Thinking About Thinking in the Royal Air Force


Last year was a strong one for debate on personnel challenges in the U.S. Air Force at War on the Rocks, from the erosion of culture to the U.S. Air Force chief of staff responding directly (and, most importantly, positively) to an anonymous article on the officer promotion system. In the United Kingdom, it is hard to imagine the same level of debate where the Royal Air Force is concerned. Retired senior leaders do not engage with airpower thinking in the way people like Lt. Gen. (ret.) Dave Deptula and others do, and serving senior officers make virtually no contribution to the debate. This is corrosive for what the U.K. military calls the conceptual component of fighting power, which stands alongside two others: the moral and physical. U.K. military doctrine associates these terms with the intellectual underpinnings of how we fight, the challenges of inspiring people to fight, and what we fight with.

However, the Royal Air Force’s conceptual component may not be a lost cause just yet. A new chief of the Air Staff takes post in July this year. The secretary of state for defence described him as a “transformational leader” with a mandate to reform. How might he go about that? This article’s focus will be firmly on the challenges and opportunities for the chief within the conceptual component. I will use a mixture of personal experience, both in uniform for over 30 years and now out of it, policy documents, journals, and other sources to demonstrate that rhetoric has not matched reality where the Royal Air Force’s commitment to its intellectual edge is concerned. It will begin by setting out the strategic context within which the Royal Air Force operates as it contributes to U.K. government policy objectives. The somewhat counter-intuitive Royal Air Force response to this environment will then be analyzed, before the article concludes by laying down a challenge to the incoming chief to take a dynamic approach to bringing the conceptual component back into mainstream Royal Air Force thinking.

The Context

The sky, we are told, is falling down. Read any U.K. government literature relating to defense and security, and you will see the warnings writ large. The 2010 National Security Strategy warned that “Today, Britain faces a different and more complex range of threats from a myriad of sources … We are entering into an age of uncertainty.” By 2015, with the publication of the 2015 National Security Strategy, the prime minister assured us all that “the world is more dangerous and uncertain today than five years ago.” Just three years later, with the publication of the 2018 National Security Capability Review, things were reaching fever pitch: “since [the National Security Strategy] was published, threats have continued to intensify and evolve and we face a range of complex challenges at home and overseas … our national security is conditional … on our ability to mobilise most effectively the full range of our capabilities in concert to respond to the challenges we face.” A cynic might assume that the government was overstating the case to ensure support for its security policies, and a brief review of the worldview beyond central London does indeed reveal different perspectives. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2018, in its review of ten-year trends, tracks a rise in environmental risks as economic risks have declined, and identifies “profound social instability” as its greatest weighted risk. Regardless of whether one takes a hierarchical view of risks and challenges (as does the U.K. government), or a networked view (as do the majority of non-governmental organizations and other actors), it is clear that the contemporary environment is characterized by some degree of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. The security challenges for the United Kingdom arising from Africa and the Middle East alone need no spelling out, and as B. A. Friedman recently noted, in such complex times “[p]olicymakers deserve the kind of military advice that can only be acquired over a career of studying foreign policy and the use of military force, not just being engaged in its execution.” It is perhaps surprising, then, that having painted such a dark picture of the challenges facing the United Kingdom, the government made almost no connection in any of the cited reports with the need to develop its people to better confront this environment. Neither the National Security Strategy nor the National Security Capability Review contain any obvious reference to this challenge, beyond a single vague paragraph in the National Security Strategy.

