Arrows from the Ground – Or how an incident on 17 March 2017 may change the relationship between ground and air forces

Arrows from the Ground – Or how an incident on 17 March 2017 may change the relationship between ground and air forces

By Dr Jacob Stoil and Lieutenant Colonel Kyle C. Burley

On 17 March 2017, Israel launched the Arrow missile interceptor for the first time, and a new dimension was added to the relationship between the air and ground forces. This was the first operational employment of the Arrow system but that it is not the wholly new aspect of this incident. What was special was the type of target the Arrow engaged. The Arrow was designed to intercept incoming ballistic missiles at high altitudes. In this case, the missiles it intercepted were SA-5 Surface-to-Air missiles (SAMs) targeted at Israeli strike aircraft. This event, whether a one-off or part of a new doctrine, shows a way forward for the integration of ground and air forces in which the ground forces can help provide a reciprocal umbrella to their colleagues in the air.

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Arrow 2 launch on 29 July 2004, at the Naval Air Station Point Mugu Missile Test Center. (Source: Wikimedia)

Attempting to disable and destroy SAMs is not new.  It is a critical mission for which air forces around the world train and which they regularly undertake. The coordination of ground and air systems in the most general sense is by no means a new phenomenon. As early as the Second World War, the German military integrated their ground-based flak defences with their fighter aircraft to create integrated zones of operations through designating flak boxes. At times, such as during the 1973 War, ground forces have been used to punch a hole through SAM umbrellas to allow the air force to conduct strike operations.

In all of these cases, the fundamental relationship between air and ground forces has remained consistent. The air forces have the ability to intervene in the ground domain and provide an umbrella for the ground forces, supporting them and protecting them from threats. So what changed on 17 March? Ground forces demonstrated their ability to enter the aerial domain and provide an umbrella covering the air force and protecting them from harm.

The Israeli use of ground-based missiles to provide screening fires for manned strike aircraft has opened a window for the exploration of new concepts.  The soon to be released US Army ‘FM 3-0 Operations’ manual anticipates the future possibilities of land forces as enablers for air and maritime forces. This is a break from the previous doctrine, which only envisioned that air and sea forces would act as enablers for land combat.  Extrapolating from the Israeli case provides a vision of the possibility of US Army forces using ground-based air-defense missile systems such as Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) for a SAM interdiction capability.  Forward deployed batteries could provide this covering fire along ingress and egress routes of strike aircraft where the Threat Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADS) is still capable or of an unknown status.  Sea-based forces such as Guided Missile Cruisers might also provide this type of coverage.

It is possible to push this vision further in considering the possibilities of ground or sea-launched Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). Envision a weapon that has to loiter and hypersonic propulsion which could target ground based IADS launchers, radar, and SAMs in-flight.  Such systems would no longer be dependent upon ground basing within direct fire range and the flight time of a Patriot or THAAD type battery. They could loiter, or even swarm to cover friendly air-breathing and manned mission aircraft in a contested area.

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MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missile system. (Source: Wikimedia)

Each year, the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) conducts a planning exercise using a Joint Forcible Entry scenario.  In such a scenario, students must plan for the entry of US forces into a hostile environment against armed opposition. Students learn about the need to destroy hostile IADS capability before risking a single airlifter either to conduct an airborne assault or establish an Aerial Port of Debarkation (APOD).  Operations to remove the IAD threat can be time-consuming. Since the action on 17 March, it is now possible to imagine a US force conducting a Joint Forcible Entry within hours of deployment alert because the US no longer has to conduct a prolonged “IADS takedown” phase within the air campaign. A covering force of counter-IADS UASs could protect the strike and air assault forces through an array of tactics such as escort, prepositioning swarm, or forward sense and attack.  Using such a capability could radically redefine the approach to forcible entry and enhance the ability of airborne inserted ground forces as a US flexible deterrent option.

Whatever the future holds, the 17 March incident demonstrated the ability of missile defence technology to provide cover for aircraft engaged in strike operations. No more does dealing with SAMs need to be solely the role of the air force: ground forces can provide cover.  In doing so, this sets up a new dynamic of reciprocity in which air forces provide cover to ground forces, which in turn protect air forces. As missile defence technology such as that employed by Israel proliferates, this has the potential to revolutionise the way SAM threats are negated and alter the relationship between air and ground forces and give new meaning to ‘joint operations’.

The opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College or any other government agency. (References to this study should include the foregoing statement.)

Header Image: A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense interceptor being fired during an exercise in 2013 (Source: Wikimedia)

Call for Submissions – From Balloons to Drones

Call for Submissions – From Balloons to Drones

Over the past two decades, airpower has become the “Western way of war” […] because it offers the prospect of military victory without large-scale destruction and loss of life. Airpower, however, cannot be decisive or even effective under all circumstances […] The utility of airpower is highly situational (emphasis added).

John Andreas Olsen[1]

From Balloons to Drones is an online platform that seeks to provide analysis and debate about air power history, theory, and contemporary operations in their broadest sense including space and cyber power.

Since its emergence during the First World War, air power has increasingly become the preferred form of military power for many governments. However, the application and development of air power are controversial and misunderstood. To remedy this, From Balloons to Drones is an online platform that seeks to provide analysis and debate about air power through the publication of articles, research notes, commentary and book reviews. From Balloons to Drones welcomes and encourages potential submissions from postgraduates, academics, and practitioners involved in researching the subject of air power.

Submissions can take the following forms:

  • ArticlesFrom Balloons to Drones seeks to publish informative articles on air power that range from historical pieces to the analysis of contemporary challenges. These well-researched articles should attempt to bridge a gap between the specialist and non-specialist reader. They should be around c. 1,000 to 1,500 words, though From Balloons to Drones will accept larger pieces though we reserve the right to publish them in parts. References can be via footnotes and hyperlinks.
  • CommentariesFrom Balloons to Drones seeks to publish opinion pieces on recent on a recent piece of news, either on a contemporary or historical subject. These are to be responses to such piece and should be no longer than c. 1,000 words.
  • Research NotesFrom Balloons to Drones seeks to publish research notes related to contributor’s currents research projects. These take the form of more informal pieces and can be a discussion of a source or a note on a recent research theme. Unlike other pieces published by From Balloons to Drones, they can be written in the first person, though they can include references. These should be c. 500 to 1,000 words.
  • Book ReviewsFrom Balloons to Drones publishes occasional book reviews that aim to be an accessible collection of appraisals of recent publications on the subject of air power. If publishers are interested in having a publication reviewed then, please contact us via the email address below.

Submissions should be submitted in Word format. Also, please include a 50-100 word biography with your submission. However, if you are not sure if your piece fits our requirements, then please email us with the POTENTIAL SUBMISSION in the subject line. References can be used, and, given the readership of this site, please be careful to explain any jargon used.

If you are interested in contributing, please email us at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or use our contact page here.

Header Image: Chinooks celebrate the 100th anniversaries of Nos. 18(B) and 27 Squadron from RAF Odiham and 28 Squadron from RAF Benson. (Source: Defence Imagery, Mod)

[1] John Andreas Olsen, ‘Introduction – Airpower and Strategy’ in John Andreas Olsen (ed.), Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015), p. 2.

Commentary – Design and Defence Acquisition: The Missing Piece of the Jigsaw

Commentary – Design and Defence Acquisition: The Missing Piece of the Jigsaw

By Michael Pryce

Reports in the Sunday Times and other newspapers this weekend have highlighted a number of familiar issues in defence acquisition. Tales of gold-plated requirements, service chiefs ‘gaming’ the system to get preferred projects funded, and delays are familiar ones stretching back over decades.

While some of these issues raised in the press reflect aspects of reality, a vital part of the story is missing. This is the withering away of the vital ability of the services and industry to work together on a project using the language of design. This stretches back to the mid-1980s, when Michael Heseltine brought an industrial figure, Peter Levene, into the Ministry of Defence to head its procurement division. This was seen as a radical challenge to the defence establishment at the time, in line with the Thatcher government’s policy of bringing entrepreneurs from the private sector into government to gain efficiency savings.

