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Still the Right Stuff? Air Force Leadership in the 21st Century – Alan Stephens

On 28 August 2019, the Air Power Development Centre in collaboration with the Australian Centre for Study of Armed Conflict and Society (ACSACS) hosted the Sir James Rowland Seminar at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA). The seminar focused on Australian Aviation Culture and the enduring Air-minded approach to Air Power. Among an impressive line-up of speakers was Dr Alan Stephens, who elected to talk about Air Force Leadership in the 21st Century. The Central Blue is fortunate to be able to share his presentation with our readers today. We thank Dr Stephens for his contribution.

The eminent soldier-scholar J.F.C. Fuller believed that ‘the fighting power of a defence force lies in the first instance in its organisation.’[1] Foremost amongst the essential components of a successful organisation is its senior management – that is, its leadership. At a time of extreme technological and social change, epitomised by the notion of a Fourth Industrial Revolution, a fair case can be made that the leadership of Australia’s air power and the organisational model those leaders instinctively favour may be unsuited to the task ahead.

Few, if any, organisations are more intensely socialised than Western defence forces. Moreover, within that predetermined cultural environment, no one group is more dominant than air force pilots who, since air power was first applied systematically in the First World War, have led their services. I’d like to explore this point by referencing the celebrated American author, Tom Wolfe.

In 1979, Wolfe published a story about America’s first astronauts. Titled The Right Stuff, the book was a best-seller and was subsequently made into a movie. All of those early astronauts were required to be a fast-jet test pilot, a qualification which not only seemed relevant to the assumed nature of space exploration but also suggested that they had the ‘right stuff to succeed in this new domain of aeronautics. Wolfe’s entertaining story at times teased the jet-pilots’ highly developed sense of self-regard. However, having had his fun, Wolfe nevertheless concluded that those space pioneers deserved our admiration and that they did indeed have the ‘right stuff.’

A parallel can be drawn between the requirement for those first astronauts to have been fast-jet pilots, and the tradition that the most senior air force posts must be filled by strike/fighter pilots. Indeed, it is not so much a tradition as an article of faith that that fraternity alone has the right stuff to command air power. Taking the RAAF as an example, since the Australian Air Force was formed in 1921, every one of the 25 men who has held the office of chief has been a pilot; and of that number, 22 can be classified as strike/fighter pilots. Before discussing this organisational phenomenon as it relates to the 21st century, it has to be acknowledged that, in the broader scheme of things, thus far, those men have done an exceptional job.

Since mid-1944, when Allied air forces began to assert air supremacy in all theatres of the Second World War, Western air power has represented a military comparative advantage arguably unequalled in any combat domain in the history of warfare. Advanced Western air forces have not merely controlled the air for the past seventy years; they have dominated it. Moreover, they have simultaneously become an essential component of almost any reasonably-sized campaign on land or sea. That is not to say that air dominance has necessarily ensured political victory, whatever that might mean, but it is to say that, in discharging their brief, the West’s air commanders been extraordinarily successful.

Many complex and varied factors have contributed to that success, but I am going to suggest that there has been two that have defined the essence of air warfare as we have known it for one hundred years. I am then going to suggest that in the 21st century those factors might no longer obtain. The first factor concerns why air forces exist; and the second concerns how air forces have gone about discharging the ‘why’ of their existence.

First, the ‘why.’

Like navies and armies, when you get down to the basics, air forces exist to apply organised violence in the interests of the state. It is true that modern defence forces do much more than that – peacekeeping, disaster relief, border protection, nation-building, research and development, and so on. However, other organisations such as emergency services, NGOs, coast guards, industry, and private security firms can be used for those tasks. However, in democratic societies, only defence forces can legitimately apply violence against another state. As a former chief of the USAF, General Ron Fogleman, memorably put it, a military force’s unique purpose is to ‘kill people and break their stuff.’

Second, the ‘how.’

In discharging their duty to the state, air force commanders have from the earliest days correctly understood that their prime responsibility has resided in mastering two roles; namely, control of the air, and strike. It is again true that air forces do much more than that, but it is those two roles that have been at the heart of air warfare, and that have defined the best air forces. Consequently, it has been the exclusive, first-hand exposure of combat pilots to the associated warfighting concepts, tactics, technologies, and situational awareness that explains why that fraternity has dominated air power, and why its members have had the right stuff. It is noteworthy that the three most significant air power thinkers since the Second World War – John Boyd, John Warden and David Deptula – have all been fighter pilots.

