Why do we have an Air Force? In addressing that question, can we move beyond the “Justification Cycle”?
Before you read any further into this post, I’d ask you to think about a response to the question posed in the title: Why do we have an Air Force?
With your answer in mind, please read on.
Answering the question of why Australia has an Air Force should be a simple matter for most Australian airmen. Were they to be asked, most would answer along one or both of two lines of reasoning:
To capitalise on the efficiency and effectiveness gains associated with centralising air power in a single service, and
To ensure the development of independent air power roles such as control of the air and strategic strike.
Responses along these lines are a reflection of what Williams Foundation Scholar Stephen Edgeley has defined as the justification cycle: “an internal and external process that continuously requires that independent air forces demonstrate their ability to do more than participate in the joint battle”. They are responses that are indicative of an organisation seeking to justify its continued existence.
The justification cycle is, in essence, a response to the question of “Why shouldn’t the Air Force be abolished?” Which, to be sure, is a useful response to have when facing existential threats to the organisation. But let’s be honest, within the Australian context at least, the existence of the Air Force is not in doubt.
So if we are not required to justify the existence of the Air Force, why haven’t we broken free of the justification cycle? A definitive answer to that question is a worthy research subject in its own right, but it is not the focus of this post. Rather, the aim here is to explore an alternative perspective to the question of the Air Force’s raison d’être.
Instead of focusing on what makes Air Force different, thereby justifying its independent existence, I propose that the more useful perspective is to identify what makes Air Force unique, and how that uniqueness makes a vital contribution to an effective joint force. This is an important semantic distinction.
To date, the focus of Air Force’s existential self-reflection has been on what it does (the four core air power roles) and how it does is it (command and control). These nicely mirror the logic strands that fuel the justification cycle. But there is a problem: these roles and the organisational structures that are used to manage them are not unique to Air Force. The air warfare destroyer will bring Navy squarely into the control of the air game, Army special forces have the capacity to conduct precision strike missions, Army and Navy helicopters are important air mobility assets, and all three services have organic ISR capabilities.
Similarly, the concept of “centralised control, decentralised execution”, the cornerstone of Air Force’s command and control philosophy, is reflected in the Army’s concept of mission command. So what Air Force does and how it does it are not necessarily useful in identifying its unique contribution.
What is useful, however, is an appreciation of how the features of the Air Force’s primary operating environment necessitate a unique way of thinking. This is a concept known as “airmindedness.” It is important here not to conflate airmindnesses with an inherently strategic mindset; the former in no way implies the latter. Airmindedness is a product of operating in a multi-dimensional domain that forces a change in perspective, extends the reach of potential influence, and demands flexibility in application.
Exploiting these and the other characteristics of air power are the core tactical trade of the Australian airmen. But there is more to it than this.
Air Force’s contribution to the joint fight is not limited to the highly visible presence of aircraft, it also permeates the planning and decision making process before, during and after the fight. The development and analysis of strategies, options, and courses of action undoubtedly benefit from the diversity of perspectives that are involved. Soldiers, sailors and airmen see the world differently, and this is not a bad thing. Joint should not become synonymous with homogeneity, but should be viewed as a form of operational and strategic diversity.
For too long we have focused on persistent inter-service rivalry as a battle for budgets and not seen it for what it truly is, the natural consequence of a difference of perspective, opinion, and approach. Such differences should be encouraged not suppressed. One of the ways in which it is encouraged is by providing airmen with an organisational environment that promotes the development of airmindedness.
Adopting this view, the answer to the question of why the Air Force exists can explore a different line of reasoning: Air Force exists as much to cultivate the minds of airmen so that they may exploit the unique characteristics of the air domain as it does to develop the machines that they use to do so.
Without doubt, some who have read this post will disagree with my assertions based on their own thoughts regarding the way Air Force and its members define their role. In which case, my objective has been achieved, as this is the necessary first step in Air Force evolving its self-awareness from the justification cycle to a true understanding that its unique contribution to the joint fight lies not only in its machines but also in the minds of its airmen.
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.