Shaping a Fifth Generation Combat Force (2)

By Ulie Yildirim

Multiple initiatives are currently in motion to transform the RAAF into a fifth-generation force able to apply air and space effects as part of an integrated joint force.1

Several of these initiatives focus on people and promote professional and technical mastery within the RAAF.2

These initiatives assert the importance of positive leadership, PME and the study of history while promoting the RAAF’s technologically-advanced capabilities and the need for innovation.3

The RAAF routinely provides courses and seminars to its workforce on both the military profession, and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Further education and professional development within specialist trades appear to be enthusiastically pursued.

Well established funding and education programs support personnel in gaining specialist training, which is deemed to provide tangible benefits to the RAAF and the individual’s promotion prospects. These programs include overseas opportunities, Australian Defence Force Academy post-graduate courses and professional development programs that allow personnel to access specialist training and education easily.

Moreover, multiple specialisations incorporate specialist education and development into career continuums from an early stage, so the link between professional development and individual progression is clear and compelling.

In contrast, the workforce as a whole appears indifferent towards more general PME. Since 2009, RAAF PME has been delivered as part of promotion courses with a relatively less clear articulation of the benefits to the broader workforce in enabling the RAAF to conduct its everyday role. PME has been something individuals have to do to be promoted, not something people want to do because it will make them better at their job.

This is evidenced by communication from multiple senior leaders that large numbers of personnel remain deficient in meeting their mandatory PME requirements.

Accordingly, a policy of ‘no PME, no promotion’ was implemented but has reinforced the perception that PME is a compliance requirement rather than a value-adding activity.

The disconnect from PME is an outcome of the RAAF’s use of a small workforce to employ complex hardware in the air domain and to prevail in its jurisdictional competition as an instrument of government.

High levels of efficiency are generated through specialist-focused training, education, promotion, and employment continuums. After initial entry training, personnel are employed and managed within their specialist trades, including officers until promoted into the General List as Group Captains.

A small number of officers and warrant officers are selected to attend command and staff courses or capability management courses. A still smaller number of Group Captains are also selected to attend the Defence and Strategic Studies Course and gain the necessary knowledge and skills to operate at the strategic level. Before and following these courses, personnel continue to be employed within their specialist categorisations.

The value of specialist knowledge is reinforced by individual promotions (up to the rank of group captain) being determined within specialisations, rather than across the RAAF workforce as a whole.

Officers promoted into the General List as Group Captains are selected from across the officer corps but continue to be employed in roles associated with their specialisations. This process has considerable strengths but creates inherent weaknesses which will be discussed in the next paragraphs.

The RAAF’s emphasis on specialisation has enabled it to reliably and efficiently operate highly complex hardware in the air domain despite numerous challenges.

For example, in 1991, when the Australian Government implemented the Commercial Support Program (CSP), the RAAF’s workforce was reduced from approximately 22,000 to below 13,500 personnel by 2001.4

During the same period, the workforce was undergoing other changes due to a spate of fatal aircraft accidents attributed to operational and technical errors.[7] Despite an almost 40% workforce reduction, the RAAF continued to perform reliably, contributing to domestic and global operations while improving its safety and technical performance to establish a world-class aviation safety management framework.

Hence, through the use of a highly-specialised workforce, the RAAF absorbed CSP personnel reductions, implemented an aviation safety management system, and contributed to government-directed activities – preserving and enhancing its reputation as a trusted policy device.5

When faced with similar workforce reduction pressures, the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force (RAF) adopted an approach with less emphasis on specialisation, which has been cited as contributing to adverse outcomes. The investigation into the loss of an RAF Nimrod aircraft and 14 crew over Afghanistan in 2006 illustrated the apparent costs of a less specialised model.

The report judged the principal factors at work included the creation of a larger ‘purple’ and ‘through life’ structures as well as ‘the imposition of unending cuts and change” from 1998-2006 which ‘led to a dilution of its safety and airworthiness regime and culture.’6

Furthermore, the report identified the RAAF’s airworthiness framework as an exemplar airworthiness management model.7

Notably, a result of the accident and subsequent report was the establishment of the British Ministry of Defence Military Aviation Authority. This single regulatory authority is headed by a three-star Director-General responsible for the oversight of British Defence aviation activities akin to the role conducted by Australia’s Defence Aviation Safety Authority.