There is a history of private business people attempting to shake up defence acquisition. In the 1960s the Kennedy administration brought Robert McNamara in from the Ford Motor Company as United States Secretary of Defense. In the 1970s and 1980s David Packard, of Hewlett-Packard fame, was similarly used to introduce private sector practices to the US Department of Defense’s acquisition projects.

On both sides of the Atlantic, this approach has a mixed track record. The introduction of competition and a reduction in single-service projects saw some benefits in the US and the UK. However, the introduction of taut, arms-length contracts and competition broke the links that allowed design teams in industry to speak openly to the military requirements writers. Allied to the privatisation of the state-run research establishments, who provided advice and assessment on both requirements and designs, this led to a lack of communication across the acquisition process. A taut contract is no replacement for informed dialogue.

The British Aerospace Harrier is used by the RAF in the close air support role.
Harrier GR7 as used by the RAF. (Source: Defence Imagery, MoD)

A good example of how this dialogue leads to success is the Harrier ‘jump jet’, a highly risky technical concept. Starting as a private design by industry in the 1950s, it was refined with support from the research establishments before it was adopted for service by the UK and US armed forces. Flying prototypes before a final requirement was written meant that when it did enter service, the project was on time, on cost and met almost all specifications; one small shortfall in manoeuvrability was discussed as not being worth the cost to fix. The success of the Harrier in the Falklands in 1982 showed that this was the right decision. The shared language of design, spoken openly between MOD and industry, led to the Harrier’s success.

Pictured is the first of the UK’s F-35B Lightning II jets to be flown to the UK.
The first of the UK’s F-35B Lightning II jets to be flown to the UK in 2016. (Source: Defence Imagery, MoD)

In 1985 the Harrier’s original designer, Ralph Hooper, retired; the same year that the Levene reforms started to end the ability of designers to develop new projects while talking openly to requirements writers and technical experts. Instead, a contract that defines roles and responsibilities is expected to lead to success, although it is hard to see any examples of this working in the years since – for example, the Harrier’s successor, the F-35B Lightning II, has yet to replicate its record of delivery on time or cost.

Ralph Hooper originated the Harrier design out of a sense of idle interest. The project was, as he says, the product of a lot of people. The first contract for the aircraft came when the prototypes were being built, having proceeded with a ‘nod and a wink’ from government. The trust engendered by having all those involved in the design of a complex system in industry, the services and government able to discuss design openly are a continuing need for successful defence acquisition. That we no longer do this, due to competition and contracts, lies at the heart of the issues reported in the press over many years, not just one weekend.

This post first appeared on the Cranfield University Blog.

Header Image: Harriers from Joint Force Harrier lined up following a ceremony to mark the retirement of the famous aircraft after 41 years of service. (Source: Defence Imagery, MoD)

From Balloons to Drones – Top Posts of 2016

From Balloons to Drones – Top Posts of 2016

By Ross Mahoney

Happy New Year!

Now we have reached 2017, and that From Balloons to Drones has been up and running for around six months, it thought it would be worth posting our top five posts of 2016 based on views.

  1. At the head of the list is ‘Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 1: Training.’ This is the first of a three-part article by Jeff Schultz that examines the use of the North American T-28 during the war in Laos in the 1970s. Parts two and three can be found here and here.
  2. In second place is my research note on ‘Air Power and the Challenge of Professional Military Education’ that was based on my thoughts on an excellent conference at the Royal Military College of Canada in November. An important subject that I hope to return to in 2017.
  3. In third is Brian Laslie’s commentary, ‘TheF-35 is here!’, which deals with some of the issues surrounding this program and the important role that training will play in developing the aircraft’s use.
  4. In fourth, and timed in conjunction with the types eventually retirement for the United States Air Force, Mike Hankins provided a timely discussion of the development of the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II in his piece ‘Remembering the F-4 Phantom – Part 1: A Product of Its Time.’ The second part of this article can be found here.
  5. Finally, but no means last, Alex Fitzgerald-Black’s research note ‘Operation HUSKY’s Air Battle by the Numbers’ provided a useful discussion of the importance of the air battles fought during the invasion of Sicily in 1943.

These are just a selection of the highlights of our half year in existence. We are keen to expand our list of contributors and if you are interested in writing about air power issues – both historical and contemporary – then you can find out how here. If you have any questions then please leave a comments here or emails us at airpowerstudies@gmail.com.