The Royal Air Force Response

Despite this apparent lack of policy direction, the Royal Air Force has stated its intention to address the conceptual component on a number of occasions, with 2015 seeing several developments. Firstly, in the spring of 2015, the Royal Air Force launched the Thinking to Win initiative. Air Chief Marshal Pulford stated in a speech in September of that year that Thinking to Win had been launched “to embed the conceptual component of fighting power at the heart of the Royal Air Force of 2020.” He went on to elaborate that Thinking to Win “is the way our decisive advantage, all of our minds, can be brought to bear upon our challenges and unlock our potential” but that it “should not however be misinterpreted as a cost saving activity.” The challenge would clearly be a significant one — around the time that Thinking to Win was launched, the Royal Air Force Centre for Air Power Studies published a special edition of the Air Power Review focusing on the conceptual component. In it Group Capt. Paul Wilkins, then the director of defence studies for the Royal Air Force, wrote a personal perspective in which he recognized that a core issue for the Royal Air Force was its “ability to leverage and exploit the Conceptual Component” because the contemporary context placed “a premium on the capacity of a Nation’s armed forces to think very carefully how the military instrument can be configured and employed in support of political objectives.” But Wilkins went on to identify a problem. He noted that, from his interactions with Royal Air Force officers attending professional military education courses at the Shrivenham-based Defence Academy, many viewed the conceptual component as “the preserve of very senior officers” and felt there was little they could do to influence its development. This confirms that the problem is indeed a deep one, and a review of articles in Air Power Review since the turn of the decade reveals a staggering disconnect between perception and reality. If the conceptual component is thought by some to be the domain of the higher echelons, why have there have been only three Air Power Review articles by serving officers of the rank of air vice marshal (two-star) or above since 2010 (not one of which was on air power thinking)?

Returning again to Wilkins’ article, he identified that a large proportion of Royal Air Force senior officers (i.e. squadron leaders and above) received no formal education for the vast majority of their careers. During my time as commanding officer of the Air Warfare School (2011–2013) this was identified formally by the RAF, and a course titled the Senior Officers’ Study Programme was introduced in 2012 to fill the void. The Senior Officers’ Study Programme was designed as a state-of-the-art blended learning course (with the residential phases being delivered at the Air Warfare School, jointly by the Royal Air Force College academic partner and my staff), providing MA-accredited education to non-executive stream officers — generally those squadron leaders and wing commanders not selected for Advanced Command and Staff College. The course covered the international system, strategic thought, ethics, operational analysis, command, leadership and management, and the application and future design of air power, exactly the sort of material required to develop Royal Air Force officers for the dystopian world imagined by the government and Ministry of Defence. Despite widespread and very high approval levels of the course content from its graduates, and there being no alternative to fill the void, the Royal Air Force decided in early 2018 to suspend the Senior Officers’ Study Programme, in large part because the Air Warfare Centre viewed it as a burden to support.

There is another problem, perhaps even more remarkable than the Senior Officers’ Study Programme given that U.K. doctrine identifies the conceptual component as “the foundation upon which creativity, ingenuity and initiative may be exercised in complex situations.” The academic portion of the Initial Officer Training Course at the Royal Air Force College has been cut at least in half in the past two years, with a particularly savage reduction in the material designed to develop the cadets’ understanding of the uncertain and volatile world in which they will be expected to operate as junior officers. Due to this imposed reduction, gone are many of the historical case studies through which the cadets developed their understanding of the employment of military force in different environments and contexts (they no longer learn about Vietnam, the Falklands, Kosovo, or Desert Storm, and they learn far less about the international system, security threats, and the legal and ethical framework within which the military operates). Gone, too, is most of the thinking time one would normally associate with first year degree-level course material. Since the changes were introduced somewhere close to 1,000 junior officers will have graduated from the Royal Air Force College.

Finally, as to whether the Royal Air Force recognizes the damage it has done to its own conceptual component, the 2017 Royal Air Force Strategy holds a clue: It states very early on a “Focus on our people” as its top priority, yet reading on through the document it is clear that the focus is in fact on addressing recruitment and retention challenges (HR issues — the business of the physical component) rather than improvements in the conceptual component — which itself is not mentioned once in the entire document. This connects to the earlier point that the Royal Air Force is clearly being led poorly by the Ministry of Defence where the conceptual component is concerned. In the ministry’s December 2018 report on the Modernising Defence Programme, “people” is afforded just half a page of consideration, right at the end of the report, and focused entirely on HR issues again. It would seem, notwithstanding chief’s aforementioned comments in 2015, that the Thinking to Win era has actually seen significant erosion of the conceptual space, contrary to its design principles. This, though, is now a moot point too — I have recently been told that the programme, which my serving Royal Air Force colleagues tell me has produced little of value, has apparently quietly been shelved.

