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Commentary: Failure necessary in building better Air Force

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  • By by Col. Doug Thies

“I will never falter and I will not fail!” The last line of the Airman’s Creed is something we typically proclaim in robust unison. The words are important because the creed calls us to a common Airman ideal, those traits to which we as individuals aspire.

When combined with our 309,000 sisters and brothers, the union fosters the greatest instrument of military power the world has ever known.

But what does “will not fail” in the context of the creed actually mean; Ever? In every possible thing? In filling out a travel voucher or in executing one’s primary duty? In practice or application? In a peacetime exercise or in combat? As leaders it is essential we understand that some failure – and most importantly our learning from it – has been, and remains, essential to the U.S. Air Force’s ability to prevail in air, space and cyberspace in a world marked by enduring unpredictability.

Beginning in 2017, the three fighter squadrons in the 20th Fighter Wing – the 55th FS “Shooters,” the 77th FS “Gamblers,” and the 79th FS “Tigers” – will celebrate their 100th birthdays.

A look back at those 100 years reveals a stark pattern: policy makers, theorists, and military planners have been notoriously horrible at predicting future events shaping the strategic environment inside which our military must be prepared to wage and win war, giving credence to notion that the only certainty is persistent uncertainty.

Consider World War I; at its onset, no one knew the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand would usher in a rapid and seemingly uncontrollable path toward a clash of empires that would ultimately result in 37 million casualties. While the assassination was certainly newsworthy, newspapers from the time reveal that societies in Europe were more enthralled with tabloid style journalism than any concern over the world being embroiled in war.

Military inclinations were likewise constrained by doctrine focusing on mass and the offensive, failing to account for how advances in rapid firepower and artillery had changed the nature of battle. Each side’s desire to gain an advantage amid the years’ long stalemate engendered the first use of chemical weapons and the exploitation of the third dimension – airpower and our three fighter squadrons.

We now know the widely held belief that World War I would be “the war to end all wars” was wrong, heinously wrong.

More recently, for example, the decades-long Cold War that pitted the U.S. and its allies against the Russian-led Soviet Union and its allies dominated all strategic thinking. It was an environment marked by scores of conflicts fought under an umbrella of nuclear parity, or mutually assured destruction, as it came to be called.

The Air Force was the blanket of security for the nation, an alert force with aircrew assigned to execute one-way missions, 24/7 bomber patrols and intercontinental ballistic missile operators ready to strike the enemy with scores, if not hundreds of nuclear weapons.

It was an all or nothing affair that eventually developed into what some assessed to be a stable international order, which was assumed by most that it would form the global security environment indefinitely. Then it all just suddenly ended.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the subsequent dominance by the U.S. and its allies would usher in what some influential thinkers called “the end of history.”

Western style governance modeled on democracy, individual liberty and free-market capitalism had prevailed over communism’s monolithic control over every aspect of the human experience. Many believed there was only one path for the world, and our way was it.

We are all familiar with what has transpired since this lofty claim was made.

The attacks of Sept. 11 made it clear there are those who do not share our views and are willing to kill and die to achieve their own political ends. Since the so-called “end of history,” the Air Force has “gone kinetic” in more than a few countries and has had to get really good at irregular warfare and its associated functions such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, information operations and special operations. All the while, our strategic competitors have in many ways closed the gap in technology and weapons capabilities, such that our ability to prevail in some parts of the world has been placed at significant risk.

The point is this: over the last 100 years, uncertainty has been much more common than certainty.

The strategic environment changed dramatically, and our Air Force had to adapt. Airmen had to innovate and be willing to take risk, fail, learn and come out smarter and more capable than before.

Learning from failure is part of our DNA. The bicycle manufacturers who founded the age of flight, the Wright Brothers, tinkered year after year and failed over and over, spending thousands of hours exercising excruciating patience and attention to detail, learning every step of the way until they finally got it right.

In World War II our attempts to put theories of strategic bombing into practice resulted in thousands of failures, the lessons of which propelled research and development that over the ensuing decades produced levels of precision we now take for granted.

In Vietnam, the enemy’s introduction of radar-guided surface-to-air missiles was a game changer that threatened air superiority, until our Wild Weasel forbears developed ingenious ways to find, fix and engage these new threat systems. Ultimately, hard lessons from the losses incurred in that war yielded the idea of using Red Flag exercises to provide combat experience to Airmen before they engaged in actual combat. More simply, they needed to have the opportunity to fail, and learn from failure, so the consequences could be confined to a training environment.

In his book “Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder,” philosopher Nassim Taleb describes how organizations can best thrive in a world marked by uncertainty and unforeseen, potentially colossal events.

Taleb argues that immense system-wide failures result when small incremental failures are not permitted to occur. The product is an artificially strong system vulnerable to breakage due to a buildup of hidden flaws. When thinking of material property this is analogous to something brittle: strong but prone to shattering under shock or excessive pressure.

Think of a city that lives on a fault line; if the fault yields multiple and frequent minor tremors, the city’s builders will adapt and improve their construction techniques to account for the seismic activity. Therefore, if a larger earthquake comes, the city’s inhabitants would benefit from improvements made over time. On the contrary, if the periodic tremors do not occur and the city’s leaders are not aware of making improvements, the same earthquake would yield a more calamitous result. Likewise, when muscle fiber is stressed to the point of failure, the body’s repair mechanisms produce a stronger muscle compared to its previously undisturbed version. This quality is better than “resiliency,” for resiliency means returning to form, or getting back up when knocked down. “Antifragile” describes improvement following disruption, or after getting knocked down, getting back up taller, stronger and faster.

Now and in the days to come, the Air Force needs every single Airman to help identify and conquer our hidden flaws.

Our adversaries have rapidly closed the qualitative technological gap on which we have relied since Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The American public has grown accustomed to thinking about airpower as an uncontested asymmetric advantage, one that can deliver devastating strategic effects while incurring few risks. That mindset is wrong because the threat today and going forward will challenge our operations in every domain.

Competitors will soon be able to match our precision, our stealth, our speed, our range, our cyber capabilities, and they will contest us in space. They will attack our operating locations with long range, precise surface to surface missiles. They will attack our logistical methods and processes. The game has changed, and we must adapt.

One of the best mechanisms for every Airman to contribute to is the commander’s inspection program and our local “Weasel Victory” exercises in the 20th FW.

Airmen from every function should be able to ask themselves, “Where are we vulnerable? What could the enemy do to shut down my ability to do my job? If I were the enemy, how could I impact our ability to operate?”

The answers to those questions must inform our locally driven exercises through the wing inspection team, who then must attack our vulnerabilities, our ability to operate, our processes and even the validity of the guidance provided by our technical orders and Air Force Instructions.

On occasion we will fail.

That is the whole point; for our failures will compel us to adapt and build an Air Force that is better than before.

This improved Air Force will be comprised of Airmen who are skilled at critical thinking, who exercise disciplined initiative, who know commander’s intent, who are competent at their core tasks and proactive in communication.

When the next war comes, for our Airmen to be able to proclaim with confidence “I will not fail,” leaders must ensure we provide some opportunity for small, incremental failures along the way.

By doing so we will preserve our Air Force’s ability to win in a strategic environment dominated by events and conditions we have yet to imagine.

Author’s note: a few of the books contributing to ideas presented include the following:
“The Guns of August,” by Barbara Tuchman
“The Sources of Military Doctrine,” by Barry R. Posen
“Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder,” by Nicholas Taleb
“Bold,” by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler