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Of Self-Destructive Inertia and Turboencabulators: The Rationale for The Central Blue

Today, 2nd December, marks three months since The Central Blue published its first post. Though the start has been modest (25 posts including this one), it has been successful. In the short period that the blog has been active we have received and published posts on a range of topics, from fiction to F-35s, written by a diverse group of authors, from lawyers to Combat Controllers. But there is still a ways to go.

The editors’ vision for The Central Blue is that it will become the preferred outlet for discussion, discourse, and debate of the ideas, challenges, and opportunities that have, do, and will define Australian air power. To do this, we need to broaden the scope of topics that are our posts cover, and expand and diversify our contributor pool. It may surprise some readers to read that this is not as easy as putting out a call for submissions. There appears to be a, perhaps understandable, reluctance to put fingers to keyboards to express ideas, challenge the conventional wisdom, identify a novel way ahead, or even to seek clarification for concepts that are perhaps oft-used but poorly understood.

In an effort to address this reluctance, I decided that now, three months into this experiment, is a good time to outline my own personal reasons for (1) co-editing this blog, and (2) submitting my own thoughts to the blog to invite comment and challenge. It’s my hope that this personal reflection may demystify the blog and encourage more people to become engaged in the debate on the past, present, and future of Australian air power that this blog seeks to promote.

To Avoid Self-Destructive Inertia 

Every now and then you come across a quote that speaks to you in such a way that it stays with you despite the passage of time. These can come from books, movies, songs, poems, or, as is increasingly likely, internet memes. For me, I stumbled across such a quote while reading for a course. The quote comes from JFC Fuller’s 1925 book The Foundations of the Science of WarThough the book itself is a challenging read, one comment stood out as capturing my views on some of the problems that I saw in the way doctrine is viewed :

The central idea of an army is known as its doctrine, which to be sound must be based on the principles of war, and which to be effective must be elastic enough to admit of mutation in accordance with change in circumstances. In its ultimate relationship to the human understanding this central idea or doctrine is nothing else than common sense-that is, action adapted to circumstances. In itself, the danger of a doctrine is that it is apt to ossify into a dogma, and to be seized upon by mental emasculates who lack virility of judgment, and who are only too grateful to rest assured that their actions, however inept, find justification in a book, which, if they think at all, is, in their opinion, written in order to exonerate them from doing so. In the past many armies have been destroyed by internal discord, and some have been destroyed by the weapons of their antagonists, but the majority have perished through adhering to dogmas springing from their past successes-that is, self-destruction or suicide through inertia of mind.
Major General John Frederick Charles "Boney" Fuller: Army Officer, historian, strategist. [Image Credit: © IWM (Q 71653)]

Major General John Frederick Charles “Boney” Fuller: Army Officer, historian, strategist. [Image Credit: © IWM (Q 71653)]

This quote is a powerful, and indeed colourful, indictment of a military education system that places importance on the completion of modules rather than the depth of understanding of concepts. This is as true of today’s Air Force as it was of Fuller’s interwar British Army.

But it is not fair to place the blame for this squarely or solely on the shoulders of those charged with the development and delivery of Professional Military Education and Training (PMET) within Air Force. The changes in PMET delivery, focus, and feedback has significantly improved the effectiveness of the system over the past few years, and continues to improve even now.

What has been missing from Air Force’s PMET suite, however, is a simple and accessible platform to promote continued engagement with air power concepts outside of the mandated compulsory education modules. Such a platform would enable Air Force personnel, and those with an interest in air power, to expand and deepen their understanding of air power concepts and strategy in an interactive forum, the purpose of which is engage not to assess. Unfortunately, the nature of military organisations means that there was a reluctance to create an official forum with the explicit intent to publicly air self-criticism. This is the gap that I see The Central Blue filling.

One of the aims for The Central Blue is to enable contributors, commentors, and readers alike to explore ideas that are only glanced upon during the formal education process, and rarely if ever truly discussed in the real world. What we are starting to see is that this blog enables airmen and those with an interest in air power to go beyond clichés to develop true understanding. Hopefully this enables them to, amongst other things, pragmatically adapt concepts such as ‘centralised control, decentralised execution‘, explain what is meant by the term ‘air superiority’, and explore the untapped potential of airborne ISR beyond its traditional roles.  It also provides an outlet to develop innovative ideas for new capabilities, and discuss different ways that Air Force can develop its airmen.

By providing an outlet and promoting the discussion of the concepts that underpin the development, management, and employment of all aspects of air power, The Central Blue exists as a powerful tool for airmen and those with an interest in air power to ensure contextually adaptable doctrine does not become contextually blind dogma that leads to Air Force’s ‘self-destruction … through inertia of mind.’ But this will only be possible with broad and diverse engagement in discussion, debate, and discourse.

Dispelling the turboencabulators

A related but sufficiently different aim of The Central Blue is to simplify and clarify the discussion of air power. Along with the oft used/little understood doctrinal throw-away lines of ‘air superiority’ and ‘centralised-control decentralised-execution’ discussed above, air power discussions are also replete with buzzwords, technobabble, and jargon that can be similarly poorly understood. Terms such as ‘network-centricity,’ ‘effects-based operations,’ ‘multi-dimensional manoeuvre,’ ‘gray zone conflict,’  and even ‘fifth generation enabled’ have become common place in the discussion of modern military operations.

These buzzwords are often thrown around without a true appreciation of their meaning, significance or relevance, which limits the usefulness of any discussion in which they are used.  To provide an example, in a recent discussion on the requirement to fully engage with the Air Force’s Plan JERICHO, a statement was made that we needed to embrace the ‘Fifth Generation Air Force.’ The question was asked in response as to what that actually meant. The reply: ‘You know… Fifth Generation Air Force. You know… F-35 and stuff.’ This apparent lack of a true appreciation of a buzzword is not isolated, nor is it rare. I am myself guilty of throwing around buzzwords with reckless abandon. In fact, following one such discussion with a colleague I was asked if I had ever heard of a turboencabulator.

I took that subtle advice on board and most of the time I am able to limit my use of ambiguous jargon. But it is an unfortunate reality of military life that jargon is a necessary component of any discussion we have about what it is we do. So though we may try to minimise it, we can never be completely free of it.

Here again, I see The Central Blue playing an important role. In fleshing out the meaning of concepts, breaking them down into their component parts, and even debating the fundamental assumptions upon which the concepts rely, progress can be made in baselining understanding such that when we talk of a ‘Fifth Generation Air Force’ we are aware that it is more than simply the ‘F-35 and stuff’.

The Aspiration

For the editors of The Central Blue the future is full of possibilities. Though we realise there are challenges we face in ensuring this blog becomes a foundation stone in the professional development of those with an interest in air power in Australia, we see the signs of life that have emerged over the last three months as incredibly positive. But to achieve our goals of avoiding the self-destructive inertia of dogma and to weed out the turboencabulators from our necessary pool of fifth generation jargon, we are reliant on those involved with or interested in Australian air power to participate actively in the blog, moving from reading, to commenting, to writing. A challenge to be sure, but one worthy of the effort.

Squadron Leader Travis Hallen is an Air Combat Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. He is also a Sir Richard Williams Foundation Scholar and editor at The Central Blue. 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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