Educating Air Force Officers

By Drew, Dennis M. | Air & Space Power Journal, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Educating Air Force Officers


Drew, Dennis M., Air & Space Power Journal


Author's Note: The year 1997 marks the 50th anniversary of the US Air Force and my 20th continuous year at Air University both in and out of uniform. Such "round" anniversaries lead to the personal retrospection that was the genesis of this article.

FORMER Air Force chief of staff Gen Michael Dugan once commented to me that the Air Force is producing a generation of illiterate truck drivers. He worried that officers who aspire to senior leadership positions know a great deal about airplanes and precious little about airpower. They can skillfully talk with their hands about air tactics but are ill prepared to think with their heads about air strategy.

Hyperbole? Perhaps a bit, but there is more ground truth in General Dugan's statement than any of us would like to admit. For 20 years I have watched the crime de la crime of the Air Force officer corps come to Air University's Air Command and Staff College (ACSC) and Air War College (AWC). For the most part, these officers have been appallingly ignorant of the bedrock foundation of airpower thinking, virtually oblivious to airpower theory and its development, and without any appreciation of airpower history and its meaning.l These officers are products of an Air Force system that does not reward personal professional development, promotes irrelevant academic education, and thus places an insupportable burden on the formal professional military education (PME) system.

Before getting into the meat of this argument, it is worthwhile to consider why all of this is important, why General Dugan was so concerned, and why I share that concern. We should begin with the proposition that the next generation of Air Force leaders should be more capable than the current generation. If they are not, we will have failed in one of our most important duties-preparing those who will follow in our footsteps. We will have failed to pass along the accumulated wisdom of the past and our own contributions to that wisdom. Every generation of Air Force leadership should be better than its predecessors.

In my judgment, the recipe that produces superior military leaders has three key ingredients-training, experience, and education. The need for training and experience is obvious. Training provides mental and physical skills and disciplines required to succeed in the face of great danger, uncertainty, and confusion. Experience develops maturity of judgment by testing and tempering both body and soul and by providing exposure to leadership role models both good and bad. But what about professional education? Why is it such a key element?

In a sense, education is concentrated experience that can broaden an individual's experience base. Our personal experience is always narrow, limited to those things we have actually done, places we have actually been, and people we have actually known. Professional education allows us to vicariously take part in the experiences of others in different times and far-off places. Understanding what Billy Mitchell went through trying to sell airpower to a hidebound Army, or how Ira Eaker coped with the disastrous losses of the Schweinfurt-Regensburg raids, or why Tooey Spaatz argued so vehemently with Dwight Eisenhower about the pre-DDay use of heavy bombers-these and a thousand other subjects professional education should address-can create context, perspective, and insight for our narrow, personal experience.

Education provides the luxury of dissecting and analyzing experience without the exigencies of the event-and it is the analysis of experience that is critically important. As the Prussian soldier-philosopher-king Frederick the Great noted over two hundred years ago, it is the ability to analyze and learn from experience that separates those who will be great leaders from those who will be "occupied with trifling matters and rusted by gross ignorance."2 Reasoned analysis fosters the ability to think broadly, deeply, and critically. …

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