Header Image: A row of T-28s in Laos. (Source: USAF)

Commentary – Buddha’s Next Incarnation: What does the future hold for the C-17A Globemaster?

Commentary – Buddha’s Next Incarnation: What does the future hold for the C-17A Globemaster?

By Eamon Hamilton

In airlift terms, the C-17A Globemaster III has arguably made the biggest single impact to Western Air Forces in the 21st Century thus far – and will likely hold this claim for the next decade. While it was conceived for the United States Air Force in the 1980s and introduced to service in the 1990s, its acquisition by nations including Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom has given Western Air Forces its first real appreciation of modern strategic airlift. For the USAF, which arguably wrote the book on strategic military airlift, has also benefited significantly from the C-17A’s tactical airlift talents. Elsewhere, the aircraft has been capitalised upon by NATO, India, the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait.

Exercise Pitch Black 2016
A big jet that can fly from little airfields (Source: RAAF)

With the production line closing in 2015, it is unlikely that we will ever see new Globemaster airframes constructed beyond the 279 that were delivered by McDonnell Douglas/Boeing (and indeed, a small number have been relegated to a museum or lost in an accident). This is not to say that we will not see new C-17 variants, especially if the Globemaster lives to see service past 2040, half a century after its first flight. Getting the airframe to that point (and beyond) however, will require careful attention and development.

Certainly, the C-17A has been no stranger to being developed over its 25-year history thus far. With a production spanning 15 years, older C-17As have been upgraded to match their newer kin with radios, weather radar, and combat lighting. A centre wing fuel tank was fitted to C-17As constructed after 2001 to extend the aircraft’s range, and in recent years, aircraft have been equipped with Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures and improved communications systems. Early Block Upgrades to the C-17A addressed design flaws in the original production aircraft – more recent ones have addressed issues of obsolescent aircraft systems and ensured fleet commonality.

More upgrades are projected. The C-17A’s Heads-Up Display (HUD) dates back to the early 1990s, and in 2011, Elbit was announced as the winner of the project to deliver a replacement HUD (although no public announcements have emerged since then). Trials are underway to add airflow strakes to the aircraft’s fuselage as a means of decreasing drag. Options to add Link-16 and more advanced satellite communications antennas are also being explored.

How else might we see the C-17A mature in the next 30 years?

Minimalist Change

Numerous aircraft go through their service career with modest increases in capability to allow them to continue in their intended role. Indeed, it is arguable that the C-17A has maintained this track to date with the changes it has undergone thus far. The purpose of such upgrades are not so much to advance the aircraft beyond the original design intent, but more to ensure it remains compatible with current/immediate operating practices and airborne environments. Compatibility with any new Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) or battlespace networking systems, or global air traffic control management systems, are examples of this.

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An office from a simpler time. (Source: USAF)

The aircraft’s cockpit ergonomics are still reminiscent of its early 1990s design, so it is not unreasonable to expect a major Mid-Life Update program that would improve the quality of cockpit displays, communications management, and other avionics. Newer airlifters such as the C-130J and A400M are equipped with larger HUD units and displays that can incorporate digimaps or other navigational data. A precedent for upgrading the C-17A exists, whereby old air mobility platforms (including the C-130H, KC-135 and C-5) have replaced their ‘steam gauge’ instruments and analogue controls with LCD screens and digital displays. Replacing these systems means eliminating obsolescence and ensuring the cockpit ergonomics have greater commonality with the wider air mobility and training fleet, and potentially improving the ease with which software updates can be applied to the aircraft.

Slightly More Ambitious Options….

The upgrades mentioned above were in large part to ensure the C-17A maintained pace with its operating environment. More ambitious upgrades, however, would provide new ways of performing its current mission. Evidence exists within existing air mobility platforms like the KC-135, which has been upgraded with navigation systems that now allow the aircraft to operate without a Navigator.

