Thursday, August 21, 2014

Air Force Leaders Should Read This Book

I just finished reading The Icarus Syndrome: The Role of Air Power Theory in the Evolution and Fate of the U.S. Air Force by Carl Builder. He published this book in 1994 and I wish I had read it 20 years ago as a new Air Force second lieutenant. Builder makes many interesting points in the book, but in this brief post I'd like to emphasize one of his concluding points: the importance of a mission statement.

Builder offers the following when critiquing the Air Force's mission statement, or lack thereof, around the time of his study:

[Previous] Air Force of Staff, General John P. McConnell, reportedly endorsed the now-familiar slogan

     The mission of the Air Force is to fly and fight. 

Sometime later, the next Chief, General John D. Ryan, took pains to put it more gruffly:

     The job of the Air Force is to fly and to fight, and don't you ever forget it. (p 266)

I remember hearing "Fly, Fight, Win" in the 1990s as well.

Builder correctly criticizes these mission statements on multiple grounds, none more compelling than this: how are non-flyers supposed to interpret this statement? It's simply a reminder and reinforcement of the second-class status of non-flyers in the Air Force. Furthermore, Builder more or less also notes that "fight" is often eclipsed but non-combat missions, such as airlift or humanitarian relief. Finally, Builder doesn't ask the question explicitly, but how does one define "winning"? Would wars in Iraq or Afghanistan be a "win"? That's a demoralizing way to think in my opinion.

Builder offers a wonkish, but conceptually more useful, mission statement on p 284:

The mission of the Air Force is the military control and exploitation of the aerospace continuum in support of the national interests.

The author immediately notes that one Air Force officer criticized Builder's mission statement as too "academic," but I think this particular policy wonk is on target.

Curious as to what the current Air Force mission statement says, I checked the Our Mission page and read at the top:

The mission of the United States Air Force is to fly, fight and win … in air, space and cyberspace.

Wow. That's even worse than before. Not only does it still insult non-flyers, but now the mission involves "flying" in "cyberspace."

I strongly suggest Air Force leaders read Builder's book. It's as relevant today as it was 20 years ago.