Academic journal article Air & Space Power Journal

Operationalizing Air Force Critical Thinking

Academic journal article Air & Space Power Journal

Operationalizing Air Force Critical Thinking

Article excerpt

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed or implied in the Journal are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government. This article may be reproduced in whole or in part without permission. If it is reproduced, the Air and Space Power Journal requests a courtesy line.

The Requirement for Critical Thinkers

Air Force senior leaders have stressed the importance of developing and maintaining critical thinking capability. The service has approached the requirement as an academic shortfall, failing to accord this important skill its place as a core combat capability. The 2015 Air Force Future Operating Concept (AFFOC) plainly states that the Air Force must "recruit [and] assess individuals with [the] demonstrated potential for critical thinking" to successfully fight and win in contested environments.1 Although the Air Force articulated an ambitious end state to build and utilize Airmen of the future who can think critically about vexing issues, it is not properly identifying personnel who possess the necessary skills. The USAF has habitually relied on intuitive assessments regarding high-stakes outcomes in uncertain conditions. Individual judgment is typically plagued by overconfidence, cognitive biases, and other psychological factors that lead to poor decision making. The Air Force needs a more deliberate approach if it wants to improve critical thinking so that it can make better decisions across a range of areas including strategic planning, budgeting, human capital management, intelligence, medicine, and acquisition.

Implementing a forecasting program is one low-cost method which would allow the Air Force to measure critical thinking, provide accountability, and identify Airmen with the ability to demonstrate and improve critical thinking by mitigating cognitive errors. To start this process, critical thinking is defined as a mode of reasoning in which one improves the quality of their thought by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing their thought processes. A forecasting program, as will be discussed in this article, will provide the best means to measure progress.

Before discussing a practical implementation plan, it is useful to identify why, given multiple requests to improve critical thinking, it has not yet occurred. This problem requires a different resourcing strategy than the typical Air Force acquisition response to meet requirements. Critical thinking is essential to waging modern warfare today, but its intangible nature complicates the service's ability to resource it as compared to how it resources most other combat capabilities. For instance, to adequately meet operational plan requirements for defensive counterair, the Air Force understands it must purchase a certain amount of jets, radars, and air-to-air missiles.

Thus, the Air Force is able to measure this traditional combat capability by the number of aircraft, weapons, and qualified aircrew. The Air Force approach to develop critical thinking has primarily consisted of formal training classes, such as the Critical Thinking and Structured Analysis course at Goodfellow AFB, Texas. While such attempts may be helpful, no process exists to routinely measure the critical thinking capability within the Air Force. Accurately measuring critical thinking cannot be done by counting graduates from a course. Rather, the individual critical thinking skills of each Airman should be developed and measured throughout their careers.

Critical thinking skills should be measured over time in a way similar to how instructor pilots conduct periodic check rides for their students. In a cognitive check ride, the evaluator can host a sort of forecasting debriefing or a survey, from which data can be used to improve thought processes. Until we hold ourselves accountable for our assessments derived from critically analyzing problems, it is impossible to judge whether one's subjective opinion is worth anything. …

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