Best Defense

Hey Tom, we’ve made a whole bunch of changes down here at the Air University

In recent years, calls to shutter the doors of Air War College have routinely filled the Best Defense blog.



By Harry Foster and Lt. Col. Jeffery Donnithorne, U.S.A.F.
Best Defense guest respondents

In recent years, calls to shutter the doors of Air War College have routinely filled the Best Defense blog. Critiqued as “an expensive joke,” Mr. Ricks and others have questioned the value of Air War College and Air University (AU) to our national security. Every year, thousands of our best military officers take a one-year pause from operational, staff, and command positions to attend professional schools — but toward what end? How does all this thinking translate into better policy or more creative ways of matching military means with political ends? As the world grows more dangerous and defense dollars more scarce, how does a bureaucracy stitch together individual insights into logic and evidence for senior decision-makers?

Air University has been asking these uncomfortable questions. Furthermore, AU is capitalizing on its true comparative advantage for the Air Force and the nation: no other place has so many high-quality officers, from every tribe of the Air Force, of varying ranks, with the dedicated time to think and dialogue with seasoned faculty. In light of this revolutionary potential, the Commander of AU Lt. Gen. Steve Kwast is starting to bend metal to transform the university at the cultural level — he has no interest in merely tinkering with the organizational chart. While shifting bodies and offices is certainly part of the current overhaul, Air University’s biggest moves are to shift mindsets along two dimensions.

First, we are flipping the legacy model for delivering professional military education, which has been rooted in a top-down approach in which students primarily come to receive information. Instead, Air University is reorienting toward a bottom-up view, where its best officers come to contribute credible, relevant research to complex security challenges. Historically, Air University’s relevance in national security conversations has been limited by its distance from Washington, D.C. We intend to make that distance an asset and not a liability — we’ll earn a seat at the table by offering creative and innovative answers that the bureaucratic churn of the beltway tends to overlook. We’re reaching out and building partnerships with civilian universities, think tanks, national labs, and industry leaders to ensure that our conversations at AU are externally relevant, not just internally interesting.

The second mindset shift at Air University involves recognizing just how uncertain the future security environment will be. We need to shift our focus from “what to teach” to “how to learn.” Complex security challenges rage across the globe, exposing great volatility in the exchange rate between military force and stable political outcomes. Furthermore, our conventional categories for thinking and talking about war are proving inadequate for a world tangled up in civil wars, sectarian bloodletting, nuclear proliferation, regional border competitions and rising great powers. Trend lines in technology, research and development, defense budgets, unmanned systems, cyber warfare, and population demographics all point to a dizzyingly complex future security environment.

As we educate for this unknown future, our priority is not to fill our students with information but to immerse them in new habits of mind to think critically, to research responsibly, and to question their own assumptions almost constantly. Like preparing for an uncertain future by cultivating resiliency, today’s PME needs to focus on the tradecraft of critical thinking. When trained in the habits of a disciplined mind, future military leaders will have the best chance of dealing wisely with whatever the future gives us.

To make this happen, A.U. is moving quickly along multiple lines of operation. First, we have hired key personnel, from inside and outside AU, to get the right people on the bus as we move forward. Next, we are investing in a world-class information technology (IT) infrastructure. Third, we are focusing initial attention on the Air Command and Staff College for our majors. We are increasing classified research opportunities, improving faculty usage across the university, making electives more broadly available on a common university calendar, and adding concentrations in future conflict studies.

Fourth, we are developing three research task forces with students and faculty from across AU, focusing on Cyber and Electronic Warfare, Nuclear Weapons and Deterrence, and Airpower Studies. These three task forces will address tough questions posed by the Chief of Staff while integrating perspectives from faculty and students of varying rank, experience, and expertise.

Finally, we are working to improve our wargaming, net assessment, and distance learning opportunities, with the goal of giving AU a stronger voice in contemporary debates while making professional education in the Air Force habitual and not episodic. Much is changing, and it’s changing fast — many of the initiatives outlined above go into effect this summer — but it will also take time to bake in changes, learn, and improve as we go.

As we overhaul PME for the Air Force and the nation, we expect to be held accountable for our results. We want AU to be a place that provides rigorous research to maintain comparative advantage against potential adversaries that threaten national security. To get there, we are transforming the way we do business, and we think the investment made by the American taxpayers will yield a far greater return than ever before.

You can find a short video describing Air University’s vision here.

Harry Foster and Lt. Col. Jeff Donnithorne, Ph.D., serve as deputy directors of the Blue Horizons program at the Center for Strategy and Technology, Air University, Maxwell AFB, AL. Blue Horizons is a year-long study chartered by the Chief of Staff of the Air Force that focuses on long-term military-technical competitions and their implications for the future security environment.

Air Force Historical Research Agency

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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