Big changes require bold ideas and actions. In September 2020, in response to profound geostrategic changes, the Chief of the Air Force released a new Air Force Strategy document that was a bold reframing of how we think about our purpose and our environment. This key document followed the earlier release of the Defence Strategic Update 2020, which did a similar thing for the broader Defence enterprise. Nested underneath the Defence Strategic Update, the Air Force Strategy does exactly what it set out to do, in that it ‘outlines how [the RAAF] will posture for responsive, agile and potent air and space effects across the operational spectrum.’ Whether it does everything a strategy should do is a more difficult question, one that requires consideration of what strategy is and who it is for.
Across the board, the newly released Air Force Strategy is a welcome departure from and a big improvement over previous iterations. It acknowledges that previous iterations were ‘anchored to the right side of this [the competition] continuum,’ in the realm of openly declared military conflict. It purposely broadens the ‘options air and space power provide to the joint force to include operations below the threshold of direct military conflict.’ It also recognises political warfare and influence as key factors, leading to the requirement for the RAAF to ‘provide an enduring contribution to statecraft.’
In other words, it moves beyond traditional, platform-centric concerns and looks towards a bigger picture, in which the RAAF ‘must be part of Australia’s ability to synchronise and mobilise all aspects of national power.’ So far, so good. With its coherent and comprehensive lines of effort, the Air Force Strategy is an excellent and exciting plan. However, is that all a strategy should do? To answer that question, we first need to decide what the role of strategy is.
The question ‘what is strategy’ is itself a hotly contested topic of discussion. Pose the question to 10 practitioners of strategic thought, and 12 different opinions will likely result. Some, of course, are more enduring than others, and two concepts stand out. The first is strategy as a ‘theory of victory’ – or, adapted for activities below the threshold of armed conflict, a ‘theory of success’ – put forward by a range of luminaries, including the late Colin Gray and Eliot Cohen.
The second is the concept of strategy as a relationship between ends, ways and means, probably best encapsulated by Colin Gray as ‘direction and use made of means by chosen ways in order to achieve desired ends.’ Although the latter has been fairly criticised as one-sided and overly formulaic, combining it with the ‘theory of success’ concept provides a useful framework for analysing strategy. Both concepts suggest that, in order for a strategy to be effective and complete, we must know what we want to achieve and what success looks like.
In other words, we need some defined end-states. Of note, ‘defined’ need not mean ‘finite,’ a common misapplication of the ends-ways-means idea – ‘success’ can be a prolonged state of ‘succeeding.’
So, in addition to providing the plan for how to get there, it should articulate a vision of what success looks like. This becomes critical during periods of rapid change when future success might look significantly different to the current state. It should also communicate that vision in a universally understandable way that gets everyone on board. After all, at least half of communication happens at the receiving end; if some of us can ‘see’ the desired future but most of us cannot, how do we ensure we are all pulling in the same direction? Moreover, how do we articulate that desired future to others and make sure it meshes with theirs?
Take the concept of a fifth-generation air force. The term ‘fifth generation’ does not appear in the Air Force Strategy, but it is implied throughout as a desired end-state. The RAAF website explicitly draws the connection, stating that the ‘Air Force Strategy outlines [the RAAF’s] intention to become a fifth generation Air Force.’ However, what does ‘fifth generation’ actually mean? I have had more than one conversation with practitioners of air power whose answer to this question was a shrug and “I don’t know, F-35 and stuff.”
In reality, the definition on the RAAF website is not much more enlightening. If one of the desired goals of the Air Force Strategy is a fifth-generation RAAF, should we not do a better job of visualising and articulating what that looks like – particularly for those who do not work on the F-35?
After all, the ability to explain our future to ourselves is a prerequisite to being able to explain it to others, on the way to our goal of achieving strategic influence.
Even our idea of what ‘fifth generation’ looks like in today’s RAAF is flawed. The RAAF website envisions ‘a fully-networked force that exploits the advantages of an available, integrated and shared battlespace picture to deliver lethal and non-lethal air power’ – and then directly relates that word picture to the F-35. Capabilities like the E-7 and the P-8 are occasionally mentioned in broader discussions too.
Arguably, the most ‘fifth generation’ platform currently in RAAF operational service, at least in terms of connectivity, access and contribution to an ‘available, integrated and shared battlespace picture,’ is a 50-year-old aircraft with a bunch of very modern systems in the back, the AP-3C(EW).
Nevertheless, the focus on the anointed fifth-generation platforms has meant that for a decade now the AP-3C(EW) has remained a platform that many in the ADF do not realise the RAAF even possesses, let alone understands what it does or how. Our strategy says that we aspire to ‘consider effects rather than aircraft, thereby resisting platform-centric thought,’ yet to date even our conception of a fifth-generation RAAF seems platform-centric.
However, the fifth-generation concept is just an example. The underlying issue is that the Air Force Strategy was conceived and delivered as a plan. As such, it does not do enough to articulate what success looks like before it dives into what we need to do to get there. Why it lacks a vision of success is itself worth considering, although the scope of that question exceeds the scope of this analysis. As a starting point, the Air Force Strategy is inherently limited by overarching documents.
TheDefence Strategic Update postulates the ‘shape, deter, respond’ triad as its strategic objectives. However, although these are high-level concepts, they are essentially courses of action, and therefore ways, not ends. A readily visualisable desired end-state remains elusive. Given that the Air Force Strategy must aim ‘inside’ the Defence Strategic Update, it is understandable it has fallen into the same trap.
However, the Air Force Strategy may itself contain the seeds of its own salvation. In another welcome divergence from previous iterations, it identifies novelty and creativity as ‘central characteristics when engaging in an environment of strategic competition.’ Applying this idea reflexively, to the strategy itself, might allow us to imagine and clearly articulate our vision of success. The power of narrative, long the darling of psychology, increasingly features in strategic thought. After all, stories are how humans think, how we order information and how we communicate with each other. Harvard icon Joseph Nye articulated the power of narrative in the military context when he observed that:
conventional wisdom has always held the state with the largest military prevails, but in an information age it may be the state (or non-states) with the best story that wins.
Because of the centrality of narrative in how people think, this idea applies not only externally but internally: the better our shared story of success, the better our chance of achieving that success.
All the Air Force Strategy needs to do is take its own advice. The RAAF – and, more broadly, the Australian defence establishment – should apply the creativity bubbling away inside the enterprise to come up with a narrative that clearly articulates our vision of success, both to ourselves and others. What does delivering 21st-century air and space power as part of the joint fight, above or below the threshold of military conflict, look like? Make this narrative a compelling insight into the future, that makes concrete some of the abstract ideas shaping our environment during this period of rapid change, told from multiple viewpoints to allow people to place themselves within that future, and we will have the vision to go with our excellent plan.
Wing Commander Marija ‘Maz’ Jovanovich is a Royal Australian Air Force aviator. She is a graduate of both the USAF Test Pilot School and USAF Air War College who is about to assume command of No. 10 Squadron.
This article was published by Central Blue on November 21, 2020.