Best Defense
Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Colonels of truth: A 2nd faculty view on the value of the Air War College

By Capt. Todd “Ike” Kiefer, USN Best Defense academic review board Tom Ricks has my deepest respect for his writing and reporting on the U.S. Military (I just finished The Gamble two months ago), but I think he pounced a bit too quickly in his recent attack on the Air War College. His April 11th ...

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afhra.af.mil
afhra.af.mil

By Capt. Todd "Ike" Kiefer, USN
Best Defense academic review board

By Capt. Todd “Ike” Kiefer, USN
Best Defense academic review board

Tom Ricks has my deepest respect for his writing and reporting on the U.S. Military (I just finished The Gamble two months ago), but I think he pounced a bit too quickly in his recent attack on the Air War College. His April 11th column was inspired by the critical views of Daniel Hughes, a former faculty member. I am a new Air War College faculty member as of this past June, a Navy Captain (the nautical version of the aeronautical Colonels lambasted in Hughes’ article), and I thought I’d offer an alternative view from the inside…with no ghostwriting.

First, I must say I found Hughes’s critique very entertaining, as did the great majority of both the military and civilian faculty here. A hastily scanned version of his pages ricocheted through the email system on last Friday afternoon and became the major topic of discussion, eclipsing the looming government shutdown. The article was entertaining in the way a cartoon is entertaining — as caricature and over-simplification. Even in my short time aboard this school, I could detect that it contained many kernels of truth (no pun intended), but they were embellished with exaggerated and cherry-picked vignettes and grotesque distortions of people. Hughes paper recalled to mind a scene from the Sunday comics where six year-old Calvin imagines his first grade teacher, Miss Wormword, as a frothy-mouthed space alien. Likewise, the picture Hughes paints of the faculty is a bit over the top. I only wish my coworkers here were that colorful.

In reality, this institution strikes me more like a business school. It is a leadership and management school to groom upwardly mobile middle managers into senior executive material. But, the business here is the deadly serious one of warfare and international security, and the students are the next generations of senior colonels and generals. The curriculum is largely dictated by the Joint Staff and Joint Doctrine — the driving forces of which continue to be the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 and the professional military education reforms and progress championed for decades by Congressman Ike Skelton. Predictably, the Air War College adds an emphasis on Air, Space, and Cyberspace to a core curriculum shared by all the joint and service senior military schools.

As to the nature of the faculty, I’d say there are not two clear camps — one civilian and one military — as alleged by Mr. Hughes, but rather a bell curve of experience, education, political philosophy, and personality that is likely wider here than at a purely civilian institution. There are a few that fit the stereotypes of pipe-smoking professors in knit sweaters and flat-topped grunts spitting chewing tobacco. Then there are the vast majority that do not. From what I have experienced so far, the heterogeneous composition of the faculty seems to stimulate thoughtful conversation and debate rather than ill-will or segregation. There are certainly conflicting opinions and tensions. I have seen here and elsewhere an experienced military officer contradict or shortcut the elegant and sophisticated approach of a scholarly theorist with the dirty practicality of how things are done in the real world. Conversely, a civilian professor with great historical or regional expertise and a strategic mindset may strive to rescue tactically-focused military minds from a tendency to avoid revolutionary ideas and stay within the lanes of their experiences and past successes.

While many of the military faculty are indeed here in the final years of their career, it must be understood that they come here to teach after having been doers first. Most have already served 20-30 years in careers spanning the Cold War, Grenada, Beirut, Panama, Desert Storm, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. As a colonel (O-6), they hold a rank achieved by only 10 percent of the classmates they were commissioned with.  They likely held one or more significant commands and experienced a level of responsibility that transcends classroom theory. I came to this job after command of a squadron in the States and an air base in Iraq. Many of my peers here have better credentials and more years of experience.  It would seem a shame to let such colonels retire without giving them an opportunity to influence the next generation.

Mr. Ricks argues that this school is a waste of money. Cost and benefit are difficult to calculate. I don’t know where Mr. Hughes got his number for the annual cost, but I would propose that the cost of an officer attending this school is about the same as for that officer to move to any other military posting in the country for a year. The question then becomes is this the best use of a year for their professional development and for the taxpayers benefit in enhancing their nation’s security. For three years I worked in the Pentagon on the Joint Staff directorate responsible for implementing the Congressional mandates for jointness and professional military education referenced above. Now that I’m part of the delivery process, I may not be as objective, but I do sincerely believe from firsthand observation that this school is achieving the desired effects on the colonels and future colonels in attendance. I have so far seen the beneficial effects of mixed service and mixed nationality classrooms. It may surprise some to hear that only 56 percent of the students this year are Air Force. Of the remainder, 10 percent are Army, 9 percent are sea service (USN, USMC, Coast Guard), 6 percent are civilian (DoD, DoS, and other Federal agencies), and 19 percent are international officers from 43 different countries. This diverse population, captured in the microcosms of 16-person seminars, has far more mind-broadening power than the best faculty colonel or professor.

We have two capstone events yet to finish off the year- the Global Challenge war game and the National Security Forum. A major objective of the first is to illustrate and model for the students the larger world of international diplomacy, economic interests, and global security challenges that frames and constrains the world of military operations they are more familiar with. The second event involves inviting more than 100 civilian professionals from around the country to interact for a week with their military peers, with lectures and discussions on strategic issues that affect both communities. The school does not have a big budget for hiring speakers, so the vast majority of the parade of prominent military and civilian individuals who come during the course of the year to address the class and all who attend the forum at the end are doing so gratis because they think it is worth their time.

The first Air War College class graduated in 1947, and it was that same year that Captain James H. Flatley, a Naval Aviator and aviation tactics expert, became one of the first to attend and instruct. As a naval aviator myself, I feel some kinship with him across the 54 intervening years. If he were to see the place today, I believe he would appreciate the progress made over the decades and would join me in declaring that the Air War College has a mission and legacy worth continuing.

Capt. Kiefer is a Naval Aviator (EA-6B) who holds a Masters in Strategy and Military History from the Army’s Command and General Staff College. He has four OIF deployments with 21 months on the ground in Iraq. He teaches Leadership and Warfighting at the Air War College.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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