The problem for future air power leaders, however, is that the traditional ‘how’ and ‘why’ organisational protocols no longer apply. The model that has served the West so well is in the process of being challenged by non-state actors and the ineluctable march of technology. Taking the rise of non-state actors, the application of offensive air power is no longer the sole province of states, air forces and military pilots. The most devastating airstrike since the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 occurred not in Korea, or Vietnam, or Iraq, or the Balkans, or Afghanistan, but in New York City on 11 September 2001.

Al Qaeda’s attack was an astonishing event. For four hours, a non-state organisation that did not have professional pilots, or aircraft, or weapons, let alone an air force, asserted control of the air overhead continental United States by subterfuge; and its destruction of the World Trade Centre changed the world. The specific model may or may not be replicated in the future, but the anarchical thinking behind it certainly will. Moreover, that anarchical thinking will be empowered by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

I will elaborate on that proposition shortly. However, first, we need to have a clear understanding of the foundations of traditional advanced air forces. An advanced air force can only be constructed and sustained by countries that possess all of the following resources: a developed economy, a highly educated population, a strong industrial base, and a sophisticated infrastructure. Consequently, by my reckoning, today, no more than about a dozen countries, including Australia, have first-rate air forces.

Unfortunately for those countries, again including Australia, the technologies that are empowering the Fourth Industrial Revolution will disrupt the established order and will revolutionise who can apply air power, and how. Those technologies include autonomous swarming unmanned systems, robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, cyber systems, 3D printing, high-definition quantum sensors, and hypersonic missiles.[2] By offering alternative means of achieving control of the air and conducting strategic strike, those rapidly evolving and comparatively cheap capabilities will allow previously marginalised players – non-state, third-world, assorted extremists, even individuals – to contest the established order.

I want to emphasise the profound implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution by using artificial intelligence as an example. In an article that has not received sufficient attention, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has provided a compelling and disturbing analysis of the power and potential of AI.[3] It is near-impossible to read Kissinger’s analysis, ominously titled ‘[H]ow the Enlightenment Ends,’ without concluding that we are at a defining moment in world history. Kissinger’s judgment is shared by, among others, Australia’s chief scientist, Professor Alan Finkel, who believes that AI is ‘poised to disrupt almost every fabric of Australian society.’[4] Other emerging technologies invite a similar conclusion, albeit less dramatically.[5]

The question now becomes: what does this mean for the RAAF?

In terms of the quality of its people, platforms, weapons, training, systems, and infrastructure, the RAAF of 2019 is the best it has ever been for its size, there is no better air force in the world. We can reasonably expect that the existing force structure will continue to provide Australia with regional air superiority for the next three to five years. However, what happens, then?

If we were tasked with designing an air force with a blank sheet of paper – that is, free from the influence of legacy organisations, capabilities, and thinking – what would it look like? In an era of transformative technologies, in which the pace and nature of change are profound and constantly increasing, is it rational to believe that we would arrive at the same kind of organisational arrangement as exists today – an arrangement that effectively has been the same for 75 years?

The F-35 exemplifies this abstraction. While the F-35 is an exceptional weapons system, the RAAF is fortunate that the platform and its support systems are almost in place, rather than being five or ten years away. The issue is, it has taken 27 years to progress the F-35 from design development to operational readiness, and each platform is costing $100 million. Similar numbers can be provided for most combat aircraft. I would suggest that those numbers are unsustainable when autonomous drones and long-range missiles can be developed in less than one-tenth of both the time and cost.

There is also the matter of legacy organisational arrangements and cultural beliefs, which leads us back to the fighter pilot syndrome, and to the military-industrial complex within which air forces exist. A recent report from the RAND Corporation suggested that the ‘fighter jock’ culture may be inhibiting the USAF’s development.[6] According to RAND, the USAF is still dominated by fast-jet pilots, even though the ‘more technologically diverse set of missions,’ the service is facing demands a broader leadership base. RAND also found that fighter pilots have been ‘somewhat grudging’ in their acceptance of drones and that the ‘manned versus unmanned aircraft debate continue[s] to permeate internal service insecurities.’

Turning to the military-industrial complex, it was US president Dwight Eisenhower – previously one of the Second World War’s greatest generals – who in 1961 warned us of the dangers of the self-serving relationship between the military leadership and the defence industry.[7] The ‘entire livelihood’ of both groups depends on keeping long-term programs intact and funded, a mentality which in turn fosters an incremental, risk-averse, status-quo approach to force development, and which favours the maintenance of traditional capabilities.[8] Defence companies that make billions from legacy systems ‘are as welcoming of disruptions to their business model as the taxi cab industry has been of Uber and Lyft.’[9]

Relating this mindset – this culture – to Australia, Andrew Davies from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has argued that ‘the sunk cost and institutional fondness for the current […] structure, combined with the industrial landscape and its associated politics’ has made the ADF’s culture and configuration ‘for all practical purposes immutable.’[10] Davies sees Australia’s defence conglomerate as having neither ‘the courage [nor the] imagination required to significantly change direction.’

