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Going Pro—The Profession of Arms and the Enlisted Aviator

What does it truly mean to ‘go pro’? Warrant Officer David Turnbull dives into the concept of being a professional within Air Force and all that this title entails. Carrying the mantle of professional is no longer for the commissioned officer, but includes the specialised and expert enlisted aviator. WOFF Turnbull illustrates how the application of air and space power rests on every member understanding and critically assessing strategy. This requirement demands investment in ourselves and our professionalism to push the intellectual edge which underpins our competitive advantage.

Pro-surfer, pro-footballer, pro-athlete: the term ‘pro’ is widely used in the sporting world, where ‘going pro’ means you have made it in your chosen field of competition. ‘Pro’ of course is the abbreviation of ‘professional’. It describes occupations such as nurse and lawyer who are regarded as “disciplined …individuals who adhere to ethical standards, and who hold themselves out as, and are accepted by the public as possessing special knowledge and abilities in a widely recognised body of learning derived from research, education, and training at a high level, and who are prepared to apply this knowledge and exercise these skills in the interest of others.” To distil this definition further; to be professional is essentially a combination of expert knowledge, skills, trustworthiness, and altruism found in those who commit themselves to a life of service to others. These terms have clear parallels with the ADF values of Service, Courage, Respect, Integrity and Excellence.

The profession of arms

General Sir John Hackett describes “the profession of arms” in his 1962 series of lectures, and in a contemporary context can be defined as the ordered, lawful application of military force pursuant to Government direction, with members having exclusive responsibility for applying military force in pursuit of national interests.[1] Represented by the wearing of a distinct uniform, Air Force aviators assume membership of the profession of arms, and accept the unlimited liability[2]—the lawful ordering into harm’s way that could lead to the loss of their life—that comes with the state-sanctioned application of violence to achieve political aims. But does such membership automatically make enlisted aviators professional, or is there something more to it? In The Soldier and the State, Samuel Huntington argues that only officers could be considered professionals as “enlisted personnel have neither the intellectual skills nor the professional responsibility of the officer. Their vocation is a trade not a profession.”[3] For Huntington, officers were solely concerned with the management of violence whereas enlisted personnel focused on the application of violence.[4] The former required intellect and education, the latter required skill and training. This belief has a long history, stretching from feudal soldiering through to the formation of national standing armies and the regularisation of military service in the 19th century. Underpinning this belief was that “command in war should be reserved to those whose birth and upbringing ensured that they possessed the necessary intuitive capacity.”[5] Frederick the Great was convinced that “only aristocrats were sufficiently endowed with honour, courage and loyalty to make good officers,” and Englishman Henry Lloyd in the 18th century went so far to declare that command in war was the “product of natural genius,”[6] with the belief that this genius was only found in the upper-echelon of society. At the epoch of this thinking, the Duke of Wellington was determined to defend his country with “officers drawn exclusively from its top levels and a body of soldiery drawn entirely from its lowest.”[7]

While Huntington’s assertion may have held true in feudal times and remained valid through to the mid-20th Century, today's operational environment is more complex. Such complexity requires all personnel who wear a uniform—particularly enlisted aviators—to fundamentally understand the nature and character of warfare that extends far beyond the mere application of violence.

Further differentiating the profession of arms from other professions is its collective nature rather than an associational one. In collective professions, no individual—or even a subgroup of individuals—can accomplish the ends sought; it is the collective that acts together to realise an outcome. Accordingly, a higher degree of specialisation and organisation is required for collective professions to align and coordinate outputs that achieve results. The profession of arms requires the knowledge, skills, and expertise of every member to generate and apply military force in pursuit of national interests—not just a handful of individuals at the pointy end of the organisation. This is commonly known as an intellectual edge and it underpins “competitive advantage for future war and strategic competition.”[8]

Going pro! Generating an intellectual edge in enlisted aviators

So, what does Huntington’s theory mean for enlisted aviators in today’s day and age? Put simply, if you have never regarded yourself as a professional within Air Force, it’s time to get on board and go pro! “Attaining an intellectual edge requires more than just ticking progressive boxes of formal education, it calls for a lifelong curiosity to critically observe and absorb experience.” Essentially, every enlisted aviator is a member of the profession of arms, and with that membership comes the responsibility that applies to all professionals: the pursuit of life-long education and learning that underpins a high level of professional mastery and currency. In his article The Intellectual Edge: A Collective Effect, Christopher Wooding describes the intellectual edge as “a critical step to being prepared for the future,” driven by the collective effects of curiosity, understanding, and education. Wooding rightly argues that attaining an intellectual edge “demands fostering behaviours that support curiosity, understanding, and learning within individuals and organisations through formal and informal education to produce a collective effect from the sum of intellectual efforts within an organisation.”

