#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.


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)

2026: Operation Iranian Freedom

2026: Operation Iranian Freedom

By Phil Walter, Diane Maye, and Nathan Finney

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. This article is a cross-post from the team at The Strategy Bridge from their Operation Iranian Freedom series and was originally published on 16 February 2016. This is the second post in that series, and takes place simultaneously, but from a different perspective, as with the first (11 August 2016) and third (10 June 2016) instalments. This article has been selected as it highlights to use of fiction to contemplate, consider, explore, and engage with strategy and the possibilities of future conflict. When considering the requirements to prepare for and engage in modern #highintensitywar, fiction such as the Operation Iranian Freedom series is a good place to start. Our sincerest gratitude to the authors and the team at The Strategy Bridge for permission to use this post in the #highintensitywar series.

It was predictable. The moment U.S. policymakers signed a nuclear deal with Iran, it made future military action inevitable. What was Iraq in 1991 if not a foreshadowing of this more deadly situation? United Nations Resolution 687 called for Iraq’s leadership to destroy, remove, or render harmless its chemical and biological weapons as well as all ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 kilometres. That resolution, at least in part, set the stage for the series of events leading to Operation Iraqi Freedom. This newer deal created its eastern brother, Operation Iranian Freedom.

While there was some hope the nuclear deal would succeed when Iran handed over their enriched uranium to Russia in 2015, it was short lived. The Russians, who played a critical role in the 2015 nuclear deal, were furious when Sweden joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2022. One year later, the Russian economy, already weakened by increased natural gas and oil exports from U.S. shale, began a precipitous downward spiral when the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy sold technology to European countries that enabled them to essentially end their dependence on Russian-supplied natural gas. In response, Russia returned the enriched uranium to Iran. The regime in Tehran, also reeling from the economic shocks of cheap oil and chafing against an increasingly belligerent U.S. government under the new administration elected in 2024, used this opportunity to reinstate their highly-controversial nuclear program.


As has been shown throughout modern history, international agreements and strict United Nations resolutions are worthless. This one is no different. Like those before, the Iranians violated the nuclear deal and U.S. policymakers will end up choosing between military force and looking feckless; what politician chooses to appear impotent? And at the end of the day, who is going to get the job done if not the U.S. military? No one else has the resources or capacity.

As someone who ends up implementing policy when diplomacy fails, I’d prefer our policymakers to focus on slow, steady, multi-decade campaigns that revolve around non-military solutions, but long-term thinking is not the strength of most diplomatic efforts. Plus, most nations, particularly in the Middle East, only really understand the threat or use of force. While difficult, particularly in the politically contentious times we find ourselves in, politicians could use a few pages out of the books I read at the U.S. Army War College to weave together both military and non-military means. Admiral J.C. Wylie’s cumulative strategy and George Kennan and Paul Nitze’s efforts against communism come to mind as successful frameworks. But what do I know? I’m just a lowly Marine colonel slaving away in the operations shop of Joint Task Force–Iranian Freedom (JTF-IF). At least the international hotels in Doha serve alcohol.

Preparation for this campaign has been hard, especially for those of us trying to fuse national policy and the brief snatches of guidance from the Pentagon to operational realities on the ground. The last decade’s drawdown of U.S. forces following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with austere budget cuts, ensured all lobbying efforts to increase military capabilities fell on deaf ears. In contrast, Iranian defensive capabilities, particularly along the Arabian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, have vastly improved. As always, we will be forced to make do with what we have.

The only good to come of the debate regarding military action against Iran is that our military leaders have actually implemented most of the lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather than pursuing regime change, which required not only breaking a nation but rebuilding it as well, our strategy is now centred upon the concept of a “substantive punitive raid” or “SPR”, pronounced “spear” for short. The SPR doctrine combines Colin Powell’s concept of overwhelming force (or, more precisely, Clausewitz’s principle of mass at critical points), with the short-duration strike operational concept from U.S. special operations forces. Without the burden of a large occupation force on the ground, there will be no forward operating bases to sustain, fewer convoys to attack, and our military will be employed like a military—not like a police or training force.

I’ve never agreed with missions that require our young troops to learn about a foreign culture and train partner forces. Maybe it’s a Marine thing, but I don’t care about 18-year olds understanding culture. I need our 18-year olds prepared to destroy culture. “Train them for high order violence and you can always hold them back by the belt” was the Marine Corps of my early days. Thanks to this ability to eschew “stability operations,” we are truly expeditionary, just as the Corps has largely been since its founding. It’s about time the rest of the U.S. military followed our lead.

So far, we’ve gathered a formidable team for the raid—no thanks to the bean counters in the Pentagon or the micromanagement of the politicos on the National Security Council staff. Fifth Fleet naval forces are going to secure the sea-lanes, provide for air superiority, and will play a large role in amphibious operations. U.S. Air Forces Central, with some GCC support, will begin the operation with strategic strikes, secure air superiority, and provide close air support to our troops on the ground.

On the ground, we have heavy forces ready to cross the National State of Iraq from their jump off point to the east of Baqubah. Due to the strengthened relationship with Israel and Jordan in the decade-long fight against the Islamic State (and our substantive infrastructure agreement to overcome Iranian interference in the Arabian Gulf and political issues in Kuwait), our supply lines from Aqaba and Eilat in the Gulf of Aqaba all the way to Baqubah are secure. Meanwhile, airborne and amphibious forces stand ready across the Arabian Gulf to seize their objectives. I try not to dwell too much on the fact that my former regiment, 8th Marines, is leading the way in the Gulf. This will be the Corps’ first contested amphibious landing since the Second World War. I know many faces in that regiment, many of whom won’t return home. I hear my old driver, Smitty, is a squad leader now; I hope he’s telling some of our old stories to his men to lighten their mood before the assault.

An MV-22B Osprey takes off from the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima in the Atlantic Ocean, 8 March 2017. The ship is conducting a series of qualifications and certifications as part of the basic phase of training to prepare for future operations and deployments. The Osprey is assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 162. (Source: US Department of Defense)

More than anything, I wish I could lead Marines in this campaign. Instead, having given up regimental command six months ago, Army General Brad Silvia requested the Corps allow me to serve here on JTF-IF as his chief of operations. It’s better than working at Headquarters, Marine Corps, I suppose. At least it allows me to work under Major General Bill Friese, an old battalion commander of mine, who is now the JTF-IF J-3. Both Friese and I recognize that sometimes what units on the ground actually need is less interference from us. National Security Council (NSC) requirements may cause us friction, but we’ll do our best to avoid passing it onto the units executing the operation.

Damn. Another call from Washington. I’ve given up on fighting back against the NSC going around the chain of command and pestering our staff over tactical minutia. There’s a reason Friese sends the staffers my way; he doesn’t want to deal with them. I don’t blame him. I almost relish the frustration of constant operational working group meetings; at least they give me time to think without being asked for another nit-noid detail to feed yet another NSC information request.

“Evening, Arash.  What’s up?”

Phil Walter has served in the military, the intelligence community, and the inter-agency. He blogs at www.philwalter1058.comDr Diane Maye is a Visiting Professor at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy. She tweets at @DianeLeighMayeNathan Finney is an officer in the United States Army. He tweets @nkfinney. This article does not contain information of an official nature, nor do the views expressed in this article reflect the policy or position of any official organization.

Header Image: Two F-35C Lightning II carrier-variant joint strike fighters move slowly on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Atlantic Ocean, 3 October 2015. (Source: US Department of Defense)