The RAF’s experience highlighted the benefits offered by a highly-specialised workforce in technical areas, including maintaining the trust of governments as a safe and reliable operator of complex equipment.

While there are strengths associated with a highly-specialised workforce, there are also weaknesses. In a study of the United States Air Force officer corps, Frank Wood argued convincingly that air force personnel associate with their specialisation more than the military profession.8

Charles Moskos’s work on the military profession in the United States also argued that due to the nature of complex hardware they employ, air forces are becoming more civilianised to attract those with specialised training. Moskos argued that those personnel ‘will be attracted to the service in a civilian rather than a military capacity and will gauge military employment in terms of marketplace standards’ within which factors such as remuneration and location stability play a bigger role.9

Applying Mosko’s theory, the RAAF’s culture of specialisation attracts personnel inclined towards specialisation and then reinforces linkages to similar civilian specialists throughout a member’s military career, enabling ready disengagement from the military profession.

The workforce efficiencies created through specialisation further reinforce this trend as a smaller workforce lacks the depth to address specialisation and broader PME. The perceived low priority afforded to PME by the RAAF personnel appears to be a symptom of their disconnection from the military profession.

However, this disconnect arises from the Service’s preference for a highly-specialised workforce as a means of prevailing in its jurisdictional competition.

Effects of a highly specialised but disengaged military workforce

Australia’s strategic circumstances and choices have become more difficult.10

Emerging challenges include traditional state on state threats due to the continued rise of China, Sino-Indian power competition and the re-balancing of American priorities within the Indo-Pacific. 11

The rise of non-traditional threats adds another layer of complexity to Australia’s strategic choices. The impacts of globalisation, energy security, minority group extremism, terrorism and the effects of climate change mean that Australia’s national security is no longer bounded simply by the need to defend Australia’s geographical sovereignty but also ‘the security of Australia’s society and its citizens.’12

As highlighted in the 2016 Defence White Paper, Australia’s technological edge is diminishing.13

This suggests that the RAAF’s historical preference for a highly-specialised workforce to maximise its technological edge may not be appropriate for future challenges.

Of note, the Chief of Air Force’s 2017 commander’s intent and intent for learning explicitly recognised the importance of effective employment of technology by personnel who combine their technical expertise with a good understanding of the profession of arms.

This can only be achieved through the marriage of engaging PME and a thorough knowledge of specialist skills. This has been a consistent message from senior leaders for several years and appears to underpin recent PME reform efforts.

The RAAF’s highly-specialised approach has performed well during its operations since the Second World War. However, these operations have been relatively limited in scale and intensity, with other partners bearing the burden of higher-levels of strategy and operational planning. As a result, the RAAF’s specialised workforce was able to operate in its comfort zone and was not stretched to the point of being exposed.

During these operations, the RAAF’s technological edge over its adversaries enabled its workforce to remain within its specialist stovepipes without needing to consider the impact of tactical decisions in the strategic arena which could be necessary against a possible near-peer enemy.

Hence, a need arises to look externally to judge the effects of a highly specialised but professionally disengaged military workforce in other contexts, including high-intensity conflicts. Dima Adamsky’s observations on the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are a useful starting point due to the IDF’s size, alliance with the United States, strong focus on workforce specialisation, and ongoing exposure to conflicts.[19]

Adamsky observed that following its successes of 1949, 1956, and 1967, the IDF developed ‘a total disinterest in the art of war.’ The effects of this were that ‘[p]roblems were resolved in an isolated and sequential manner as if they were not interconnected.’  Further, Adamsky observed that the IDF General Staff continually chose to provide pragmatic but technically narrow solutions to problems because ‘[w]ith no formal professional education IDF officers thought and operated in tactical terms concentrating on giving ad hoc piecemeal solutions to immediate problems.’14

Israel’s Iron Dome defence system is a case in point. RAND Corporation analyst Elizabeth M. Bartels argued that while the Iron Dome achieved tactical success by mitigating the risks from missiles, it was a strategic failure changing “strategic and political prosecution of the campaign in ways that may have denied Israel decisive victories.”

Although these observations should be qualified, noting that the IDF uses a conscription model and their conflicts have arguably been against enemies not as professional, a strong focus on specialists within the general staff has demonstrably resulted in a lack of strategic perspective.