‘But I’m just a [insert rank/mustering]—what does this have to do with me?!?’ In a word, everything. It’s about being part of a collective profession. The application of air and space power is predicated on all enlisted aviators having a sound understanding of—and the confidence to critically appraise and contest—where we are going (the Air Force strategy).[2] This includes where organisational efficiencies lie; the challenges ahead; and the strengths and weaknesses that each Mustering/Force Element/etc across the organisation brings to the mission. Essentially, without every enlisted aviator understanding and playing their part as a collective, Air Force cannot achieve an intellectual edge and generate the effects we are tasked to deliver. As Cate Carter succinctly states in The Intellectual Edge: “Our professional obligation to advance the institution of defence requires [every] voice; … we are too small an organisation not to include everyone.”

In Duty with Honour,[9] military professionalism is characterised by four main attributes: responsibility, identity, expertise, and professional ideology. These attributes are incorporated into the broader concept of military ethos which is described as the heart of the military profession and operational effectiveness, and which acts as the centre of gravity for the military profession and establishes an ethical framework for the professional conduct of military operations. Within this construct, members demonstrate their professionalism by:

  • embracing the military ethos;

  • achieving and maintaining the requirements for employment in an occupation and maintaining this qualification;

  • pursuing the highest standards of the required expertise; and

  • understanding, accepting, and fulfilling all the commitments and responsibilities inherent in the profession of arms.

What this means for enlisted aviators as members of the profession of arms is twofold. First, we all need to see ourselves and our workmates as air and space power professionals in the true sense of the word. This means embracing both individual and collective professional mastery (not just technical mastery) that is derived from consuming, contesting, and contributing to air and space power discourse. Second, we all need to treat attaining an intellectual edge (both individually and organisationally) as what Carter describes as a specialist, serious and long-term pursuit; and continually update our air and space power knowledge and expertise in order to maintain professional currency.


Now that you’re pro, it’s time to invest in yourself and commit to maintaining the highest standards of professionalism that wearing the Air Force uniform demands. Fundamentally, the profession of arms—as a collective profession—requires the knowledge, skills, and expertise of every enlisted aviator in order to attain an intellectual edge. Our profession is steeped in our history, heritage and tradition; sustained through leadership, policies and programs, and professional development; and underpinned by effective, credible self-regulation from each and every one of us. Understanding this takes time and effort; however, it is a necessary endeavour for every enlisted aviator as an Air Force professional. So there you go: welcome to the Air Force profession of arms! It is great to have you on board and playing your collective part in driving an intellectual edge that underpins the generation, projection, and sustainment of air and space power.

Warrant Officer David Turnbull is an Air Force Armament Technician and is the Air and Space Power Centre’s Senior Enlisted Leader. David’s focus is the professional development and education of Air Force personnel; particularly enlisted aviators.

[1] Canadian Forces Leadership, Institute, Canada, and Defence Department of National. Duty with Honour : The Profession of Arms in Canada. [Ottawa]: National Defence, 2003. p. 4.

[2] ibid. p. 26.

[3] Huntington, Samuel P. The Soldier and the State: the Theory and Politics of Civil–Military Relations. Harvard University Press, 1957.

[4] Belanger, Necole. "Being a Member of the Profession of Arms: An RCAF Chief Warrant Officer’s Perspective." Royal Canadian Air Force Journal 7, no. 1 (2018), p. 7.

[5] Hackett, John Sir. The Profession of Arms / Sir John Hackett. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1983, p. 19.

[6] ibid

[7] ibid p. 24.

[8] Ryan, Mick. "The Intellectual Edge: A Competitive Advantage for Future War and Strategic Competition." Joint Force Quarterly 96 1st Quarter (2020), p. 6.

[9] Canadian Forces Leadership, Institute, Canada, and Defence Department of National. Duty with Honour : The Profession of Arms in Canada. [Ottawa]: National Defence, 2003.


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