How could this apply to the C-17A? It is hard to judge this, as it is largely contingent on the technology that will be available to us in the next 15 years. It is easy to imagine a technology that has been applied to the A400M and C-130J being rolled out on the C-17A. It is harder to imagine the impact that newer and emerging technology – such as helmet-mounted displays, external sensors, and personal devices – will have. New tactical airlifters benefit from infrared cameras that allow landings to be comfortably made of poor visibility conditions. Whether such technology has an application on the C-17A remains to be seen.

C-17A AME Static Aircraft Communication Systems
Technology is finding its way on board, regardless. (Source: RAAF)

Likewise, the C-17A was revolutionary for its time by its use of a dedicated loadmaster station inside the cargo hold, a feature which has been capitalised by other airlifters. A future C-17A upgrade might extend on this further, allowing the loadmaster to control environmental conditions and cargo locks in the cargo hold with a personal electronic device, or direct automated aircraft loading equipment.

The High-End Option

High-end changes are easy to debate, being linked to systems on the aircraft that will become wholly inefficient or unsustainable during the aircraft’s life-of-type. These changes would be sufficient to mean the end of the C-17A as we know it today, delivering us a noticeably different aircraft – a C-17B or C-17C, for example.

Again, existing examples allow us to make educated guesses about the future, not only about the systems that are applied and upgraded but the causes for doing so. The C-5M Super Galaxy is the product of a program upgrade older C-5As and Bs with new engines, new avionics, improved cargo ergonomics, and most importantly, greater aircraft reliability. It essentially brings an aircraft design whose systems have their roots in the late 1960s and gives a 21st-century solution. The net result is a Galaxy with a shorter take off distance and better climb rate, as well as extended range. While the C-17A is reliable now, we can expect to question its relative performance in the future, especially if the expectation is for the aircraft to beyond a 30-year lifespan. Upgrading the C-17A could prove less expensive than embarking upon an all-new airlift replacement, too.

Achieving this could take some paths. Replacing the engines on the aircraft, especially in light of advances in civilian airliner power plants, would be the most obvious choice. It could yield a Globemaster that is more fuel efficient or carries heavier payloads, and the C-17A’s existing power plant – the Pratt & Whitney F117 – is a militarised version of the turbofan that powers Boeing 757s. One issue here, however, is that C-17A engines are required to perform across a different spectrum than a stock civilian airliner. This means a simple transplant of a civilian power plant will not likely address the C-17A’s performance needs.

Another potential upgrade could be to the C-17A’s winglets, which were revolutionary for their time in 1991. This feature improves the wing’s performance, reducing drag and improving fuel efficiency in a cruise. Today, the C-17A’s winglets appear clunky in comparison to modern airliners which possess ‘blended winglets’ that enhance fuel burn. Ensuring the Globemaster can cruise efficiently, extending its range and lowering its operating costs, are likely to be a significant consideration for how the aircraft is upgraded into the future.

Other considerations for a potentially major upgrade to the Globemaster might include those options put forward by Boeing during the late 2000s to improve the aircraft’s tactical performance. Considerations for the ‘C-17B’ including a new higher thrust powerplant, double-slotted flaps, additional centre-line landing gear, and precision landing systems. It is arguable that the additional weight of some of these systems would come at a cost to the aircraft’s range and cruise efficiency. On the other hand, a sub-fleet of C-17s optimised for tactical performance to deliver payloads that can not be accommodated in a C-130 (and are unable to be transported over long ranges by future heavy vertical lift)

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A C-17 performs evasive counter measures by launching flares during a Mobility Air Forces Exercise over the Nevada Test and Training Range on 16 November 2011, (Source: Wikimedia)

Examining options for the Globemaster’s future may see it called to perform roles that are well outside the traditional airlift roles that the aircraft performs today. Few would argue that the C-17A’s talents are best applied to providing dedicated strategic and tactical airlift. The external surfaces of a C-17A, however, provide significant ‘real estate’ for discrete sensors and antennas, and the aircraft’s interior likewise has space that would allow it to fulfil support functions for C4I and ISR – especially if the terminals for such roles are significantly smaller and modularised, contrasting with the fixed workstations that fill C-135 and Boeing 707 variants operated by the USAF. Today, other platforms (such as those based on commercial airliners) might conceivably fulfil this role more efficiently and effectively than a Globemaster. However, future requirements – especially those that call for an aircraft to deliver personnel and vehicles, then remain near provide immediate support – might dictate that the C-17 is the aircraft for the job.