Adamsky’s observations highlight that a disengaged workforce, such as the RAAF’s, is less able to grasp the complexities of problems at the strategic level and will instead opt to focus on generating tactical solutions to immediate problems.

Adamsky’s analysis of the IDF indicates that without greater emphasis on PME, the RAAF’s current focus on specialisation is likely to adversely affect its jurisdictional competitiveness as Australia confronts a more challenging environment. This logic underpins current initiatives such as Plan Wirraway, The Runway professional development portal, and a new PME continuum. There is clear top-down direction to balance technical and professional mastery as part of transforming the RAAF into a fifth-generation force.

These PME initiatives must be complemented by adjustments to the RAAF’s promotion and employment continuum in order to emphasise the importance of PME in enabling the Air Force to conduct its roles and missions, with links to everyday duties.

Without this immediate and tangible reinforcement of PME’s value, inertia will see RAAF personnel drift towards perfecting their specialisation and remain disinterested in air power and the military profession in broad terms. More importantly, it must be recognised that compliance-centric attempts to change the workforce’s behaviour through methods such as ‘no PME, no promotion’ will not address the root cause.

While the organisation can reorient PME incentives, RAAF personnel also have a personal responsibility to seek a philosophical understanding of airpower. Despite the hierarchical nature of military organisations, Elliot Cohen’s analysis of military transformation demonstrated that assuming that change will happen following senior leader direction is false and outdated. Cohen stated “[t]hroughout most of military history, to include the current period, change tends to come more from below, from the spontaneous interactions between military people, technology and particular tactical circumstances.” 15

It is naïve to assume that initiatives implemented from the top with sporadic injections of PME throughout RAAF personnel’s careers will enable them to fully exploit the benefits offered by the study of air power.

Therefore, unless the workforce positively engages with their profession beyond top-down direction, the changes required are unlikely to succeed during crises.

While a great deal of responsibility rests with the implementation of top-down initiatives, without positive engagement by RAAF personnel and an equal focus on PME, they will not be successful.


Professions, including the military profession, continually evolve and are in constant jurisdictional competitions with others. This forces them to adapt to new contexts to ensure their survival.

The RAAF has successfully participated in a jurisdictional competition of protecting the nation’s interests by using a highly-specialised workforce to operate complex hardware in the air domain. The RAAF’s emphasis on training, educating and promoting specialists comes with considerable strengths, including high levels of proficiency and efficiency.

However, it has come at the cost of widespread disengagement from the military profession, including disengagement from broad PME.

This highly-specialised approach appears to be ill-suited to a world undergoing profound changes and presenting serious challenges to Australia’s security. Accordingly, the RAAF must prioritise PME to maintain its effectiveness and relevance as a policy device.

This will require changes to the RAAF’s training, education, promotion and employment continuum to emphasise and value PME. Top-down direction is necessary, but genuine change also requires a cultural shift in the workforce to value PME and professional development. In a rapidly changing world, the RAAF must adapt lest its historically successful methods become its undoing.

Squadron Leader Ulas ‘Ulie’ Yildirim is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force.

The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect the views of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

This article was published by Central Blue on August 4th, 2019.

The first part of this article was published here:


The original title of the article was “First class people for a fifth generation Air Force.”




