observations and what follows are some personal opinions on the issue of ‘labels.’

First, and while we should always be careful of generating faulty parallels, as a historian, I am quite certain I have heard similar phrases before namely Giulio Douhet’s ‘battleplane’ concept. In short, in the second edition of his seminal work Command of the Air, written in 1926, Douhet argued that the roles of combat and bombing should be combined with a single type of aircraft, the ‘battleplane.’ This was a move away from his thinking outlined in the 1921 edition of Command of the Air, but as Thomas Hippler has noted, at a conceptual level, the ‘battleplane’ was important because it allowed Douhet to reconcile the ideas of war in the air and war from the air.[2] For Douhet, both were synonymous and one, though whether this proposed platform would have solved that challenge remains debatable. This was clearly a lesson derived from Douhet’s views of the First World War. Nevertheless, the problem with the ‘battleplane’ idea is that it was a solution to one set of circumstances and would not have applied to all situations where the use of air power might have been called upon. Could we end up in the same situation if we think of the F-35 in a similar vein?

Second, a broader issue with Laird’s description is that of buzzwords or phrases. Buzzwords tend to be created to support someone’s vision of the future, and they are unhelpful if not grounded in some form of intellectual rigour. Indeed, buzzwords and phrases are certainly not something limited to air forces but pervade the military more broadly. For example, in the last few days, it has been reported that the US Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations has decided to shelve the use of Anti-Access/Area-Denial as a ‘stand-alone acronym’ primarily because it ‘can mean all things to all people or anything to anyone.’[3] This is an important point, and the same can be said of effects-based operations, which was fashionable in the late 1990s and early 2000s.[4] Both of these strategies are ideas that have history, and we should be careful about trying to re-invent the wheel. As I recently heard from one colleague, if you want a new idea, read an old book. As such, is the description being applied to the F-35 helpful when thinking about the application of air power? It is indeed being linked to the idea of 5th generation strategy, but we must continually ask the question within the question and seek to understand what is underpinning such statements. For example, is the platform important or the ideas about their use? Also, should we be careful about linking platforms to strategy?

Nevertheless, while I would advocate the need to critique statements, such as Laird’s, there is certainly always a case to build new language and ideas to explain future challenges. This is particularly important for air power because, since the end of the Cold War, it has become, arguably, the West’s preferred way of war.[5] Nevertheless, as Tony Mason reflected, ‘while our technology is lifting us into the 21st century, our formative concepts remain rooted in a bygone age.[6] This comment remains as relevant today as it did in 1998. While today’s core air power roles can be identified in the activities of the First World War, it is perhaps an axiom that as with any field of human endeavour, the language and ideas about the use of military aviation should and must evolve as time goes by and situations change.

This, however, raises my third point of how we improve and encourage the conceptual thinking that underpins many of the statements made by commentators and practitioners. It is ok to have opinions and advocate them; however, they must be derived from the intellectual study of the field. Indeed, while advocacy can create friction, that friction, in turn, can generate innovation, which is important if organisations are to adapt to changing strategic, operational and organisational shifts. However, it should also be recognised and understood that such friction needs to be managed so that it does not become divisive as it arguably did at the strategic level between the RAF and Royal Navy in the inter-service debates of the 1920s. This is clearly an issue of education, and how that process is utilised and retained by air forces. This is difficult for western air forces primarily because they have been involved in sustained operations for at least the past decade. This has not given air forces significant time to think and reflect on their craft as their focus has been elsewhere. Nevertheless, air forces have, where possible promoted thinking. For example, the modern RAF runs a fellowship to encourage study and expand the Service’s ‘intellectual capacity.’[7] However, this intellectualising of air power needs to filter back into the development of thinking, policy and doctrine and refresh the lexicon while providing the necessary foundations to attempts to redraw conceptual boundaries.

Just to conclude, this is clearly a thought piece and does not propose any solutions to the challenges of today; however, we should be very careful about the labels we apply to platforms, capabilities and concepts. Terminology, as the discussion section of Laird’s piece, illustrated, matters and has a tendency to carry cultural baggage. In developing effective thinking about the application of air power as part of the solution to strategic challenges, air forces need to think about their place in the pantheon of options open to policy makers. I would argue that in an age of austerity and uncertainty, this requires air forces an investment in the organisation’s human element to generate the capacity to think effectively about the conceptual component.

This post can also be found at The Central Blue.

Dr Ross Mahoney is an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum, and he is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He blogs at Thoughts on Military History, and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header Image: An F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter test aircraft banks over the flight line at Eglin Air Force Base, 23 April 2009. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Robin Laird, ‘The F-35 and the Transformation of Power Projection Forces,’ The Central Blue, 19 September 2016.

[2] Thomas Hippler, Bombing the People: Giulio Douhet and the Foundation of Air-Power Strategy, 1884-1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 147. There is a question over the correct date for Douhet’s second edition. Hippler consistently refers to it being produced in 1926 while the most recent imprint of Dino Ferrari’s 1942 translation describes it as the 1927 edition, see: Hippler, Bombing the People, p. 144; Thomas Hippler, ‘Democracy and War in the Strategic Thought of Guilio Douhet’ in Hew Strachan and Sibylle Scheipers (eds.),  The Changing Character of War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 181, fn. 13; Guilio Douhet, Command of the Air, translated by Dino Ferrari (Washington DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1998), p. x. It is clear, however, from the original Italian that while published in 1927, the second edition was written in 1926.

[3] Sam LaGrone, ‘CNO Richardson: Navy Shelving A2/AD Acronym,’ USNI News, 3 October 2016. Also, see: B.J. Armstrong, ‘The Shadow of Air-Sea Battle and the Sinking of A2AD,’ War on the Rocks, 5 October 2016.

[4] For a useful discussion of effects-based warfare that takes account of historical and contemporary views as well as a multi-domain approach, see: Christopher Finn (ed.) Effects Based Warfare (London: The Stationary Office, 2002).

[5] For useful views on future air power thinking, see: John Andreas Olsen (ed.), Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015).

[6] Air Vice-Marshal Professor Tony Mason, ‘The Future of Air Power,’ RAF Air Power Review, 1(1) (1998), p. 42.

[7] CAS Fellowships – http://www.raf.mod.uk/raflearningforces/usefulinfo/casfellowships.cfm