Evolving the Air Power Workforce

By Wing Commander David Hoo

Should we be content with the traditional workforce comprising a few ‘teeth’ and a long ‘tail’? The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Strategy 2020 (‘AFSTRAT’) signifies an important shift in air and space power thinking, focusing on the essential need for an intelligent and skilled workforce to contribute to achieving strategic objectives.[1]

But how well does our current workforce structure support that intent?

With people in short supply, are we making best use of our workforce ‘tail’ to maximise the potency of our ‘teeth’?

The answer may lie in reconceiving the nature of our workforce, and using the ‘tail’ more effectively by better integrating it with the ‘teeth’.

‘Teeth’ and ‘Tails’ and ratios

The ever-decreasing Teeth-To-Tail Ratio (T3R) associated with the relative growth of the workforce supporting military operations, compared to that which conducts them, is well documented.[2] Because the RAAF will continue to rely on complex technologies; expand into new domains such as space and cyber; and require ongoing industry support, the historic T3R trend can be expected to continue.

As a result, it is essential that we make best use of our expanding ‘tail’ workforce, in both RAAF and other agencies such as the Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group (CASG), where a large and disconnected air power ‘tail’ workforce exists.

Reconceiving our workforce

Is there untapped potential in our ‘tail’? As Chris McInnes recently suggested, while the skills necessary to lead air operations are specialised, the ‘aptitude for such skills is also likely to be found in workforces beyond those that have traditionally dominated command and leadership role[s]’.

Similarly, we should not presuppose that our ‘teeth’ stem only from the workforce that delivers air power for kinetic effects. Having teeth does not mean one must always bite. Our ‘teeth’ also includes non-combatants, used to generate a variety of air power effects to shape our strategic environment and deter actions against our interests, in addition to military responses.

If Air Power is as inherently strategic as Colin Gray argued, it seems reasonable to conclude that any part of our workforce could provide strategic effects.[3]

Currently however, our ‘tail’ workforce is not properly engaged and enabled to allow it to fulfil its strategic potential.

We must better unite our ‘teeth’ and ‘tail’.[4]

Doing so will maximise our workforce’s inherent strategic potential through greater depth, diversity and resilience.

Uniting ‘teeth’ and ‘tail’

But how can we realise this goal? We can engage and enable our ‘tail’ through several means. Engaging and enabling our ‘tail’ workforce can occur through various means. The proposals below are not exhaustive, nor are they the most important activities to drive change. They are, however, scalable and achievable, and allow our workforce to rapidly evolve to better shape, deter and respond to strategic events as part of the joint force.

How do we post people for greatest ‘influence and effect’?[5]

More should be done to manage the careers of individuals who aspire to contribute beyond their parent categorisation. While many categories now value deployments, out-of-category posts and even industry secondments, it appears the primary aim of these experiences is to support career progression within the parent category.

Consequently, such opportunities are often sporadic and limited.

There is a need for more deliberate planning for out-of-category postings, to ensure individuals with a desire to provide strategic—rather than specialist—influence can be developed and contribute as they rise through the ranks.

Consider this: a carefully targeted O3/O4 logistics, administration or engineering officer could be posted to a vacant aircrew position in a flying Squadron or Wing to gain tactical-level exposure, followed by deliberate postings to vacant, out-of-mustering Headquarters or strategic centre positions at O5 and O6 levels.

There may be a short-term cost; however, targeting vacant positions provide opportunities for long-term strategic value, without institutionalising potentially problematic alternatives such as transitioning vacant positions to ‘Any Officer’ (ANYO) and ‘Any Airperson’ (ANYA) slots.

Let’s not forget the lessons of Coronavirus, which reinforced that many roles can be undertaken effectively while working remotely. With workplace restrictions unlikely to continue into the long term, the RAAF should adopt a deliberate practise of repositioning staff into different workplaces to better unite ‘teeth’ and ‘tail’ workforces. Individuals would continue to perform their primary role, but can engage and interact with another unit, and be immersed in its culture.

Periods of tenure could vary from days to months, and because multiple organisations typically reside in the one geographical locality, no relocation costs would be required. Embedding staff with the right attributes in other organisations will allow those individuals to be immersed in, and contribute to, that organisation, and bring learned experiences back to their primary workplace. Improved understanding and better relationships between organisations would also result.

This initiative could also be used as a low risk precursor to implementing more disruptive changes which result from the review of RAAF organisational structures, called out by AFSTRAT.[6]

We also need to consider how to produce skilled air power strategists.

Could a dedicated career path be created?

The category would not need to be large, and could be sustained in the normal way by a mix of military and public service staff. Resourced from an opt-in mechanism, the category could fast-track selected members through professional education such as Australian War College, and other selected posts which maximise exposure and influence to strategic activities. Importantly, members should also be quarantined from postings to specialist areas of Defence which, depending on the rank of the individual, may offer fewer opportunities for strategic-level influence.

Military positions should permit individuals from all categories. The ‘strategist’ category would provide an interface between academia, public think-tanks and the RAAF, and further professionalise the strategic policy and advice being provided by existing agencies in the strategic centre.

Next, how can we motivate people to actively pursue their professional education?