A Challenge to the New Chief of the Air Staff

The news is not all bad, of course. The Royal Air Force’s Centre for Air Power Studies already manages a number of successful programmes and activities, such as publication of Air Power Review and the chief’s reading list and management of the chief’s fellowship programme, and force development squadrons have been running at Royal Air Force stations for a number of years. The flagship fellowships comprise a small number of full- and part-time funded study or placement opportunities, at up to PhD-level, across the rank structure of the Royal Air Force, aiming to develop intellectual capacity and broaden the study of air, space, and cyber topics. However, resourcing inevitably limits ambition for most of these initiatives. If the new chief accepts that he has a challenge on his hands where the conceptual component is concerned, two things are clear: he will need to address it by encouraging and enabling his people to engage with the intellectual underpinnings of their service and the world in which it operates, and he will need to do this by articulating a clear, compelling and resourced vision connecting all three pillars of fighting power to one another.

I have no doubt that there will be dissenting voices claiming that most people are busy most of the time as it is, but the Royal Air Force would do well to heed the warning offered by Christopher Elliott regarding the cult of busyness in the armed forces. Elliott (a retired major-general) noted that military officers, working long hours, “exhaust themselves of the ability to think clearly and creatively.” A balance will need to be struck — personal experience suggests that activity and output are not always complementary, and some of the “normal jogging” activity that fills people’s days will need to be deleted, outsourced, or resourced to make headroom for intellectual activity. Learning to say “no” would demonstrate commitment — doing more with less may have become commonplace, but it merely leaves people with a feeling of surviving rather than thriving.

The chief might also wish to address the distribution of conceptual component activity across the Royal Air Force — some readers may have noticed that this article has been very officer-focused so far. My experience both in and out of uniform has been that the enlisted cohort of the Royal Air Force simply do not know that it is “okay” for them to have a voice where air power is concerned. This extends into a final challenge for the chief, to immerse the whole of the Royal Air Force in his vision, and I offer a last anecdote to highlight the importance of this. In 2012 I was in conversation with my Royal Air Force career manager, discussing my options for future postings. I was at this point commanding the Air Warfare School, the post-graduate centre of excellence in air power and air warfare education. Bluntly, I was told that “[t]he problem is, you’re an air power expert, and the Royal Air Force isn’t looking for air power experts.” If the Royal Air Force’s career management organization does not value the conceptual component, personnel will not be signposted to developmental opportunities or loaded onto courses, and there is little chance of the wider force embracing intellectual development.

There are numerous ways in which the conceptual component’s net could be cast wider. The Royal Air Force could develop a responsive, online companion to the Air Power Review to encourage greater participation and a live debate around air power (the Army Knowledge Exchange may offer a model). A Royal Air Force conceptual component Twitter feed could be launched, onto which would be posted daily articles to stimulate thought and debate across, and beyond, the service. Personnel could be encouraged (even mentored) to make podcasts or publish video reviews of interesting articles or books. There are undoubtedly many more avenues which could be explored.

So I lay down a challenge to the incoming professional head of the world’s oldest independent air force: Embrace the conceptual component in your vision for the RAF, resource it, nurture it, and, above all, ensure that everyone in the whole force understands it and engages with it. Per Ardua ad Astra.



Mal Craghill spent 30 years in the Royal Air Force. He commanded the Air Warfare School and the Tornado GR4 weapons school, holds an MA in strategy from the University of Exeter, and currently teaches strategic studies for the University of Portsmouth at the Royal Air Force College. The views expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the University of Portsmouth or the Royal Air Force College.

Image: Royal Air Force