A Critique of the Air Force's Core Values

By Toner, Christopher Hugh | Air & Space Power Journal, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

A Critique of the Air Force's Core Values


Toner, Christopher Hugh, Air & Space Power Journal


Editorial Abstract: The author performs a close reading and critique of the Air Force's core values. Among his observations, he notes inconsistencies between their presentation in the United States Air Force Core Values booklet of 1997 and their treatment in Air Force Doctrine Document 1-1, Leadership and Force Development. He also argues that Air Force doctrine is written in a way that presents "obstacles to its own propagation."

AS MOST READERS well know, the Air Force's core values consist of "integrity first," "service before self," and "excellence in all we do." Integrity deals largely with character (honesty, courage, and responsibility), service with commitment (duty, respect, and loyalty), and excellence with striving toward perfection (on personal, team, and operational levels). The United States Air Force Core Values booklet, January 1997, speaks of a strategy for infusing the core values into Air Force culture-a strategy involving training and education, leadership in the operational Air Force, discussions among Airmen at various levels, and so forth.1 Years later we can say that in many ways the strategy has succeeded. Every Airman knows the core values, and in my experience (as a former officer in a sister service and a current instructor at Air Command and Staff College), most do not regard them as a management fad but genuinely respect them. Commanders relate that a key factor in deciding whether to rehabilitate or separate a troubled troop involves determining his or her commitment to the core values.

Although I could list many other indicators of the health of the program, I will single out one notable shortfall: the fact that most Airmen do not know what I call the elements of each core value (see table). To most of them, integrity means honesty, service means duty, and excellence means sure competence in mission accomplishment. But as Col Charles Myers points out in an influential article, the Nazis could profess such values if that is all they mean, thus reducing the core values to a mantra that any military professional could chant-the bad as well as the good. The presence of such elements as justice and respect for others as persons gives the core values substance and separates them from the "virtues of the SS-man."2 Of course it is the task of leaders to overcome this shortfall, and sound doctrine seems already in place to support them: the United States Air Force Core Values booklet and Air Force Doctrine Document (AFDD) 1-1, Leadership and Force Development, February 2004.

I argue, however, that the way doctrine is currently written may present certain obstacles to its own propagation. Air Force leaders as well as the Airmen they lead and mentor will in general find it much easier to "own" doctrine when it possesses internal coherence; clear, logical flow; and an evident, convincing rationale. In some respects, current doctrine fails these tests.

Lack of Coherence between the Air Force's Formulations of the Core Values

The core values have been with us in more or less their current form for a number of years now and, as is proper, have roots in the historical experience of the Air Force and the American military. Since 1997 they have circulated (and continue to circulate) in a stand-alone format-the core-values booklet. In 2004 the Air Force incorporated them into leadership doctrine as one of the "Leadership Components" (along with competencies and actions) in the first chapter of AFDD 1-1.3 This is good since a doctrine document is more authoritative than other forms of publication, but it does raise questions about the relationship between the two formulations. Although they are quite close in most respects, a side-by-side comparison reveals some inconsistencies (see table). Boldfaced elements in the table appear in the booklet but not in the doctrine document, and the reverse applies to italicized elements. Underlining indicates relabeled elements that are essentially the same in both formulations. …

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