Consistent with AFSTRAT Line of Effort (LOE) 2,[7] greater emphasis should be placed on the need for continuous air power professionalisation, with individuals who invest beyond the norm being rewarded for doing so. Professionalisation can take multiple forms, including joint postings, personal study, or involvement in formal education and mentoring programs.

Program Wirraway could be expanded to include an O5 level program, to fill the current void between O4 level requirements and Program Niagara. The O5 level program could include a requirement to develop and deliver periodic air power education sessions to home units or other organisations.

But beyond this minimum professional education baseline, how do we increase the level of air and space power acumen in our workforce? What would be the cumulative effects? All O5 and O6 level officers should be expected to provide air power mentoring to at least one subordinate. While dedicating time to continued air power professionalisation will be challenging for most, it cannot be deferred until a clear and present need for that knowledge eventuates.

Finally, the RAAF should critically review the structure of its ‘tail’ workforce.

Defence’s First Principles Review (FPR) suggested trimming the number of management layers, noting that ‘[n]o more than six or seven layers of management is common practice, even in the largest organisations.’[8] Acknowledging that a great deal of post-FPR reform has occurred, many air power workforces in the RAAF and other agencies such as CASG now incorporate highly-matrixed workforces. By their nature, these constructs embed management ‘layers’ horizontally, in addition to the vertical layers of management which remain necessary.

Consequently, air power workforces may, in effect, still have many more layers of management than FPR suggested was common practise. Overgrown management layers disproportionately increase the size of the ‘tail’ and make it less efficient: one study showed that every senior manager organically generates work for around three other people in the workforce. This means that additional layers of management—whether they exist in a hierarchical or matricised manner—can create a negative net benefit.

Current initiatives

Much is already being done to evolve our workforce for strategic purposes.

The activities above can be used to compliment current initiatives such as the array of ANYA/ANYO opportunities, the already generous air power professionalisation opportunities, targeted secondments and shifting workforce culture by reconceiving all RAAF members as aviators.


If air power is what the Air Force is about, then air power must be defined inclusively – to include every person in the Air Force and every one of their diverse contributions to air power. If air power is a spear, then the point of that spear is… getting sharper… but the shaft is getting longer and more important as well. With every passing year… the point of the spear gets smaller, while the shaft of the spear gets bigger. Significantly, it is not the point of the spear that has become the measure of global reach and global power, but the shaft that carries the point.[9]

The air power ‘tail’ workforce—the shaft of the spear—has great inherent value.

Drawing our ‘tail’ and ‘tooth’ workforces together into a more integrated union will ensure greater opportunities exist for the ‘tail’ workforce, and enable it to bare its teeth by contributing to activities which shape our environment and deter unfriendly actors. The initiatives discussed in this paper are practicable, scalable and rapidly implementable, with little risk of detrimental consequences. Adopting them can be done as part of a broader tapestry of initiatives which together evolve the RAAF workforce under AFSTRAT’s LOE2. Breaking the traditional T3R nexus enables our ‘tail’ to bite.

Wing Commander David Hood is an Aeronautical Engineer working for the Royal Australian Air Force. He holds a Master of Gas Turbine Technology (Cranfield, UK) and a Master of Military and Defence Studies (Australian National University). Wing Commander Hood is currently Commanding Officer of Air Training and Aviation Commons Systems Program Office (ATACSPO)

[1] Australian Department of Defence, Air Force Strategy (Canberra: Director Strategic Design, 2020), p.26, 27.

[2] See for example: Tamara Campbell and Carlos Velasco, An Analysis of the Tail to Tooth Ratio as a Measure of Operational Readiness and Military Expenditure Efficiency (California: Naval Postgraduate School, 2002); Barry Carleen (Ed.), The Parable of the Tail with No Teeth (The Center for Cryptologic History, 1996); Scott Gebicke and Samuel Magid, ‘Lessons from around the world: benchmarking performance in Defense’, in McKinsey on Government (no. 5, Spring 2010), pp. 4–13; and John McGrath, The Other End of the Spear: The Tooth-to-Tail Ratio (T3R) in Modern Military Operations, (Kansas: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2007).

[3] Colin Gray suggested that all military instruments (including air power) are inherently strategic. Whether or not any particular instrument delivers strategic effect is determined by the consequences of applying that instrument, in a particular time and space. See Colin S. Gray, Understanding Airpower – Bonfire of the Fallacies, Research Paper 2009-3 (Maxwell Air Force Base, Air Force Research Institute, 2009), pp.17-21; and Colin S. Gray, Airpower for Strategic Effect (Alabama: Air University Press, 2012), Chapter 9.

[4] This conception is consistent with the One Defence model proposed by the First Principles Review, which in essence seeks to provide ‘a more unified and integrated organisation that is more consistently linked to its strategy’ and features, inter alia, ‘[e]nablers that are integrated and customer-centric’. See: David Peever et al., First Principles Review: Creating One Defence (Canberra, 2011).

[5] Air Force Strategy, p.26, 27.

[6] Ibid., p.18, 35, 36.

[7] Ibid., p.26, 27.

[8] David Peever et al., First Principles Review: Creating One Defence (Canberra, 2011). [9] Carl Builder, The Icarus Syndrome: The Role of Air Power Theory in the Evolution and Fate of the U.S. Air Force (California: RAND, 2009), p.263.

This article was published by Central Blue on May 22, 2021.