Educating 21st Century Aviators: Meeting the Challenge
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
[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.
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.’
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)
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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.
 Carl Builder, The Icarus Syndrome: Air Power Theory and the Evolution of the Air Force (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Press, 1998).
 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.
 Brad Gladman et al, ‘Professional Airpower Mastery and the RCAF,’ RCAF Journal, 5:1 (2016), pp. 8-23.
 Sanu Kainikara, At the Critical Juncture: The Predicament of Small Air Forces (Canberra: Air Power Development Centre, 2011).
 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.
 Ibid, pp. 26-31.
 Major-General David Fraser, Lecture to the Advanced Military Studies Course, Canadian Forces College Toronto, October 2006.
 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.
 Wakelam and Coombs, Officer Development Board, p. 40.
 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.
 Ibid, pp. 4-16.
 R.C.A.F. Staff College Calendar Course 23 (1958-9), “Conclusion.”
 Nicholas Jans, Stephen Mugford, James Cullens and Judy Fraser-Jans, ‘The Chiefs: A Study of Strategic Leadership’ (Canberra: Australian Defence College, 2013).
 Ibid, p. 111.
 Ibid, p. 113.
This article was republished with the permission of The Williams Foundation and was first published in their column The Central Blue.