#AFSTRAT: Seeing the Bigger Picture: Developing Strategic Acumen in RAAF Personnel – Matt Kelly

The Central Blue welcomes first-time contributor Matt Kelly, who is the first to share his thoughts in The Central Blue’s latest series, ‘What is the Air Force Strategy?’ - a series designed to build on Australia’s long-standing tradition of commitment to strategic thought. Matt delves into the challenges presented by the #AFSTRAT in turning an organisation of technical specialists into strategic thinkers. He also examines potential pathways for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to move forward from this important first step in cultural change and onto phase 2 implementation.

How do you convince fourteen thousand technical experts that they should spend less time on the ‘tools’ and more time thinking about the bigger picture? That is just one of the challenges the RAAF has set itself with the release of the Air Force Strategy (AFSTRAT).

The AFSTRAT lays out how the RAAF plans to evolve in the wake of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update. One of the most significant proposals in the AFSTRAT is a systemic approach to developing the strategic acumen of RAAF personnel. The most encouraging aspects of this initiative are the inclusion of all ranks and its enabling function for other proposals in the AFSTRAT. However, the RAAF is likely to face several challenges in achieving this goal.

The AFSTRAT believes that strategic acumen will help tackle the complexity of the future operating environment. This argument is supported by significant academic evidence. Goldman and Casey argue that strategic thinking skills enhance organisational performance. Wheatley asserts that the need for strategic acumen is moving beyond senior levels and deeper into organisations. The AFSTRAT acknowledges this trend and aims to start developing strategic aptitude at junior levels, which will ‘normalise’ strategic thought and ensure that strategic acumen is organic to individuals by the time they reach senior enlisted or commissioned ranks.

Sergeant Anthea Lee, an instructor at the School of Post Graduate Studies, discusses leadership with online Professional Military Education students through an online learning system at RAAF Wagga. (Source: ADF)

Strategic acumen will also enable another AFSTRAT objective: horizontal integration. Horizontal integration resists platform-centric thinking and encourages RAAF personnel to reconsider ‘how it manages the composition of platforms, capabilities and missions to achieve air and space power effects.’ This will enable what Hunter views as the ‘innovative ideation’ necessary to employ air power effectively in the contemporary environment. The skills required to achieve horizontal integration align with the ability to think strategically; as individuals must think beyond their immediate environment and form connections with other elements to achieve organisational objectives.

While the development of strategic thinking skills makes sense in theory, several challenges must be overcome before the RAAF can reap its benefits. The first is the need to convince RAAF personnel ‘why’ strategic thinking is essential. The RAAF has traditionally placed a premium on the technical qualifications and specialist skills of its personnel, often at the expense of a collective ‘air force’ sense of belonging. The RAAF is not flying solo here; Laslie also found that a collective identity does not exist in the United States Air Force. Consequently, the development of ‘non-technical’ skills such as strategic thinking has often been regarded as a lower priority and less deserving of time and effort. RAAF leaders will need to reverse this mindset so that the organisation can fully embrace strategic acumen.

The second challenge will be determining ‘how’ strategic thinking skills are developed. This is not a one-off task; it is a gradual process that is infused throughout an individual’s career. The RAAF must consider how the strategic thinking continuum is broken down across all ranks. Should this be incorporated into promotion courses or are new courses required? What is the balance between training and experience? Does it need to differentiate between senior enlisted and junior officers, and if so, how? When does the continuum start, and when does it end? Answers to these questions will set the conditions for the development of strategic acumen.

There is no panacea to developing strategic acumen; however, there are areas that can be focussed on. The first is to take a holistic approach in this endeavour. Evidence suggests that strategic acumen depends just as much on innate talent as it does on organisational development. Accordingly, the RAAF could start by screening for strategic acumen early on in people’s careers. From there, strategic acumen can be ingrained via training, education and experience of incrementally higher complexity. This does not mean that our junior enlisted and officer ranks need to start quoting Clausewitz, but they should realise how their role contributes to section capability and how their section contributes to unit capability. In this context, a bespoke course or a handful of strategic postings will not be sufficient; a RAAF-wide approach is necessary to achieve RAAF-wide benefits.

Which brings us to perhaps the most important requirement; the RAAF must prioritise strategic acumen in promotion, selection and recognition (honours & awards) processes. Training and education will be meaningless unless personnel can see the organisation demonstrably valuing strategic acumen. At present, an individual’s strategic acumen is only considered at higher levels of the organisation (see, for example, the most recent (albeit dated) review on Defence strategic leadership: The Chiefs). Even then, it is evident that strategic acumen is of less value than an individual’s corps, category or specialisation during consideration for senior officer appointments. This will need to change if the RAAF is to convince its personnel that strategic acumen worth the investment.

The RAAF has taken an impressive first step by recognising the need to focus on strategic acumen. Time will tell whether the organisation can ‘walk the talk’ and translate the AFSTRAT into meaningful action.

Squadron Leader Matt Kelly is a Logistics Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. He holds Masters Degrees in Business and Strategic People Management. He is currently a student at the Australian War College. The views expressed are his alone and do not reflect the opinion of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.

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