Air Force Culture in the 21st Century

By Claire Pearson

Culture is what defines, unites, and sets a group apart from others. Within the Air Force, culture drives formal and informal rules in how we behave as a fighting force, both on operations and in garrison.  Importantly, culture also promotes a shared sense of identity. While we are bound by a shared Australian Defence Force culture with our soldier and sailor counterparts, as airmen we have also forged our own unique culture. If the way that we outwardly portray ourselves to the public and through recruiting advertisements reflects the culture we pride ourselves with, our culture might be defined as aircrew centric, supported by teams of specialists and leading edge technology.

The Air Force’s approaching centenary is an opportune time to reflect on whether the culture that worked for the 20th century Air Force remains relevant today and into the future. Innovative and emerging technologies, mission definitions, internal diversity,  a greater focus on joint warfighting, and the Air Force’s role in warfare are all factors to be considered when evaluating what is appropriate in the 21st century. In short we must examine which elements of our culture should remain as constants and significantly, what we should consider reshaping.

Innovation as a Cultural Constant

As a Service founded on the cutting edge of technology of its era, we have maintained a desire to be seen as innovators. Arguably, the Air Force is the Service most dependent on technological superiority with it being a decisive factor in who wins on the battlefield. The ‘generation’ of aircraft, the accuracy of our weapons, and the quality of intelligence are essential in fighting and winning. Any complacency and failure to advance are at our peril.

The innovation constant has been confirmed over the years with Air Force investing in a highly technical fighting force. Initiatives such as JERICHO and the Air Force Improvementscheme continue to drive this innovative spirit, inspiring a new generation of airmen. Building on this, we should consider how this can be instilled into our airmen at every level; placing the spark of creativity and innovation in our youngest recruits, and stoking this passion through Professional Military Education (PME) throughout their careers. The desire to harness technology and the spirit of innovation are essential elements of our culture and are likely to remain so into the future.

One Force, Mission Focused

A broader perspective of who we are as a force warrants consideration of how we view our role both as individuals, and as a Service.  Short of strategic bombing or another Battle of Britain-esque air combat campaign, we frequently characterise our role in terms of ‘in support of’ an Army unit, be that through ISR, airlift, or defensive counter air. In contrast, it would be unlikely for an Army commander to use a similar description of their role, regardless of whether it was a communications unit on an airbase or as a logistics enabler. Instead, senior leaders and indeed Army Newspaper routinely highlight units’ roles in terms of executing a mission. Characterising our role, both individually and collectively, in a similar way to Army in executing the Australian Government’s mission may be a more inspiring and appropriate description of the vital function we play, reinforcing our identity as war fighters.

Similarly, by viewing each member’s role as an equally valuable cog in the warfighting machine, we create a sense of unity as an Air Force. The simplistic and dated categorisation of those ‘on the tactical edge’ vice ‘the blunts’ unnecessarily divides our force. At the same time, this perspective fails to adequately capture the interdependence between the various categories and musterings that make us one.  As the Air Force increasingly employs platforms that are remotely operated, where aircrew operate in the same facility as Imagery Analysts, Targeteers and Operations Officers, this interdependence will develop further. While our various tribes provide sub-cultures – the maintainers and engineers, the aircrew, the logisticians, AFSEC, and the health professionals to name but a few – should we spend more effort defining ourselves as airmen first, focusing on the combat effects we achieve as a warfighting team rather than by our individual categories or as part of a ‘tribe of tribes’?  It could be argued through doing this, we promote the inclusive one team culture identified in the Australian Airman’s Code. 

This ‘One Team, Airman First’ culture would also allow us to all become masters of the air/space domain capable of developing and leading air strategy, operations and campaign planning rather than viewing this as the province for a select few. As a litmus test of our current force, can we envisage the A3 in the Air and Space Operations Centre or the J5 actual at Headquarters Joint Operations Command (HQJOC) to be an Operations Officer, Logistics Officer or Engineer? If this appears unlikely or even worrisome, perhaps we should consider whether other categories are given the necessary development opportunities to excel in these roles, embracing all airmen rather than narrowing the aperture to aircrew only. By so doing, we would not only promote a more inclusive culture, but also have a bigger pool from which to select the best strategists and planners.