The last consideration for the Globemaster receiving a ‘high-end’ upgrade is that it might pick up new roles not even in service today. The aircraft has been mooted as a potential ‘Drone Mothership’ in a battlespace, deploying them to perform a range of ISR, attack, and strike missions. Alternatively, the C-17A’s cargo bay has considerable space for batteries and other systems that would employ high-energy weapons.

Where the Globemaster ultimately fulfils any of these roles is anyone’s guess – while the technology is being developed, it is by no means about to be applied to the C-17A. Once said technology is mature, there are no guarantees that the C-17A will be the best jet for the job.

The Likely Options

At a minimum, progressive upgrades will need to be applied in the future to ensure the C-17A can continue to be operated. The crew stations are likely to be developed over time, as are the aircraft’s avionics, communications and networking systems. Foreign operators should bear these developments in mind – on the one hand, the upgrading of their aircraft is likely to have a greater impact on the number of aircraft they have available. On the other hand, such programs are an avenue for them to suggest development roadmaps that can be shouldered by Boeing and USAF. Exploring these avenues, however, would have to be a modest process. However, it is unlikely that an entirely new C-17 variant will be developed if only one smaller operator is guaranteed to require it.

With that in mind, the Globemaster’s future development is likely to be informed by three things – keeping the airframe viable, the USAF’s appetite to embark on upgrade programs, and Boeing’s willingness to provide options. Lockheed Martin’s C-5M program provides an excellent example of where the C-17A can go with such updates, replacing aircraft structures and systems that have become tired and unreliable while also meeting demands of the customer to capitalise on generational changes in engine, avionics, and ergonomic technology. Indeed, the C-5M in some respects feels like it carries some of the best features of a C-17A (except the HUD and fighter control stick).

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Everyone has an embarassing childhood photo. (Source: USAF)

Strategic airlift development, however, emphasises the importance of cruise efficiency and performance, which is often largely dependent on reductions in the aircraft’s weight and improvements in a power plant. Such upgrades are easy to forecast in the C-17A’s future. The more ‘creative’ upgrades for the Globemaster will be in how it is required to perform tactical roles in future – or approach brand new problems.

This post first appeared at Rubber-Band Powered Blog.

Header Image: A C-17 arrives with GEOS-O on board at the Shuttle Landing Facility. (Source: Wikimedia)

From Balloons to Drones: Contributors Wanted – We Want You!

From Balloons to Drones: Contributors Wanted – We Want You!

Since its launch in June 2016, From Balloons to Drones has published a variety of articles, commentaries, research notes, and book reviews dealing with issues related to air power history, theory and practice. However, to continue to develop and regularly publish material we need new contributors keen to publish on the subject of air power. As such, we need you!

From Balloons to Drones welcomes and encourages potential submissions from postgraduates, academics, and practitioners involved in researching the subject of air power. We seek to publish articles, commentaries, research notes, and book reviews that encourage a healthy discussion about air power from historical themes through to commentary on contemporary operations and challenges.

Air power is treated in its broadest sense and includes cyber and space power, and we are happy to discuss the suitability of any proposal for the site. We also encourage contribution from people working in the fields of strategic studies, law, politics, ethics, international relations, archaeology, and museology.

Submissions can take the following form:

  • ArticlesFrom Balloons to Drones seeks to publish informative articles on air power that range from historical pieces to the analysis of contemporary challenges. These well-researched articles should attempt to bridge a gap between the specialist and non-specialist reader. They should be around c. 1,000 to 1,500 words, though From Balloons to Drones will accept larger pieces though we reserve the right to publish them in parts. References can be via footnotes and hyperlinks.
  • CommentariesFrom Balloons to Drones seeks to publish opinion pieces on recent on a recent piece of news, either on a contemporary or historical subject. These are to be responses to such piece and should be no longer than c. 1,000 words.
  • Research NotesFrom Balloons to Drones seeks to publish research notes related to contributor’s currents research projects. These take the form of more informal pieces and can be a discussion of a source or a note on a recent research theme. Unlike other pieces published by From Balloons to Drones, they can be written in the first person, though they can include references. These should be c. 500 to 1,000 words.
  • Book ReviewsFrom Balloons to Drones publishes occasional book reviews that aim to be an accessible collection of appraisals of recent publications on the subject of air power. If publishers are interested in having a publication reviewed then, please contact us via the email address below.

