Mission-Focused Cultures are Learning Cultures
The policy of masking advanced academic degrees from major and lieutenant colonel promotion boards has long been a contentious one in the Air Force. Recently, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall repealed the department’s on-again, off-again policy, once again igniting a longstanding debate over the value of education credentials for field-grade officer ranks. Now, prospective promotees’ formal education diplomas are a visible and legitimate factor in determining suitability for the next grade. While important, a narrow focus on this issue sidesteps the fundamental problem within the Air Force: the purpose and place of education.
Education — in a military context — is about developing leaders capable of combining foresight with introspection. It is also about learning how to find balance when simultaneously charged with identifying lessons from recent “strategic failures” and accelerating doctrinal and real change in accordance with the nature of war. For the Air Force, education is not only key to building a force that is combat-ready and mission-focused in today’s operational environment, but it is an integral part of building the next generation of officers and leaders tasked with operating in tomorrow’s dramatically more-contested circumstances. Promoting the educated is not the issue: Educating the force is. The Air Force needs to reestablish a learning culture.
Regrettably, as a result of the last 27 years of promotion policy whiplash and two decades of post-9/11 deployment cycles, the heart of Air Force culture — the squadron — has failed to uphold this culture of learning. Policies and norms taught that there are assignments for development (for the chosen few) and a functional command for education (for credentialing the chosen), but that squadrons are where the mission is executed. This rigid separation of spheres is wholly detrimental to service culture. Squadrons indeed own the mission, but that mission includes continually educating airmen — fanning and channeling their intellectual curiosity — regardless of the type of assignment or insignia of command stitched to their front-breast pocket.
To rectify this, the Air Force should empower its squadron command echelon to reintegrate learning into its mission. It should help develop better reading habits among the ranks, bring intermediate developmental education in-correspondence under the purview of the local commander, and encourage developmental engagements at the unit level. Promotion policy may have led to the muddle, but mission-focused, local culture change will lead the way out.
Local Culture Gone Awry
Air Force culture has long encouraged and celebrated leaders that are contrarian, outside-the-box, experimental, and curious thinkers — the “over not through” types. The service also tends to have the greatest density of college graduates in its ranks. According to a 2018 Defense Department Demographics Report, the Air Force stood above other services in terms of the percentage of active-duty members with a bachelor’s degree or higher (27.3 percent). Moreover, the 12.4 percent of active members with advanced degrees was nearly four percentage points higher than the next closest service. Within the officer ranks, however, the relationship between continuing education and continued service is not straightforward.
The Air Force policy of “masking” advanced academic degrees for selected officer promotion boards has been controversial since it was first introduced in 1996. This policy was initially exercised for captain and major promotion boards, with then-Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald Fogleman’s express intention of “level[ing] the playing field” for certain career fields, especially aircraft maintenance, security police, and rated flyers “which do not enjoy the same opportunity for off-duty education that others do.” The Air Force policy changed in 2008, re-permitting advanced-degree visibility at all officer promotion boards. After officers without advanced degrees experienced a drop in promotion selection rates, the service returned to masking for ranks below colonel in 2014. In December 2022, the secretary of the Air Force yet again reversed course, revealing advanced degree data for major- and lieutenant colonel-promotion boards while simultaneously stating that the degrees are not a requirement for promotion.
The concerns and confusions Air Force officers face today, then, are similar to those their predecessors experienced from 2008 until 2014, when declining promotion rates for officers without advanced degrees spurred all manner of “chasing a degree just to get promoted,” as then-Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper said in 2005. There was an oft-repeated statement inside of the squadron: “If the Air Force wants you to get a degree, they will send you to get one.” This failed to explain how the depersonalized service was capable of detecting intellectual curiosity and capacity or why a better-educated force in general was not in the national interest, generous education benefits for Air Force officers notwithstanding.
These confused mentalities and messages, coupled with decades of post-9/11 conflict, further cemented the division between “mission-focused” units concentrating on career-defining and demanding deployment cycles and those that committed or encouraged time on continuing or advanced education. Absent visionary leadership, a very small percentage of mid-career Air Force officers cycled out to assignments for professional development or advanced schooling, while the remaining operational force lost touch with the real incentive for, and purpose of, these kinds of pursuits. If the matters of when and why officers should continue their education are unclear, or uninspired, then the question of how will go unanswered. The solution starts at the local level.
A Better, Coherent Vision
The Air Force should reclaim the notion that it develops airmen through high-quality developmental education for purpose, not credential. Airmen pursue continuing and advanced education so that they can better their squadron and the force as a whole, not so they can take home a diploma. The pursuit of education should therefore be connected to, not divorced from, the home unit and commander. The development of military professionals during service, for continued service, is definitely within the purview of the local squadron.