Diversity Drives Cultural Change

Historically, Air Force’s most senior leadership has been quite narrow, largely comprised of aircrew. However, with identity and behaviours broadly driven and promoted by senior leaders, it might be suggested Air Force culture will naturally evolve if the pool of 21stcentury Air Force senior leaders diversifies.

While a number of senior roles, such as roles relating to air safety, should necessarily be undertaken by aircrew members, a number of positions might be viewed as generalist and others more suitably filled by members from other specialisations. Director General Personnel – Air Force for example might be most ably filled by a Personnel Capability Officer whose career has been focused on understanding human resource nuances.  Equally, positions such as the Commander Defence SIGINT and Cyber Command (within the Australian Signals Directorate) and Director Defence Intelligence Organisation may be best served by intelligence professionals with decades of experience in analysis, intelligence policy, and ISR collection management.

A second order effect of promoting other categories to senior roles previously reserved for aircrew would be greater gender diversity at senior ranks noting females are more evenly represented in fields such as logistics, medicine, administration, and intelligence. Together, the wider range of categories and diversity in gender would create different perspectives likely to shift what is arguably an aircrew centric culture at present to a culture that represents all members within the Air Force.

Creating a Blue Environment in a Purple Force

The final changing cultural dynamic we must consider in a 21st century Air Force is an increased focus on joint warfighting.  In recent years, attitudes have shifted from the burden of proof being no longer ‘why should it be joint’ to ‘why shouldn’t it be joint’.  With greater effectiveness and integration in a joint battlespace, we must consider how we define ourselves as Air Force when blended with Army, Navy, and in some cases Defence civilians within the Australian Public Service (APS).  It could be suggested that when our personnel are posted outside of Air Force Group, be that to HQJOC, Joint Capabilities Group, Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group, or Strategic Policy and Intelligence Group, we see this as a temporary assignment outside the ‘Air Force mothership’. As such, we assume on their return to Air Force Group, they will be refocused back to being airmen. With an increase in roles that are inherently joint – for example cyber operations, information activities, joint fires and intelligence – and an expectation Airmen will spend more time in joint than in the past, we need to consider how we promote Air Force culture and identity to those ‘outside the mothership’.

Fostering a ‘Team Air Force’ environment within other groups could assist in maintaining our own identity, while contributing to greater knowledge about Air Force in a joint and integrated work place.  Encouraging routine informal PME opportunities driven by Air Force leadership serving in the joint environment might be one way of promoting this ‘Team Air Force’ identity. Other opportunities might include establishing a Navy Divisional Officer-like scheme to embrace those serving outside of Air Force Group and the creation of an Air Force-wide mentoring scheme, nurturing members who do not have an Air Force Chain of Command.  Finally, wider recognition across the force that members serving in joint roles directly contribute to air power and Air Force’s overall effectiveness reinforces the ‘Team Air Force’ pride and identity.

Final thoughts…

As the RAAF evolves into a Fifth Generation Air Force and beyond, so to must our culture and how we define ourselves, and the underlying processes to achieve an enhanced culture.

Our bias for innovation has been essential in driving our Air Force forward from Sopwith Camels in the Australian Flying Corps through to the Joint Strike Fighter, remotely piloted Tritons, and the emergence of Artificial Intelligence within the military. While innovation unites us, there are opportunities to further strengthen and unify the force. Championing the role we all play in defending Australia’s security and defining ourselves as war fighters is essential to promoting a mission-focused force ready for 21st century challenges and threats.

While greater diversity of leadership and an increasingly joint force will understandably challenge our existing culture, it creates an exciting opportunity for the next generation of Airmen to define, exploit and embrace.  In recent years, the term culture has become loaded, used in the binary of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ culture. As the Air Force approaches its centenary, perhaps it is now time to create a new dialogue in the crew rooms, operations floors and hangers, and start a discussion about what Air Force culture means to us.

Squadron Leader Claire Pearson is a serving officer in the Royal Australian Air Force.  She is currently posted to Information Warfare Division in Joint Capabilities Group. The opinions expressed are hers alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

First published May 6, 2018.