That’s the title of an article that recently appeared in Checkpoints, the magazine of the Air Force Academy Association of Graduates. The author writes:
USAFA has played a much lesser role than the other two service academies when it comes to our nation’s leaders. Even from a military point of view, USAFA grads have not yet excelled on an equal basis with our sister academies. Not a single graduate has held the Chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and just a few have emerged as the Air Force Chief of Staff (CSAF). If we are turning out leaders with character and competence–and I strongly believe we are–where are they?
The author goes on to write that USAFA grads are also underrepresented in Congress, in corporate leadership, and in graduate schools. He suggests possible factors include USAFA’s relatively young age, its geographical location (far removed from the East coast), a graduate force that is skewed towards narrow specializations in aerospace, a curriculum that doesn’t give enough attention to fields like leadership and politics, a lack of cohesiveness among graduates, and a lack of participation and representation in national politics.
This isn’t the first article on the subject. Various articles and studies have looked at the Air Force’s under-representation in senior leadership positions. One example is Rebecca Grant’s article Why Airmen Don’t Command, in which she laments that “Those who wear blue are virtually shut out of the top warfighting posts.” Her focus is on the regional commands.
I shared some of my views on USAFA after Tom Ricks suggested that all the service academies should be closed. While I don’t agree with him, I do believe that USAFA and Air Force PME often serve as vehicles for transmitting a dysfunctional service culture. The culture is too insular, too antagonistic to the other services, and focuses almost entirely on airpower while excluding broader issues of war and politics.
What should the Air Force do? I have one mantra here: Teach officers about war, not just airpower. Give cadets and officers opportunities to interact in the joint environment at every opportunity in their careers. It’s never too early. Also give them opportunities to interact with leaders from other government agencies, NGOs, and the corporate world–in other word, all the people who will be stakeholders and participants when they fight future wars. We also need a personnel system that rewards, rather than punishes, broadening programs like graduate school. In the current Air Force, it can be challenging to stay competitive in the flying world when you take two or three years out for graduate school (after I finish my graduate schooling in Jordan, my assignment officer wants to send me to a job that would probably kill my career. I’ll fight that battle next year).
By definition, the Air Force is a service specializing in air and space power. We will always be marked by both the strengths and weaknesses that our specialization brings. However, we will only reach our full utility if we understand exactly how we fit into broader issues of war and politics. That is also a prerequisite for holding the kind of leadership positions that these authors long for.