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Where the Good Ideas Are: Engaging Allies in the Contest of Ideas

The Central Blue welcomes back Wing Commander Trav Hallen, along with United States Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Clayton Aune in this week’s hard-hitting piece on good ideas. Wing Commander Hallen and Lieutenant Colonel Aune hold nothing back in demonstrating the importance in changing Air Forces’ mindsets towards what is a good idea, where they come from, and why we need them now more than ever before. The pair also illustrate how change is already starting, and how members from all allied Air Forces can and should engage with this emerging cognitive change.

Air power professionals love technology, and that can be a problem. When they talk about the future of air power, airmen and airwomen often default to a description of machines and algorithms. Many, though not all, see and describe the future of air power as doing the same things with newer, smarter, and/or faster toys. Seeing the future solely as an update in the tools without a re-evaluation of what is being built and why is a failure of imagination. More importantly, an overly tech-centric vision of the future of air power will not allow force designers to create the air forces the United States and its allies and partners need to meet the challenges that will be faced by tomorrow’s airmen and airwomen.

The reason is simple. States that threaten the stability of the international rules-based order are rapidly reducing the technological advantage Western militaries have long enjoyed, while simultaneously investing in disruptive technologies to open up novel areas for their advantage. If the Western response remains tech-centric, its militaries will lock themselves in a symmetric and predictable race that will be costly and which they may lose. Yet, this appears to be the default option. As the US House of Representatives’ Future of Defense Task Force put it: “The United States must recognize that without a new commitment to achieving technological superiority, the successes of the 20th century...will no longer be assured.” Though technology will play a critical role in future military operations, technological superiority alone won’t guarantee success. The pursuit of new technology must be complemented and informed by an equivalent investment in new ideas and concepts that challenge the way Western militaries conceive of air power and its employment. They need to reassess every assumption and reimagine the future of air power. In the words of the co-chairs of the Future of Defense Task Force: “Unless we make drastic changes, we will lose.”

The United States Air Force (USAF) is aware of the need to change and the risks of adhering to old ideas, concepts, and practices. The new Chief of Staff (CSAF), General Charles Q. Brown, Jr., made his direction clear in Accelerate Change of Lose:

If we fail to adapt to the changes in the strategic environment, a large and growing body of evidence suggests that we risk losing in great power competition, a high-end fight, quality Airmen [and airwomen], our credibility, and the ability to secure our future. If we are to succeed, we must accelerate the change necessary for us to remain the most dominant and respected Air Force in the world.

Translating CSAF’s intent into action is one of the key tasks of the Conceptual Design teams within the USAF A5/7 Strategy, Integration, and Requirements directorate—to which we (the authors) belong. One of our key tasks is to develop novel and disruptive concepts of air power to inform future force design. Traditionally, the US military looked inside its own borders for those ideas. And that’s a failure. An inwards focus limits the diversity of perspectives and the creativity of the solutions developed. More to the point, the United States has never fought a major war by itself and is unlikely to do so in the future. As the 2018 US National Defense Strategy states: ‘[e]very day, our allies and partners join with us in defending freedom, deterring war, and maintaining the rules which underwrite a free and open international order.’ So it makes little sense that the USAF would ignore the diversity of thought and perspective that is available from the airmen and airwomen who would fight alongside their US colleagues as members of a future combined force. In envisioning the future force, the USAF needs to internationalise the contest of ideas of what the future of air power should be. It needs to shift from a World Series to a World Cup mindset. Expanding the contest of ideas is exactly what the A5/7 is doing, starting with a shift in the organisation’s mindset.

The first step is to correct the pop culture presentation or military lore belief as to the origins of the good ideas. The best ideas and insights are not the exclusive domain of high rank, the subject matter experts, or those holding influential positions. It was U.S. Navy Captain Francis Low, then leading the Navy’s anti-submarine warfare efforts, who co-conceived the famous Doolittle Raid. He saw a picture of heavy bombers attacking an aircraft carrier and was inspired to reverse the image to have bigger bombers launch from aircraft carriers. While he co-developed the concept with Jimmy Doolittle, Captain Low receives almost no credit for the disruptive concept. To be clear senior officers, subject matter experts, and specialist organizations are and will continue to be an excellent source of creative and insightful ideas. However, to assume that the great ideas can only come from these individuals and areas is simply wrong. Worse, to believe that only the experienced experts within your organisation are worth listening to is hubris and limits organisational creativity in potentially dangerous ways. We need to go where the good ideas are, regardless of their source.