Submissions should be submitted in Word format. Also, please include a 50-100 word biography with your submission. However, if you are not sure if your piece fits our requirements, then please email us with the POTENTIAL SUBMISSION in the subject line. References can be used, and, given the readership of this site, please be careful to explain any jargon used.

If you are interested in contributing, please email us at airpowerstudies@gmail.com

Header Image: A B-1B Lancer drops back after air refueling training, 30 September 2005. This B-1B, from the 28th Bomb Wing, deployed to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, as part of the Pacific Command’s continuous bomber presence in the Asia-Pacific region. (Source: Wikimedia)

Research Note – Air Power and the Challenge of Professional Military Education

Research Note – Air Power and the Challenge of Professional Military Education

By Ross Mahoney

I have just come back from a conference at the Royal Military College of Canada on the theme of the ‘Education of an Air Force’ that was well worth the visit. I am sure most readers will agree that the subject of education is of vital importance and this is something that has been increasingly realised in recent years as modern air forces seek to grapple with the challenges that confront them in the operational sphere.

Ideas such as conceptual innovation have become catchphrases for efforts such as the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Thinking to Win programme, the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Plan JERICHO and the Royal Canadian Air Force’s (RCAF) AIRpower in Formation process. Underpinning these, to a greater or lesser degree, is the importance of air power education. Indeed, as Lieutenant-General Michael Hood, Commander of RCAF, recently noted in the introduction to an article in the Royal Canadian Air Force Journal on air power education and professional air power mastery:

There is also a requirement to continually review the training and education we give to all ranks to ensure that it is configured to deliver what we need within the contemporary environment.[1]

Nevertheless, phrases like the one above can often be a case of rhetoric versus reality, though having heard General Hood speak at the opening of the conference; I do believe he means what he says about the importance of education. The conference was historically focussed, but by observing the past, as historians, we can identify areas that can be points of friction and that need to be considered when attempting to introduce reform in the education process. What follows are just a few key areas I pondered during the conference.

Training or Education?

Perhaps the first thing that came to mind was what were we considering? The conference included the word education in the title but was this the case? Indeed, one key question that needs to be asked is whether those we study understand the distinction we make today between training and education. For me, at the most simplistic of levels, training is about skills development while education is about knowledge, understanding and critical thinking. Is this what was expected by those responsible for creating the institutions that delivered programmes related to professional development such as staff colleges. I suspect the answer is yes but the vernacular used in different eras leads to confusion. For example, Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, first Commandant of the RAF Staff College, was clear that one issue he needed to deal with was anti-intellectualism and this is a matter of education though the term was infrequently used in the 1920s. By the 1960s, the RAF had begun, as it created a ‘progressive’ system of staff education, to differentiate between the two subjects. Nevertheless, we must be clear about what we are talking about if reform is to be achieved.

Culture

Military organisations are conservative in character. This is not to suggest that they are not innovative but rather to reflect that they are predominantly reactive rather than revolutionary. Thus, change, unless triggered by defeat, public opinion or budgetary cuts, can be difficult and challenging. This is ultimately a cultural issue and one that needs to be considered when introducing change. Leaders need to bring people along with them on the journey they seek to engender rather than just demanding that it happens. This applies to education as well. If education is to be improved, the organisation’s employees need to understand the need for this process. They need to be shown its value, and this has to be enunciated in a clear and meaningful manner. Indeed, in the modern era where most air forces have been in continuous operations for at least the past decade and a half, it needs to be illustrated why education is of value for those with operational experience. This comes back to the first point above, for example, we train an officer to fly rather than educate them.