  1. Royal Australian Air Force, ‘Air Force Strategy 2017-2027’ (Canberra. Australia: Air Power Development Centre, 2017), pp. 1-7.
  2. These include New Horizon, Air Force Adaptive Culture and active engagement by the Air Power Development Centre
  3. Royal Australian Air Force, Australian Air Publication 1000D – The Air Power Manual, Sixth Edition (Canberra: Air Power Development Centre, 2013); Sanu Kainikara, ‘Professional Mastery and Air Power Education,’ Working Paper No. 33 (Canberra: Royal Australian Air Force Air Power Development Centre, 2011); Air Power Development Centre, ‘Domain-Centric Professional Mastery: The Foundation of an Integrated Military Force’ in Pathfinder (Canberra, Air Power Development Centre, 2018); ‘Air Warfare Innovation and Integration’ in Pathfinder(Canberra: Air Power Development Centre, 2016); ‘5th Generation Air Force’ in Pathfinder(Canberra: Air Power Development Centre, 2016); ‘Translating Technology and Innovation into Capability-Some Lessons from between the Wars’ in Pathfinder (Canberra: Air Power Development Centre, 2016); ‘The Future Air Force’ in Pathfinder (Canberra: Air Power Development Centre, 2017); Royal Australian Air Force, ‘Plan Jericho’ (Canberra: Royal Australian Air Force, 2015); ‘Air Force Plan 2019-2024: ‘First Class People for a Fifth-Generation Air Force” (Canberra: Royal Australian Air Force, 2018).
  4. Australian National Audit Office, ‘Commercial Support Program. Department of Defence’ (Canberra: Australian National Audit Office, 1998), p. 27; Air Power Development Centre, Australian Air Publication 1000-H – The Australian Experience of Air Power, Second Edition (Canberra: Air Power Development Centre, 2013), p. 183; Kevin G. Barnes, Retention versus Attrition: Does the RAAF have the correct target in its sight? (Canberra: Air Power Development Centre, 2005), p. 2.
  5. Air Power Development Centre, ‘Defence Airworthiness,’ (Canberra, Australia: Air Power Development Centre, 2013).
  6. Charles Haddon-Cave, ‘The Nimrod Review’ (London: Stationery Office Limited, 2009), p. 339.
  7. Ibid., p. 485.
  8. Frank R. Wood, ‘At the Cutting Edge of Institutional and Occupational Trends: The U.S. Air Force Officer Corps’ in Charles Moskos and Frank Wood (eds.), The Military More Than Just a Job? (Virginia: Pergamon-Brassey, 1988).
  9. Charles Moskos, ‘The Emergent Military: Civil, Traditional, or Plural?,’ Pacific Sociological Review, 16:2 (1973), pp. 255–80; Idem., ‘What Ails the All-Volunteer Force: An Institutional Perspective,’ Parameters, 31:2 (2001), p. 23.
  10. Paul Kelly, ‘Punching above Our Weight,’ Policy, 20:2 (2004), p. 29; Paul Dibb, ‘Why Australia Needs a Radically New Defence Policy,’ Centre of Gravity Series No. 44 (Canberra: Strategic and Defence Studies Centres, 2018); Brendan Sargeant, ‘Why Australia Needs a Radically New Defence Policy,’ Centre of Gravity Series No. 44 (Canberra: Strategic and Defence Studies Centres, 2018).
  11. Shiro Armstrong, ‘A New Deal in Asia,’ Foreign Affairs  (March 17), p. 2; Christopher K Johnson et al., Decoding China’s Emerging “Great Power” Strategy in Asia (Washington DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2014), pp. 1-32; Zhang Yunling, ‘China and Its Neighbourhood: Transformation, Challenges and Grand Strategy,’ International Affairs, 92:4 (2016), pp. 835-48; David Brewster, ‘India’s Defense Strategy and the India-Asean Relationship,’ India Review, 12:3 (2013), pp. 151-64; Rory Medcalf, ‘In Defence of the Indo-Pacific: Australia’s New Strategic Map,’ Australian Journal of International Affairs, 68:4 (2014), pp. 470-83; David Brewster, ‘India and China at Sea: A Contest of Status and Legitimacy in the Indian Ocean,’ Asia Policy, 22 (2016), pp. 4-10; Sithara Fernando (ed.), United States-China-India Strategic Triangle in the Indian Ocean Region (New Delhi: KW Publishers Pty Ltd, 2015); David Brewster, ‘Australia and India: The Indian Ocean and the Limits of Strategic Convergence,’ Australian Journal of International Affairs, 64:5 (2010), 549-65; Robert Kaplan, ‘Centre Stage for the 21st Century, Power Plays in the Indian Ocean,’ Foreign Affairs (2009).
  12. Andrew O’Neil, ‘Conceptualising Future Threats to Australia’s Security,’ Australian Journal of Political Science, 46:1 (2011), pp. 26-32; Michael Evans, ‘Towards an Australian National Security Strategy a Conceptual Analysis,’ Security Challenges, 3:4 (2007), pp.113-30.
  13. Commonwealth of Australia, The Defence White Paper 2016 (Canberra: Australian Government Publication Service, 2016), pp. 49-50.
  14. Adamsky, The Culture of Military Innovation: The Impact of Cultural Factors on the Revolution in Military Affairs in Russia, the U.S. And Israel (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  15. Elliot A. Cohen, ‘Change and Transformation in Military Affairs,’ Journal of Strategic Studies, 27:3 (2004), p. 400.