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#FutureChiefs – Future Air Force Technology Chief?

This week we return to one of our core writing themes for this year - #FutureChiefs. In this instalment, TCB editor Luke Webb explores a new role for future CAFs – that of technology leader.

Should future Chiefs of Air Force (CAF) be the leaders and figureheads of an aviation enterprise, or some other organisational ontology?

It’s my contention that the centre of gravity of Air Force is moving from being a flying enterprise to a knowledge-actor network that’s fuelled by a range of advanced technologies – both in the air/orbit and on the ground. As such, future CAF’s will be charged with developing, advancing, and exerting the effects that spring from this Blue intellectual force and its associated technologies base – all in addition to the existing suite of responsibilities CAFs are expected to fulfil.

Sure, the Air Force of the future will still do plenty of flying and exerting effects, and the prospect of the enterprise echoing a Silicon Valley tech behemoth is not likely the most relevant model to adopt despite the burgeoning technology stack that powers Air Force. But whilst Air Force is not a technology outfit, it reverts to an aviation social club without a high degree of tech-centricity [1], and this, I argue, means that a #FutureChief needs to add technology leader to their epaulettes.

A parallel to examine would be the leaders of other public sector organisations like DSTG, CSIRO and the Chief Scientist of Australia. Individuals who know their technical tradecraft, but whose role and identity are not so firmly set around deep domain expertise.

Instead, these are leaders who have substantial experience in transformations – whether in launching new high-tech start-ups (such as Alan Finkel), leading major research efforts whilst managing many risks and unknowns (such as Professor Graeme Clark) or making breakthroughs in areas of significant complexity and communicating these to non-technical audiences (such as Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith).

They’re effective managers of the business of discovery, experimentation, and transformation, and not just of the end-products of science & technology (S&T) processes. Articulating how a future Air Force will likely be shaped by technology and intellect management would fill a series of articles, but as technology cycles shorten and the reliance on the technical expertise of its people increases, the success of Air Force will depend on far more than the ability to launch airborne sorties. It will become an organisation that needs to constantly evolve its technology and intellectual network to produce the effects that modern conflict will demand of it. Therefore, it will need a leader that is intimately aware of the fragility of evolving an organisation along these lines.

To empower this vision, I’d argue #FutureChiefs will need to expand their role to include (or beef up) the following personas:

  • An aerospace power futurist (or at least someone who can listen and respond to futurists, but with a critical lens).

  • A Socratic master – the key knowledge provocateur and instigator of deeper organisational thinking and learning

  • A narrative setter and a storyteller – painting the vision of how the enterprise needs to change and its ‘next state’ intent

  • An ambassador to the Government of the day and an educator of the stakeholders that will shape the enterprise’s future. Articulating constant change is a delicate art and a time-consuming activity – especially when a major strand to this effort is masterly explaining failure and uncertainty

  • The Chief attorney & ethicist to lead and challenge technological developments to be in line with the codified and uncodified expectations of the national (and increasingly international) citizenry whom Air Force serves.

The Air Force of the future will face significant challenges around information mobility and rapid sensemaking. Whilst a future CAF won't be the primary technology architect, it will be their role to empower the Air Force ecosystem to continue iterating, adapting, and changing. It will require a leader who not only recognises the complexity and dependencies of the tail-to-tooth chain of Air Force, but who also has an instinct to lead its successful adaptation to deliver ever-new aerospace-derived effects – all without losing its aviation professionalism that makes Air Force such a unique organisation.

[1] And by tech-centricity, this is not to assert that technology is the one core strand of DNA of Air Force. Aerospace power relies on the masterful skill and knowledge of its people, using their experience to leverage technology to produce effects in, from and through air & space. This piece assumes that the growing focus on Air Force people will remain a core part of CAF’s role (along with all the other existing components) and rather advocates for another important strand to future CAFs’ work - leading Air Force in S&T mastery.

Luke Webb is a Melbourne-based aerospace engineer, casual academic & science communicator. He is the Chair of the Melbourne Branch of the Royal Aeronautical Society, and one of the editors of The Central Blue.


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