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#AirForce2121: Air Force’s Strategic Culture as a Force for Continuity

We welcome back our editorial colleague WGCDR Ulas Yildirim as he asks a provocative #AirForce2121 question: is Air Force on a path to irrelevancy?


He argues that Air Force must adapt its strategic culture or disappear - Air Force futuring must extend well beyond doing the ‘same things with better tech’ and pursue a strategic culture driven by a contest of ideas that actively seeks out debate. Whilst cultural change may not be pleasant, it’s essential to avoid a grim outlook and Air Force needs to ensure that its strategic culture is sufficiently agile, resilient and imaginative for an unpredictable future.


The term ‘Air Force 2121’ conjures up many ideas. These range from the utopian world of Star Trek where mankind has evolved so far that it can travel to other worlds at light speeds through to the dystopian world of Mad Max which depicts the cataclysmic decline of general society. In this light, it may be difficult, even pointless, to try to imagine what the Air Force may look like 100 years from now.


But fret not!


If the last 75 years are anything to go by, the Air Force will likely look and behave the same way it has in the past and unfortunately become irrelevant in the process.


In the absence of an external shock, is there any evidence to suggest that the Air Force’s strategic culture will allow the focus, thinking, and behaviours required to adapt to Australia’s changing strategic environment? To consider this provocative question we need to understand what is meant by strategic culture. From that perspective, history suggests that the Air Force’s strategic culture has been relatively constant since 1945. This indicates that under certain conditions strategic culture may change but at great cost. On that basis, I will conclude by offering some thoughts and provocations for the future.


Strategic culture

People often refer to strategic culture without any grasp of what it actually means. Strategic culture studies take their foundations from national character, sociology and political culture studies carried out in the 1940s and 1950s as a threat assessment tool during World War Two. Over the years, many definitions have been proposed. American anthropologist Clifford Geertz defines culture as ‘an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions… [to] communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life.’ While for Colin Gray strategic culture is the environment within which strategy is debated influencing security policy. After the Cold War, strategic culture related studies appear to have settled on Harvard University’s government department professor of China in world affairs Iain Johnston’s proposal. Based on his investigations on the existence and character of Chinese strategic culture, Johnston proposed that strategic culture is the ideational domain which limits behavioural choices enabling the ability to make predictions about one’s strategic choices. Johnston’s definition suggests that the Air Force’s strategic culture makes it inflexible and predictable.


The Air Force’s strategic culture as a force for continuity

To what extent is the Air Force’s strategic culture a static concept? One that underlies every decision that the workforce makes to the point of being predictable? Political scientist Jack Snyder, based on his studies of the Soviet Union, characterised strategic culture as a semi-permanent concept. To some, the continuity of strategic culture enables core principles which are unquestionably assumed to be valid to remain in place. Defence’s recent First Principles Review (FPR) disagreed. It highlighted an inflexibility and unwillingness in attitude and culture to adapt to an evolving world as a common theme running through multiple reviews revealing Defence’s resistance to change. The FPR’s summary fits well with Snyder’s characterisation.


Air Force’s acquisitions in the last 75 years provide a glimpse into its behavioural choices. An organisational preference for high-end warfighting capabilities with like-for-like replacements, then using these new assets in the same way as their predecessors while assuming away capabilities such as infrastructure and airbases remain prevalent. More importantly, these choices enable potential adversaries to predict the Air Force’s options in the event of a conflict based on its past choices. For instance, Air Force is particularly exposed in the very early stages of a conflict due to its preference for leading edge technology at the expense of mass, and so has to wait for a major power’s assistance and hope for a swift and decisive victory. Any intelligent adversary would therefore simply build sufficient mass to make attrition the deciding factor. Such realities were all too present during World War Two. Air Force’s inclination for like-for-like replacements also limits innovation to what is known and preferred. This makes it more likely that Air Force may be disrupted by innovators able to generate mass as seen during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, where Azerbaijani forces used expendable drones extensively to target Armenia’s conventional forces and destroy their tanks, artillery and air defence systems.


Cultural change may not be pleasant

Jeffrey Lantis and Andrew Charlton explored the conditions under which strategic culture might change. They primarily found that ‘changes in geopolitical and geostrategic circumstances, punctuated by external shocks, [prompted] reconsideration of security policy orientations and behavior.’ These geopolitical changes and external shocks included such changes as shifts in relative power of the state with others. The resultant strategic dilemmas would then force a change to both strategic cultural orientations and security policy. Another cause was the recognition by elites for a need to change when a fundamental belief was seen to be in direct conflict with reality requiring the reinterpretation of those long-held beliefs and cultural traditions. Arguably, the combination of China’s rise, coupled with the early shocks of COVID-19 during Trump’s Presidency, challenged long-held beliefs in alliances and represented the conditions Lantis and Charlton describe. As Gray succinctly notes, in the face of new challenges states must either adapt their strategic cultures or disappear.


There are countless historical examples that support such grim predictions. The Peloponnesian War led to the demise of both the Athenians and the Spartans, leaving the Persians to collect the spoils of war. Similarly, the French Revolution was a cataclysmic event for the French royal elite. The end of World War One led to the demise of not only the Ottoman Empire, but also Prussia and its military elites. Similarly, World War Two brought the end of military elites in both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, completely rewiring their strategic cultures away from military adventurism to this day. Therefore, to avoid a similar fate over its next century, Air Force needs to ensure that its strategic culture is sufficiently agile, resilient and imaginative to not only adapt to shifts in the strategic environment, but to forecast them and act preemptively.


Final thoughts and provocations for the future

The strategic culture that the Air Force needs is one characterised by a contest of ideas. One that not only engages in debate, but like this piece, actively and continually seeks it out. It may be fun to list the types of technologies that we have seen in science-fiction movies or try to imagine a future operating environment based on some trends that we think we can identify. It is hubris to base our future Air Force upon such assumptions. More important is the willingness to look for and acknowledge that our blind spots, of which the biggest is our strategic culture, affect our approach to every decision that we make. Failure to do so will see us continue down a narrow path towards those things that we like doing rather than the things we must do, with the capabilities we like rather than those we need. Consider the German physicist Werner Heisenberg’s point, ‘what we observe is not nature itself but nature exposed to our particular method of questioning.’ When we imagine the Air Force in 2121, we should aim to understand how our current perspectives are affecting a future yet to unravel ahead of us. Otherwise, we are simply looking through the lens of our current context and planning to do the same things with better technology.


​​Wing Commander Ulas Yildirim is the Deputy Director Force Structure Design in Air Force Headquarters. He is also an editor of The Central Blue blog. Follow him on Twitter @lightningulas The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of the RAAF, the Department of Defence or the Australian government.