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Flexibility is still the key to airpower

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jeffrey Shulman
  • 8th Fighter Wing
Airmen often repeat the phrase, “flexibility is the key to airpower.” I would argue as a service we have forgotten what that means. The phrase was coined from the Italian airpower strategist, Gen. Giulio Douhet, who penned The Command of the Air in the 1920’s. Although many airpower experts will argue his work had some flaws, this phrase is timeless. To the American public, the Army is known as the, “Strength of the Nation;” it is a brand and phrase that has worked well for them. Former commander of Air Education and Training Command, Gen. Edward Rice, stated during his retirement speech that the Air Force is the, “Spirit of the Nation.” Our service was born out of creativity, flexibility and the ability to bend time and space. That is what is unique about us; this is what makes us American Airmen.

For the last 25 years, our Air Force has struggled to generate leaders who have been heard at the interagency and political levels of government. I contend that our service has not had a national leadership figure since Lt. Gen. Chuck Horner, who commanded U.S. and allied air operations during Operation DESERT STORM. Having just completed my tour as a Congressional Fellow, I got to see how our service is viewed from the outside and at times it was not pretty. It is no secret we are struggling to communicate what we bring to the fight to our joint force, Congress and even our own civilian population. Years of growing regulations with gradually increasing waiver authorities have resulted in a generation dependent on strict commander guidance, a generation that lacks bold leadership at the tactical level, and most importantly the ability to creatively think. We have forgotten what is important--our mission, people and military families. I am willing to bet a cold beverage that there was no Air Force Instruction or exact checklist telling Jimmy Doolittle how to conduct the raid on Tokyo. Doolittle was told to get the job done and he and the Doolittle Raiders did it.

Throughout his tenure, Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, former Chief of Staff of the Air Force said, “if something doesn’t make sense, then stop doing it.” The problem is no one knows how to execute it. My answer to this is simple--BOLD LEADERSHIP. I am not advocating for blowing off AFIs or regulations. Standards must be upheld at all times. I am advocating for supervisors at all levels to create an environment and culture where Airmen, regardless of rank or position, have the ability to generate good ideas and bring them forward. We are a combat fighter wing; not everything needs to or should be written down. I am challenging myself and our Airmen to look around, find AFIs or regulations that are in the way and remove them. It is up to us to bring the problems with our recommended solutions forward and rapidly implement them. It is time we again learned how to lead and execute commander’s intent without it being written down word for word in an AFI. Be bold, fall flat on your face, then get up, teach others and remember, “flexibility is STILL the key to airpower.”