The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is changing. Like the rest of the ADF, our Air Force is evolving to ensure it is prepared for the future strategic environment.
In an era that is expected to be more congested, contested and uncertain, Air Force can't afford to focus solely on 'what' technology it needs to buy next. It must also determine 'who' it wants to be in this brave new world.
But the RAAF can't determine its identity on its own. After all, an 'Air Force' isn't a tangible construct. It's an imagined community, an idea. Like any other organisation, an Air Force is a collection of people, buildings, equipment and other stuff held together by a common purpose. Because the buildings, equipment and stuff don't think for themselves (mostly), it's the people that give an organisation its meaning.
So how do you point 14,000-odd people in the same direction? There is no magic formula, but culture has a lot to do with it. Culture incorporates a group's ideas, customs, and social behaviour which has a direct impact on the way individuals perform in the organisation. Which begs the question, what is the Air Force culture?
Who are we? What makes a member of the Air Force different to someone in the Army or Navy, or the Public Service, or even non-Government roles for that matter?
A string of recent initiatives is seeking to answer these questions. We have a new collective term for RAAF personnel (shout out to my fellow Aviators), and the Chief of Air Force (CAF) and Warrant Officer of the Air Force (WOFF-AF) recently released the ‘Our Air Force, Our Culture’ document, which highlights the organisational need for “culture and leaders that are airminded, values-based, inclusive, resilient and consistent.”
These initiatives are timely, but how do we translate this guidance into action? Our leaders advise that the “answer to exactly what needs to be done will be different for different contexts.” While this is true, organisational-level assistance will enable targeted activities at lower levels.
The steps below will help get the ball rolling. This list is not exhaustive, but it will connect strategic intent with practical action so that guidance from our leaders will reach aviators at all levels.
1. Asking the tough questions
Acknowledged by most but rarely admitted formally, Air Forces (not just the RAAF) have historically struggled to build and maintain a collective sense of identity. For instance, Laslie argues that a collective identity does not exist (and is not required) in Air Forces. We will need to explore this issue further to identify the roots of our existing culture before we can seek to evolve.
How do we tackle such a fundamental challenge? We must start by looking deeply within our organisational psyche and challenging our most inner-held beliefs. Organisational analysis will be required to peel back our layers to discover why this challenge exists and what can be done about it. This won’t be easy, but nothing worth doing rarely is.
2. Cultivating the air mind
As we embark on this soul-searching activity, we should concurrently focus on building a common level of airmindedness throughout our organisation. While aviators will naturally form sub-groups within their employment communities, airmindedness will nourish an Air Force-wide layer of identity that fills the gaps between musterings and specialisations.
It’s no accident that CAF & WOFF-AF identified airmindedness as the first new measure of our culture. To achieve this intent, we must train, educate and immerse our aviators in the experience of how an Air Force is employed in peacetime and war across the air and space domains.
Aviators at all levels should receive opportunities to understand how an Air Force fights; to paint a clear picture in their consciousness to draw the link between the work of each mustering/specialisation and our ultimate organisational purpose. This will help generate the ‘inculcated blueness’ needed to help aviators advance Air Force interests throughout the wider Defence organisation.
3. Consolidate through training, education and experience
As we build airmindedness and generate the connective tissue that forms our collective identity, we must ensure this sense of belonging is sustained well into the future. Significant tools in this pursuit will be training, education and experience.
To highlight the value of these elements, consider the formative benefits of initial military training. While these courses aren’t always fun at the time, they provide training, education and experience that act as the seeds which grow a collective sense of identity. And just like seeds, this sense of belonging must be consolidated throughout an aviator's career.
Air Force must review its training and employment continuums to ensure we are appropriately sustaining our collective identity and culture. We must seek opportunities for aviators to spend time with other ranks, musterings and specialisations in the training environment as well as in the workplace. Program Wirraway has made substantial gains in training and education areas; we should build on this momentum to achieve our desired changes.
The steps above will not of themselves create the collective sense of identity or cultural change envisaged by our leaders. However, interrogating our existing culture, building airmindedness and consolidating these measures through training, education and experience will go a long way to achieving this intent.
The RAAF has embarked upon a valiant journey: to enhance our collective sense of identity and to strengthen Air Force culture so that our aviators are prepared for the future. We have the motivation, commitment and capacity to rise to this challenge. Further investment at the organisational level will ensure our aviators achieve their full potential.
Harris, R. (2021). RAAF marks centenary by dropping gendered ‘airman’ term in favour of ‘aviator'. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from RAAF marks centenary by dropping gendered ‘airman’ term in favour of ‘aviator’ (smh.com.au)
Finney, N.K. & Mayfield, T.O. (2018). Redefining the Modern Military: The Intersection of Profession and Ethics. Naval Institute Press.
Kelly, M. (2021). AVOCADO 101: An Air Force guide to the Australian Command and Staff Course. Sir Richard Williams Foundation. Retrieved from AVOCADO 101: An Air Force guide to the Australian Command and Staff Course - Matt Kelly (williamsfoundation.org.au)