In order to begin to reconnect education and personal professional development with local, mission-oriented squadron cultures, commanders should create tailored educational goals across their units, differentiated specifically by individual, rank, or position. A starting point could be a revamp of the Chief of Staff Leadership Library, once called the “Professional Reading Program.” Originally introduced in 1996, the program included 34 books compiled by the Air Force History Support Office, broken out into basic, intermediate, and advanced tiers, according to rank. Becoming a captain meant receiving a box of 13 books from the basic list in the mail. Today’s version is more an optional, newly released book, movie, and podcast club: It could be better leveraged into a tailorable tool for local command teams.
The Air Force could look to the Marine Corps’ example of encouraging a learning culture through unit-level literacy initiatives. To “study and understand the nature and conduct of war while vicariously experiencing decision making in war,” the service requires the participation of all grades in its professional self-study program, including its Professional Reading Program and Commandant’s Professional Reading List. All commands — not just training and education units — participate in tailored book discussions and comment on books from the Commandant’s Professional Reading List in individual Marine Fitness Reports. Air Force unit leadership could issue required reading lists by rank, name certain texts as prerequisites for being appointed to specific jobs — especially section and flight leadership — or simply require that reading programs be included in individual airman feedback sessions. Leaders could even encourage the development of writing skills prone to atrophy through book reviews or by issuing a specific writing prompt. Independent of degree programs and night school, a learning culture begins in the squadron by developing better, focused reading habits among members.
Next, commanders should look beyond the minimal allotments for majors able to attend intermediate developmental education in-residence and focus on complementing developmental education via correspondence for officers remaining in garrison. In 2018, the central developmental education board selected 545 officers (8.6 percent) for in-residence developmental education out of the 6,319 eligible. Officers that are not selected, or that decline the opportunity, usually enroll in Air Command and Staff College Distance Learning online and complete the first phase of Joint Professional Military Education exclusively from the confines of their home study or deployed hooch. The program, conducted via a partnership with Arizona State University, is somewhat customizable in accordance with “individual interests and career goals” and usually totally divorced from command involvement. Officers are expected to complete a combination of about 17 self-paced or facilitated courses, over 260 “student hours,” during which time his or her commander is not only unable to view their progress but is not consulted on how to support, round out, or complement the program. Such a purpose-built program should not be so locally disconnected.
Squadron and group commanders should shepherd their distance learning-enrolled majors through a more fulsome educational opportunity. These leaders should support their students in attending professional development conferences and symposiums; connect them with battle studies and staff ride opportunities; guide them through a professional writing project or work with them to co-author a piece; and even consider sending them on temporary duty to a headquarters-level staff organization to join a specific project or initiative. The first phase of the Joint Professional Military Education may cover “joint planning at all levels of war” and “joint requirements development,” according to statute, but until one jumps headlong into specific crisis action planning or tackles a strategic requirements document, real learning has yet to occur. Moreover, Air University, the Air Force’s center for professional military education, could support commanders by aggregating and communicating additional in-person development opportunities for stateside students. Better still, it could offer funding to send distance learning-enrolled majors on at least one professional development trip during or after their enrollment.
Finally, local leadership should identify times and occasions to bring professional development and educational engagements to their entire units. Events which are inclusive of broad cross-sections of airmen, and which elevate genuine expertise and dialogue, can sharpen insights and challenge whole groups. These could include sponsoring distinguished guests, arranging for online videoconferencing with experienced speakers or general officers, hosting one’s own seminar, or even setting a day aside for an offsite historical tour. These types of whole-unit engagements should be focused enough that they are not confused with some type of readiness training down day or tactically focused campaign of learning. They could be inclusive of a unit member’s written or spoken reflections on an assigned text from the Chief of Staff’s Leadership Library, could involve reports from distance learning-enrolled majors recently back from a professional development trip, and should in every way inspire the members of the unit towards continued service. Service members that learn together will collaborate better, build better context around their activities and operations, and forge teams that serve the country better.
Squadrons Will Show the Way
Air Force squadron cultures are not locked into some rigid historical inertia: Policy and circumstances no longer stand in the way of recapturing the purpose and place of education within the force. The Air Force’s ability to do away with the unhelpful and outmoded way of considering assignments and units as either developmental or mission-oriented will start at the unit level. Squadron and flight commanders and senior noncommissioned officers that champion continuing education can make learning about capability and purpose rather than credentials. These leaders can find local solutions and share them widely. They can cultivate better reading habits in their squadrons and encourage their officers towards books that bring into focus historical experiences in war, tailored to their experience and trajectory. They can engage with subordinates doing developmental education by night, track their progress in earnest, and ensure that they have the in-person opportunities to learn and practice their skills. They can raise the level of knowledge within the entire unit by shaping opportunities to learn and grow — together. It was never about promotions, deployments, or school selections. It became and was a culture issue, and only leaders can forge a path out.
Maj. Mitch Fossum is a staff officer in Checkmate Division, Deputy Chief of Staff, Operations, Headquarters U.S. Air Force. Maj. Jonathan Dippold is an F-15E instructor pilot at Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.