The development of digital military, strategy, and national security forums, such as The Central Blue, The Wavell Room, and The Forge, has created a wealth of opportunity to find new, unique, and challenging ideas that draw on a vast array of perspectives and experiences to create different solutions to common problems. Unfortunately, this has long been an untapped resource for the USAF. Though the scale and capability differ between nations’ air forces, the fundamentals of air power are universal. Further, no single country, service, or career field has a monopoly on good ideas. Arguably, those with “less” will uncover more creative concepts as they lack the mass to simply steamroll an adversary. As the New Zealand-born Nobel Prize winning scientist, Ernest Rutherford said: “We’ve got no money, so we’ve got to think.” So, it makes sense for US strategists to engage more actively with their allies and partners to generate novel insights into the future of air power.

But it’s not enough to just solicit suggestions and find ideas. That input must reach an audience that is both willing to be persuaded, and that has the authority to implement change. For U.S. decision makers who are used to dominating the contest of ideas, this may involve eating some humble pie. As former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, said at the annual USAF Air Force Association conference in 2017: “We must do more than to listen to our allies, we must be willing to be persuaded by them...Not all the great ideas come from the nation with the most aircraft carriers.” Or to put this into air power lingo; the most stealth doesn’t make you the most right or most creative.

To seize the opportunity that engaged and creative allied thinking presents, the USAF needs to engage and empower emerging and disruptive air power thinkers, regardless of nationality, to have those ideas heard.

Empowerment is one of the key themes of General Brown’s Accelerate Change or Lose, as he believes that ‘empowered airmen [and airwomen] can solve any problem’. And he doesn’t just mean US airmen and airwomen. In the section headed ‘Good Enough Today Will Fail Tomorrow’, General Brown states that the USAF ‘should expand [its] network of like-minded Airmen [and airwomen] from around the world, leveraging our common perspective against shared threats to present multiple dilemmas to our competitors and adversaries.’ In which case, a multinational contest of ideas which challenges and redefines a collective vision of what the future of combined air power could be is just common sense. This approach will allow the U.S., its allies and partners to improve and potentially revolutionize the future of air power. Failing to seize on this opportunity cedes the initiative to potential adversaries. So, the A5/7 aims to expand the contest of ideas by engaging the air power professionals of friendly air forces.

A step in the right direction will be to start mentoring. By creating a network across allies and partners that connects strategists and air power thinkers, friendly air forces can leverage differences in perspective in mutually beneficial ways. It is easy to envisage a senior USAF strategist mentoring an emerging RAAF thinker to refine their ideas on how the future of human-machine teaming changes the concept of domain superiority. Similarly, it is conceivable for a RAAF mentor to help an emerging USAF strategist to develop ideas on how naval, land, and air forces can exploit autonomous technology to force package across multiple domains in order to generate mass in the littoral. A mentoring network such as this will not only diversify and improve the contest of ideas, but it will also provide a solid foundation for building relationships of trust and mutual understanding across the future combined force.

The A5/7 sees the potential benefits this offers both the USAF and its allied and partner air forces. They have set about creating that very network of emerging and established air power thinkers and strategists across the US and friendly militaries. The basic materials already exist: official air-power think-tanks and unofficial online-outlets, such as this one, are attracting a growing number of engaged and energetic air power thinkers. All that is lacking is the connections to link a multinational network that can empower emerging thinkers and their ideas. It is time to start tapping that resource.

By developing the means and mechanisms which empower the good ideas being developed across the United States and friendly countries we can reimagine the future of air power. These ideas and insights will complement and inform both the investment in, and development of, the technology that will continue to hold the fascination of air power professionals. Through the blend of creative concepts and leading-edge technology, we can improve the design of the future force to enable it to compete and fight in new and unexpected ways.

The USAF A5/7 is listening and is keen to be persuaded. Let’s start changing the future of combined air power.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the U.S. Department of Defense, United States Air Force, Australian Department of Defence, Royal Australian Air Force, or other agencies or departments of the U.S. or Australian governments.

Lieutenant Colonel Clayton Aune is the Chief of Operating Concepts Branch in the USAF A5/7 Strategy, Integration, and Requirements directorate. He is a graduate of the Secretary of Defense Strategic Thinkers Program hosted by Johns Hopkins University – School of Advanced International Studies. Lt Col Aune is a special operations pilot with over 1,200 combat and 3,400 total flight hours spanning three major weapons systems.

Wing Commander Trav Hallen is the RAAF exchange strategist in the Combined Airpower Futures Team of the USAF A5/7 Strategy, Integration, and Requirements directorate. He is a graduate of the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Studies and a Sir Richard Williams Foundation Air Power Scholar. WGCDR Hallen was one of the founding editors of The Central Blue.


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