It’s the People, Stupid: The Year in Airpower

December 27, 2018

Editor’s Note: As 2018 comes to a close, War on the Rocks is publishing a series of year-end reflections on what our editors and contributors learned from the publication’s coverage of various national security topics. These reflections will examine how War on the Rocks coverage evolved over the year, what it taught us about the issue in question, and what questions remain to be answered in 2019 and beyond. Enjoy, and see you next year!


December is a bit like reaching “bingo fuel” — a time to return to base, debrief, and come back stronger. In that regard, 2018 has been a remarkable year for War on the Rocks readers interested in all things airpower. However, what made this year’s coverage fascinating was not the topics that were discussed — but the ones that were not.

In 2018, War on the Rocks didn’t publish a single airpower-related article about fighters, bombers, or any aircraft — just a few honorable mentions of swarms and one on weapons (though it was policy-related). Blasphemy, the critics say! The Air Force is addicted to its toys, and airpower discussions must remain focused on pandering to platforms and platitudes.

On the contrary, this year showed it is possible to keep a conversation centered on the most important part of any organization — the people. Whether intentionally or not, 2018 was all about the airmen, with a capital “A” [the editors keep “correcting” my punctuation; fight the power!].

The year began with a series by this author on pilot retention, which unpacked various statistics and decisions, ultimately concluding it was all about mission and culture. This kicked off a string of articles on talent management in the Air Force. Col. “Ned Stark” jumped into the fray with his observations from inside the machine, publishing an eye-opening article on the flawed processes the Air Force uses to choose  senior officers. The article got a ton of attention from within the ranks of the Air Force and U.S. military writ large. This elicited a response from none other than the senior uniformed airman himself, Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein. Not one to shy away from an issue, Gen. Goldfein doubled down by recording a long interview with War on the Rocks Editor-in-Chief Ryan Evans. Unscripted and authentic, his candor, humility, and beverage preferences sent the podcast viral within the ranks. Dear leadership, the American population needs more of these to stay connected to its military.

Ned Stark followed up with two more pieces on Air Force talent management. Agree or disagree, more important than the articles was what they became: a mechanism for productive conversation in the ranks, including in several officer social media groups. Some were happy to see a voice speaking to their concerns; others found the articles eye-opening for exposing parts of the Air Force they didn’t know; and several brought forward some excellent ideas and recommendations to the discussion.

Additional articles from airmen continued this momentum, with one discussing officer promotion rates based on measures of tactical excellence, and another that applied machine learning analytics to droves of survey responses from pilots. Both of these insightful articles also resonated in the officer corps, a result of passionate airmen applying critical thinking toward the issues they are living and being bold enough to stand up to the scrutiny that often accompanies publishing.

Famed Air Force fighter pilot John Boyd constantly preached: “People, ideas, things — in that order.” Apparently, repetition resonates. We just have to listen. It’s the end of 2018 and winter is settling in, but it actually feels like the frozen middle is thawing.

Will Ned Stark die off at the end of the first season? Will Gen. Goldfein’s podcast interview have competition from another rising Air Force leader? 2019, is right off the nose. Fence in!


Maj. Mike Benitez is a U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle Weapons Systems Officer with over two decades of service in the Air Force and Marine Corps. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, a former Air Force legislative fellow in Congressand a contributing editor at War on the Rocks. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Jensen Stidham