It is safe to say that most operators prefer not to be anywhere near Canberra in a staff role.
They prefer the comfort of the tactical environment which they master, rather than the top-heavy locale of continuous committees.
Despite this aversion to the strategic centre, the headquarters ultimately needs more warfighters. They are needed to contribute fresh ideas to the strategic decision-making that impacts the tactical level, particularly in capability development, training, and operations. There is often a disconnect between the ‘fight tonight’ operators and the ‘force of tomorrow’ staff officers – tactical relevancy remains a vital contributor to force development.
This has always been the case, but there are plenty of examples where warfighters have impacted the strategic level, and their ideas have had a profound impact on the future force. Many of those examples are from famous and well published individuals that served in the United States Air Force, particularly during the Vietnam War era. This era triggered not only technological developments in the air, but a revision of the application of airpower during the post-war period.
The first example is that of the legendary General Robin Olds who can be considered one of the ultimate American air warriors and leaders. A double-ace in WWII, he led a fighter squadron at age 23, and after a myriad
of postings around the world eventually ended up in the Pentagon in the early 1960s.
During his time in Washington, the USAF was primarily driven by Strategic Air Command and the mission was nuclear deterrence, so tactical fighters were very much relegated to air defence missions. It was within this strategic environment Robin tried to embrace the system, despite how much he detested the headquarters.
Although he was well regarded as a warrior and leader, Olds also strived to be known as a thinker. During the early Mercury space missions, he was inspired to write a paper on the military use of space as key terrain in future warfare. The paper so impressed his Colonel at the time, he was to remark “Robin, I didn’t know you had it in you”.
Unfortunately for Olds, the leadership at the time just simply didn’t understand the concept and thus, did not adopt it. The paper was prescient for its time given the development of the Space Defense Initiative (SDI) in the early 1980s, and the vital role of the space domain today. Ultimately Olds was simply not designed to operate within the strategic centre –
he served out the remainder of his career outside the Pentagon, renown as a tactical leader and practitioner.
If Olds was the warrior leader, then Colonel John Boyd had the aura of knowledge and ideas. Boyd already had a reputation as both a tactician and a thinker from his tours at Nellis and Eglin AFBs. During his time at Eglin, Boyd developed a theory on Energy Manoeuvrability (E-M) – a method to depict fighter aircraft performance characteristics. He was then given the opportunity to brief a wide audience of senior Air Force leadership, who learned via E-M diagrams that Soviet fighter aircraft outperformed all USAF fighter aircraft. Key to his success was the data pedigree, superior analysis,
and briefing techniques.
The then Major Boyd was posted to the Pentagon and played an influential role in the design of the F-15 Eagle. The key task with the ‘F-X’ program was in preventing it from becoming too heavy and too fast with no manoeuvrability. He also contributed to the surreptitious development of a lightweight fighter, which he saw as the ideal fighter aircraft, particularly after the USAF’s poor air-to-air record during Vietnam.
The lightweight fighter competition conducted eventually led to the development of the F-16 – a key victory for the tangible output of Boyd’s E-M theory. But he didn’t get everything his own way, with the USAF eventually morphing both the F-15 and F-16 into multi-role fighters, despite Boyd’s fixation on a purely air-to-air platform.
Boyd – like Olds – had little time for ‘yes men’ or careerist ‘ticket punchers’. One of Boyd’s famous speeches to his friends was the ‘To be, or To do’ speech. He had a small but influential group of friends within the Pentagon, and given his derisive attitude to much of the Air Force hierarchy, he had a large and ever-growing list of adversaries as well. But ultimately, Boyd’s focus and work ethic was focused on delivering the right capability for warfighters – particularly during the Vietnam War period.
Boyd moved beyond the capability development sphere and delved into theories of warfare. His studies and briefs of ‘Creation and Destruction’ became widely known, with the USMC embracing Boyd’s theories and transforming from an attrition battle force towards the concept of manoeuvre warfare.
More famously, Boyd also developed the concept of the OODA loop, which has grown in both usage and pervasiveness across military and business establishments. His strategic acumen was also noticed by Dick Cheney, with Boyd reportedly contributing to the military planning for Gulf War I at Cheney’s behest. Ultimately, Boyd and his ideas transcended his roles as a tactician and staff officer, into a revered military theorist.
The next generation of staff officers into the Pentagon at the end of the Vietnam War came with more nuance and political adeptness to harness their ideas. Major Moody Suter – a Weapons Officer with significant combat experience in Vietnam posted into the Pentagon – recognised that the majority of air losses in Vietnam came from combat inexperience, thus planting the seed for the concept of a large scale air combat exercise called ‘Red Flag’. The intent was to replicate the combat environment as best as possible, to allow aircrew to fly their first ten combat missions – prior to conducting actual combat.
Suter worked the concept through his chain of command but hit a wall with the USAF three-star General in charge of budgets. Moody was even warned not to attempt to flank the General, but this did not stop him from spreading the idea across the strategic centre. A brief to the Army Chief of Staff led to greater visibility from USAF Chief of Staff, followed by subsequent approval, with Suter able to navigate the senior officers for approval across Tactical Air Command. Red Flag has remained a pillar of large scale integrated training for the USAF and allied forces ever since.
The final individual demonstrates a good lesson in exploiting opportunities with senior officers. Gaillard ‘Evil’ Peck was another Vietnam War veteran, and replaced Suter in Directorate of Operations. While meeting his two-star General for combat training under the auspices of ‘flight testing’, Evil was able to propose an idea of raising a fighter squadron of MiG aircraft acquired from Soviet client states. He was able to rapidly develop the idea and, most importantly, was given the wherewithal to sell the idea, get the buy-in across broader Air Force, and execute the concept.
The establishment of the Constant Peg program and the ‘Red Eagles’ – the 4477th test & evaluation squadron – was one of a series of consecutive successful programs that were born from the harsh lessons of Vietnam, by the warfighters that lived the experience. These ‘Iron Majors’ as they were known were able to harness their ideas, develop the relationships with senior officers across the strategic centre, and generate the nuanced messaging to promote their ideas. Most importantly, they didn’t do this for career prospects – their sole focus after Vietnam was ‘never again’.
The key theme from each of these individuals is, every warfighter has ideas – they strive for consistent improvement, and always seek to solve emerging problems. The current USAF Chief of Staff, General Charles Q Brown, has recently put out a memo calling for more ideas and innovation – that requires both creative individuals and supportive organisations.
Having warfighters within the strategic centre empowers them with the opportunity to generate and harness these ideas. Key to success is the ability to express these ideas in verbal and written form – with nuanced stakeholder management – to garner the necessary senior leadership support. In doing so, those ideas can be developed into tangible outcomes, and make a profound impact on our warfighters now and into the future.