The Role of Senior Leadership

eisenhower_visits_air_university
From left, General Dwight Eisenhower, US Army Chief of Staff; Major General Muir Fairchild, Air University commander; and Major General David Schlatter, the Air University deputy commanding general (education), review an Air University organizational chart during Eisenhower’s visit to Maxwell on 9 April 1947. (Source: Wikimedia)

This brings me to the next important issue; the role of senior leaders. These are the people who lead change. Indeed, at the conference, when I made a comment about the culture of military organisations, Harold Winton, Professor Emeritus at the United States Air Force’s (USAF) School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS), quite rightly made the impassioned argument that when a leader who believes in education comes along, perhaps once every 15 to 20 years, then we should take advantage of that person. I completely agree, a champion who can provide top cover is essential, and it appears that RCAF have that in Hood while in the 1970s, the RAF had Marshal of the RAF Lord Cameron, who supported the creation of the position of Director of Defence Studies. Furthermore, support from senior leaders can help shape the culture and values of the organisation by providing an example to subordinates.

Non-Standard Education

What I mean here is the use of non-staff college education for officers, mainly higher research degrees such as MPhils and PhDs. In modern militaries, it is usual that officers going through the staff college system receive some form of credits towards a postgraduate degree, typically an MA. For example, British officers can work towards an MA in Defence Studies that builds on the Advanced Command and Staff Course at the Joint Services Command and Staff College. However, this is a relatively standard route and one that has been developed within the Staff College environment. What appears to be less typical, though needs to more readily embraced, is the encouragement of nurtured personal to undertake further research in the form of MPhils and PhDs. USAF do a good job of this through SAASS, and the RAF has a good fellowship scheme that not only encourages Masters work but also supports PhDs through the Portal Fellowship. This need to be promoted as higher research encourages critical thinking and air forces need such people to help develop their conceptual understanding of air power in the defence sphere. Nevertheless, air forces also need to encourage and reward personnel for taking ownership of their education irrelevant of whether the service sponsors it or not. Personnel need to be shown that in developing their critical thinking skills these are as valued as their operational ones. Also, where applicable, personnel should be encouraged to write in various forums from websites, such as this one, The Central Blue, War on the Rocks and The Strategy Bridge, to professional journals. However, this requires encouragement and critical mass and it is interesting to reflect that the RAF, RCAF and USAF all have journals but the RAAF does not, though the latter’s Air Power Development Centre does produce useful material. Overall, by encouraging ‘non-standard education’, air forces have the opportunity to develop knowledge and encourage informed discussion about air power in the public and policy sphere rather than what often currently occurs.

Officers or NCOs? Alternatively, Both?

An interesting point that came up in one discussion phase of the conference was the question of NCOs. All of the papers dealt with officer education with most focussed on the staff college scenario. However, what of NCOs and their education? We often hear phrases such as ‘whole force’ used to describe the personnel of an air force. As such, should we not be educating the NCO corps? Another challenge is that the current NCO corps is becoming better educated; it not unusual to find airmen and women entering service with degrees. If we are to develop the ‘whole force’ then similar opportunities afforded to the officer corps should be made available to NCOs especially as they are promoted and take on senior leadership roles. This is probably a conference of its own but a subject area that deserves consideration both in a contemporary as well as historical sense.

What I have written here is by no means the panacea for professional military education, and indeed much of this is axiomatic of any analysis of the field. Indeed, most of these challenges are just as applicable to each of the services; however, I would suggest that these difficulties need to be overcome and also understood in the context of air forces seeking to improve education provision. Nevertheless, the conference provided plenty of food for thought on the subject of the education of air forces as modern services strive to deal with operational and personnel challenges that they currently confront and will continue to do so into the 21st century. Another key positive of this conference was the involvement of the RCAF both regarding the opportunity to visit the Canadian Aerospace Warfare Centre but also to hear how they are dealing with current challenges.

This post also appears at The Central Blue.

Header Image: Aerial view of the completed RAF College at Cranwell in the 1930s. (Source: © IWM ((MOW) C 4070))

[1] Lieutenant-General Michael Hood, ‘Introduction’ to Brad Gladman, Richard Goette, Richard Mayne, Shayne Elder, Kelvin Truss, Pux Barnes, and Bill March, ‘Professional Airpower Mastery and the Royal Canadian Air Force: Rethinking Airpower Education and Professional Development,’ Royal Canadian Air Force Journal, 5(1) (2016), p. 9.