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Is the Air Force building a cadre of Operator-Intellectuals? — Jason Begley

In this post Wing Commander Jason Begley asks whether the Air Force is fostering the Operator-Intellectuals it needs to meet the challenge of a fifth-generation force and explores some of the challenges to the Air Force valuing thinking about thinking as much as it values thinking about technology.

During the 2016 Air Power Conference, Dr Paula Thornhill called on the Air Force to generate warrior-scholars to lead it into the future. A balance between operator and intellectual, these polymaths would be the key developers of the innovative concepts required to realise Plan Jericho. While Dr Thornhill was applauded at the time, is the Air Force meeting her challenge to generate an Operator-Intellectual cadre?

Perhaps first we should ask whether the Air Force understands what this Operator-Intellectual is. Possibly we have confused the ‘intellectual’ element with the ‘Devil’s Advocate’ who dons a black hat to ‘test’ our plans. As Micah Zenko observes in Red Team, the Devil’s Advocate is often more ineffective than intellectual – they rarely challenge core assumptions of a plan, let alone second or third order effects. Their testing is more often advocacy for the plan, as their superficial approach is only a token that identifies minor improvements (‘low-hanging fruit’) not fundamental flaws. Meanwhile, our confidence in this ‘tested’ plan can become disproportionately increased and often tragically misplaced. The recently fashionable ‘Disruptive Thinker’ offers a little more utility that the Devil’s Advocate, despite going into greater detail and assessing the validity of core assumptions. This approach’s key limitation is its focus on critical analysis but not identification, exploration and exploitation of opportunities.

David Deptula: the most influential airminded Operator-Intellectual of recent times? [Image credit: public domain]

David Deptula: the most influential airminded Operator-Intellectual of recent times? [Image credit: public domain]

The Operator-Intellectual can be distinguished by four key traits. First, they are constructive thinkers akin to soldier-scholars for whom their most powerful tool is not their weapon but their mind. They not only critically analyse and validate our assumptions and plans, but aim also to optimise these as well as propose options not previously considered. Their intellect and education (whether formal or simply through being well read) allows them to anticipate future changes, from the likely to the black swan, and to develop plans to adapt to and exploit the opportunities these changes present rather than waiting to respond.

Second, they are masters of their trade. Technology is critical to the Air Force; it allows us to defy gravity and to utilise, exploit and, very soon, dominate the electromagnetic spectrum. Given an increasingly complex environment and the pace of technological change, we require genuine thinkers to lead the evolution of tactics, techniques, and procedures – if they remain static or we simply follow our partners, these enablers may swiftly become a limitation. This requires the Operator-Intellectual to blend conceptual thinking with technical competence and professional credibility to translate their ideas into practical uses.

To that end, the third trait of the Operator-Intellectual is their ability to communicate effectively. Their core business is situated where the leading edges of strategic and operational thought and technology merge, so they must be able to articulate their proposals in terms that can reach audiences comprising line operators, technophiles, senior leadership and our political masters.

The final requirement of the Operator-Intellectual, and arguably the most critical, is the moral courage to stare down cultural inertia despite the potential implications to their career. Militaries have long demonstrated affinity bias and cognitive dissonance, and their entrenched cultural norms have often led to tragic results. This recent post From the Green Notebook coupled with the experiences of Liddell-Hart, Tukhachevsky, Hobart and Warden highlight the anti-intellectual tendencies of military organisations and the consequences too often enjoyed by the innovators and reformists who challenged existing cultural paradigms, regardless of the success of their ideas.

Presenters at the second Sir James Rowland Seminar, 05 April 2017 [Image credit: UNSW Canberra - Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society]

Presenters at the second Sir James Rowland Seminar, 05 April 2017 [Image credit: UNSW Canberra – Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society]

So, returning to our original question, is the Air Force developing a cadre of Operator-Intellectuals? The large attendance at the 2016 Air Power Conference and the launch of the Air Force Strategy in February 2017 suggests a healthy outlook for Air Force thinkers, but does the perception equal reality? The first Sir James Rowland Air Power Seminar attracted only 75 attendees; the second only 40 to hear its nine presenters. Some may blame the lack of catering. A cynic might point to the lack of Senior Leadership present with whom ‘face-time’ could be had. Either way, when coupled with the small number of contributors to air power debate on the Central Blue, there appears a strong case that our people may only be ‘thinking’ when they believe the Chief is watching and that our culture in this regard remains comfortably static.

This homogeneity of thought threatens to stifle innovation, and overcoming it is not an adaptive culture challenge, it is a leadership challenge. Commanders at all levels need to aspire to and inspire others to become Operator-Intellectuals. A colleague expressed the view that “commanders are too busy with governance to be intellectuals.” I interpreted this as “too busy to lead” and was subsequently unsurprised that his staff appeared wedded to process and blind to the opportunities before them to improve core business – a professional development failing more attributable to him than to them.

I view a senior officer’s public comments regarding two highly proficient aircrew in a similar manner. The one who embodied the prevailing culture was considered to have, “that intangible good bloke quality we need in our future commanders.” Whereas the one who consistently considered the bigger picture, developed options to enable long-term success within a dynamic environment and who took risks to deliver improvements “had a big future in some strategy job… or maybe the Air Power Centre.”

Militaries across the globe have come to recognise that successful innovation entails not only new capabilities, but new ways to employ them. Geoffrey Wawro puts it more directly, “in an age of non-stop semi-war, the need for clear, unsentimental thinking is more important than ever.” This thinking is what our Operator-Intellectuals offer and we must be prepared not only to encourage them but at times to be challenged by them. As former Deputy Chief of Air Force Air Vice-Marshal Warren McDonald noted shortly after Dr Thornhill’s address, we cannot afford to simply discard talented thinkers as ‘difficult’ in the manner we have done in the past. If we do, we risk what General Schoomaker, former Chief of Staff for the US Army, described as the “regimentation and institutionalisation of mediocrity” in the military. Plan Jericho and fifth-generation capabilities will not prevent this; for us to realise the benefits of both, we need to balance our thinking about technology with a focus on thinking about thinking.

WGCDR Jason Begley is an Air Combat Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. He is also a Sir Richard Williams Foundation Scholar and PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.


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