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Strategic imagination: why it matters to the Royal Australian Air Force – Oliver Jiang

Strategic imagination is as important to the Royal Australian Air Force’s future success as the innovation that lies at the heart of Plan JERICHO. In this post, Pilot Officer Oliver Jiang defines strategic imagination and explains the importance to developing problem conceptualisers as well as problem solvers.

The inability of national intelligence agencies in the United States to predict the 9/11 attacks has been described as a “failure of imagination”. And yet where the CIA, FBI and others failed, Rick Rescorla, the Security Director at Morgan Stanley, succeeded, anticipating future attacks, including the potential for a plane to fly into one of the towers. Rescorla drilled the employees of Morgan Stanley in evacuation procedures prior to the 9/11 attacks, with the result that only six employees out of 2700 would die on 9/11. Tragically, Rescorla was one of the six, refusing to leave the building until he was satisfied that every employee in his care had evacuated.

Rick Rescorla, Jorge Velazquez, and Godwin Forde leading the evacuation on 9/11 [Image Credit:]

Rick Rescorla, Jorge Velazquez, and Godwin Forde leading the evacuation on 9/11 [Image Credit:]

If the failure of America’s national intelligence agencies was a failure of imagination, then Rescorla’s success must have been one of imagination. More specifically, his triumph was the success of strategic imagination.

Strategic imagination has been defined as the interaction between three types of imagination: descriptive, creative, and challenging. Descriptive imagination is the ability to see and explain the current situation in a new way; creative imagination is the ability to see and explain what is not out there; challenging imagination is the ability to deconstruct and challenge what is and is not there already. Or, put it another way, strategic imagination is the ability to put aside what was true yesterday in order to imagine how tomorrow might be different.

Modern conflicts have clearly demonstrated the ability to circumvent militaries in order to strike directly at civilian targets with little advance warning. Imagining how tomorrow might be different is therefore critically important to the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) ability to anticipate, pre-empt, and respond to threats to Australia, its people, and its interests. The inherent characteristics of speed, reach and flexibility mean that air power is often called upon to provide the initial Australian response. As such, flying ‘strategically blind’ is a very real possibility, one that risks multiplying the effects of strategic shock and giving up decision superiority to a hostile aggressor. The application of strategic imagination can help alleviate this risk before any attack occurs.

The RAAF has innovative problem solvers, but problem solving does not mitigate a lack of strategic imagination. Instead, these two cognitive processes run in parallel, with problem solving dealing with the past up to the present, and strategic imagination dealing with the present into the future. Thinking up tomorrow’s problems therefore requires more than problem solvers; it requires problem conceptualists, who can apply their strategic imagination to come up with unorthodox scenarios, and then develop solutions to those scenarios. The risk of an overreliance on problem solving, and an underappreciation of strategic imagination, is that it places the RAAF in the unenviable position of waiting for a problem to develop before being able to recognise and respond. In peacetime, this hinders its ability to rapidly respond to escalating situations. In wartime, this may result in the injury or death of Australian personnel.

The RAAF does not have a formally documented and widely-accessible Air Force strategy, nor does it have many publicly identifiable strategic thinkers. This is a reflection of a failure in how the RAAF approaches strategy; it is seen as an unchangeable product, dictated by Government, and so not enough attention is given to how Air Force can input into the process which leads to its creation. In particular, the stage at which strategy begins, strategic imagination, is almost entirely ignored. For the RAAF to continue to meet the expectations of Government and the Australian people, this must change.

In the same manner in which the RAAF has been promoting innovation, through initiatives such as Plan JERICHO, a similar drive towards cultural and institutional change to embrace strategic imagination should be implemented. As part of this, priority must be given to the establishment of an Air Force Journal, a regular Service-level publication dedicated to the Air Force profession of arms that stimulates strategic imagination and facilitates strategic writing. Initiatives such as the Central Blue can play an important contributory role to this change by acting as a less formal conduit for communication between junior thinkers and senior decision makers.

We have already seen the consequences of one failure of imagination this century. As an organisation in the profession of arms, the RAAF must ensure that Australia does not suffer the consequences of a second.

Pilot Officer Oliver Jiang is an Air Intelligence Officer trainee in the Royal Australian Air Force. 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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