Applying this mentality specifically to air power, we might note the inexorable momentum within advanced air forces to develop manned, so-called ‘sixth-generation’ fighters and bombers, which surely only the greatest optimist could expect to enter service in less than a quarter of a century and at a price tag less than the GDP of a third-world country.[11] To be fair, that same optimist might point to the RAAF’s futuristic Plan Jericho, the purpose of which is to ‘protect Australia from technologically sophisticated and rapidly morphing threats […] to push the boundaries of our fifth-generation force […] [primarily] by exploiting augmented intelligence.’[12]

However, a pessimist might respond by referring to real-life rather than to reverie. For example, at the start of the Second World War, on land, British and French generals who had been socialised to believe in the divine right of infantry proved incapable of comprehending the disruptive nature of mechanised warfare and were routed by Germans who had embraced change; while at sea, admirals who had been socialised to believe in the divine right of capital ships proved incapable of comprehending the disruptive nature of air power, and went down with their ships.

Plan Jericho is an admirable initiative which implicitly acknowledges that the RAAF, like all of us, is living in a disruptive world. However, it remains to be seen whether the project will generate genuine change or will simply sponsor capabilities that will be absorbed into the existing cultural and organisational mindset.

In 1921, the great air power theorist Giulio Douhet wrote that ‘[V]ictory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur.’[13] Coincidentally, 1921 was also the year in which the RAAF was established. Australians can be grateful that in the almost one hundred years since then, the strike/fighter pilots who have dominated their air force have delivered a national defence capability of the highest quality.

However, if we believe that we are indeed experiencing a Fourth Industrial Revolution, then, by definition, the culture that has served the RAAF well is unlikely to do so in the near future. The essential question facing today’s Air Force is whether or not leaders who have been socialised within an archaic organisational framework have the right stuff to take their service forward in the 21st century.

Dr Alan Stephens is a Fellow of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation. He has been a senior lecturer at UNSW Canberra; a visiting fellow at ANU; a visiting fellow at UNSW Canberra; the RAAF historian; an advisor in federal parliament on foreign affairs and defence; and a pilot in the RAAF, where his experience included the command of an operational squadron and a tour in Vietnam. He has lectured internationally, and his publications have been translated into some twenty languages. He is a graduate of the University of New South Wales, the Australian National University, and the University of New England. Stephens was awarded an OAM in 2008 for his contribution to Australian military history.

[1] J.F.C. Fuller, The Foundations of the Science of War (London, Hutchinson, 1926).

[3] Henry Kissinger, ‘How the Enlightenment Ends,’ The Atlantic, June 2019. On the same theme, cyber might also have been used as a model: see, for example, Sue Halpern, ‘How Cyber Weapons are changing the Landscape of Modern Warfare,’ The New Yorker, 18 July 2019. For an air power-specific commentary on AI, see James Waller and Phillip Morgan, ‘Putting AI into Air: What is Artificial Intelligence and What it Might Mean for the Air Environment,’ RAF Air and Space Power Review, 22:2 (2019).

[4] Quoted in Australian Council of Learned Academies, ‘The Effective and Ethical Development of Artificial Intelligence,’ July 2019.

[5] See, for example, Christian Brose, ‘The New Revolution in Military Affairs,’ Foreign Affairs, 16 April 2019.

[6] S. Rebecca Zimmerman, Kimberly Jackson, Natasha Lander, Colin Roberts, Dan Madden and Rebeca Orrie, Movement and Maneuver: Culture and the Competition for Influence Among the U.S. Military Services (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2019). See also Kyle Rempfer, Fighter jock culture may be holding Air Force back, Rand study says.’ Air Force Times, 26 February 2019.

[7] Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell Address to the Nation, 17 January 1961.

[8] Robert Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York, Vintage Books, 2015).

[9] Christian Brose, ‘The New Revolution in Military Affairs,’ Foreign Affairs, May/June 2019.

[10] Davies, ‘A new DWP.’

[11] See, for example, Sebastian Roblin, ‘Beyond the F-22 or F-35: What Will the Sixth-Generation Fighter Look Like?,’ The National Interest, 21 July 2018; Kyle Mizokami, ‘Next Stop for Air Force’s New Bomber: First Flight,’ Popular Mechanics, 11 April 2019; and Tony Osborne, ‘Airbus and Dassault Reveal Vision for New-Gen Fighter,’ Aviation Week & Space Technology, 1-14 July 1-14, 2019.

[13] Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air, translated by Dino Ferrari (Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, 1983), p. 30.


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