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AVOCADO 101: An Air Force guide to the Australian Command and Staff Course - Matt Kelly

For the first post of 2021, The Central Blue welcomes Squadron Leader Matt Kelly to provide some timely advice for our Air Force readers about to commence Australian Command and Staff College. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not represent the views of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

Congratulations! You’ve just been told that you’ll be attending the Australian Command and Staff Course (ACSC) next year. For some this is excellent news, another step in your carefully planned career. For others this is an unusual surprise, as you hadn’t applied and you’re now in a state of mild confusion. Either way, you need to start preparing.

For a comprehensive overview of the course, have a look at Dan Ellis’ article on the Chesterfield Strategy. My intent is to add a ‘blue shade’ to the conversation, with the caveat that this is based on my own experience as a student undertaking ACSC in 2020. Results may vary.

Academic Preparation

Many of you will be tempted to dive in and start reading tomes from Clausewitz, Sun Tzu etc. The reality is that you don’t need to do any of this beforehand, as there will be plenty of time to read on course. Having said that, I had been reading The Strategist and The Central Blue and listening to The Dead Prussian for a few years prior, which I think helped as a lead-in to the course. If you’re brand new to this world, have a look at COMADC's latest reading list for ideas to get you started.

With access available to the ACSC ADELE website around Oct-Nov the year prior to course commencement, anytime from here is a good point to understand what academic requirements stand in front of you. I would consider familiarising yourself with college Standing Orders, do the ANU academic module (even if you’ve studied before – as the ANU has a very prescriptive essay structure that you’ll need to master), then enjoy your Christmas break. Buy yourself a second monitor for your laptop (trust me - you’ll thank me later), and strap yourself in for the year ahead.

RAAF Pre-courses

The RAAF offers two preparatory courses for ACSC: the Air Practitioner in a Joint Environment (APJE) course delivered by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), and the Advanced Air Power Course (AAPC) delivered by the Air and Space Power Centre. Both are valuable in different ways, but not in the ways you might think.

The Air Practitioner in a Joint Environment (APJE) course is an insightful two-week adventure where students are introduced to an array of world-class strategic thinkers. Students leave with a broader understanding of contemporary strategic issues, which will hold them in good stead for many of the ACSC modules. There’s even the opportunity to have an essay reviewed by an academic so students can get used to structuring their ideas in the ‘correct’ way.

Ironically, what the APJE doesn’t comprehensively provide is guidance on how to be an air practitioner in a joint environment. To be fair, I don’t think this is something the RAAF can or should outsource to an organisation such as ASPI. From what I've seen, the RAAF could better prepare ACSC students by renaming the APJE to something more apt and developing an actual APJE course.

This new course would fill a crucial gap; as many (most) of us have limited exposure to how air planning actually occurs owing to our limited RAAF-wide culture. Addressing this deficiency would not only help students on ACSC (where we are all expected to be air SMEs), it would also liberate ASPI to concentrate on the strategic area it knows best.

The Advanced Air Power Course (AAPC) consists of 13 seminars (weekly topics consisting of readings and a forum post) and an essay, taking students on a journey from the beginnings of air power to an analysis on what the future might hold. I found the AAPC illuminating as I hadn’t delved into RAAF history as much as I should have, and from this perspective the AAPC provides a solid foundation we should all have as Air Force officers.

In terms of preparation for ACSC, the AAPC is useful but not essential. Air power theory and history is mentioned sporadically throughout the course, but this is done at an introductory level to cater for all students (just as Air Force students will learn about land and sea power). However, it is essential that Air Force officers complete the AAPC at some stage to garner a historical understanding of their service.

The Avocado

Ok, so you have your second screen, did your pre-courses and you’re heading to Weston Creek for your first day. What can you expect? For those who have done joint postings before, the college will have the familiar ‘avocado’ feel i.e., a thin layer of purple with a lot of green (Army) underneath.

I will add that the avocado is probably the most suitable model for a course such as ACSC. The finely tuned scheduling mixed with the size and diversity of the class cohort needs the rigorous attention to detail and structure that the Army does best. However, those new to the joint world will need to adapt to a couple of idiosyncrasies throughout the year.

The first will be a sometimes-brusque form of satire that permeates the course through rituals such as ‘back-briefs’ and newsletters which aim to inject light-hearted banter to offset the stress of assignments. As is often the case in a melting pot of sub-cultures, some jokes can miss the mark, but in my experience, the quips are well-meaning and the ‘comedians’ are quick to offer an apology if offence is taken.

The other notable aspect of the avocado is an underlying tension that comes from an element of the course treating the year as a competition against others. While this is not limited to one service, in my experience, most of this faction comes from our green brethren. To a degree this is understandable, as the end of course score plays a greater role in promotion deliberations than it does for us. The trick is for RAAF officers not to get swept up in the competition. If anything, keep an eye out for it, bring your popcorn and enjoy the show. It can be entertaining!

Ride the Wave

I agree with everything Dan says in his article on workload, family and general observations, so I won’t repeat his words in depth here. Find the routine that best works for you and your family and don’t get caught up in what others are doing. Build your networks and use them regularly (even if it is just to vent about the assignments or share memes). Above all, remember you’re being paid (well) to study full-time…how good is that?

Does the RAAF prepare you sufficiently to undertake ACSC? I think so; however, time with the other Services can remind us that the RAAF needs to do more to instil a deep, inculcated ‘blueness’ into its officers. Where Army officers exude their ‘officer first, corps second’ mantra and Navy officers regale with their ‘whole of ship’ shenanigans, RAAF officers are conspicuously devoid of such Service-centric thinking.

All in all, I encourage you to ride the ACSC wave and enjoy it while you can. Follow this advice and I guarantee that you’ll emerge in December much better for the year that was. You will have met some great people, thought plenty of deep thoughts, and laid the foundation for the next chapter in your career. And if nothing else, you now know what an avocado is.


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