Crafting Combat-Centered Archetypes by Changing Competitive Categories
Estimated reading time: 20 minutes
Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part article exploring a new construct for officer talent management, career progression, and promotion. Part one, published Monday, lays out the reason for establishing new competitive categories in US Air Force officer management. Part two proposes seven different categories, or “tribes”, to optimize future force development.
By Dave Blair
Crafting Seven Battle Stories and Balancing the Seven Combat Tribes. In our thought experiment, we must begin with the three combat maneuver missions of the Air Force: Air, Space, and Cyber. These largely speak for themselves, and the addition of a ‘Combat Integrator’ tribe for battlefield airmen and cross-domain professionals rounds out the combat maneuver force. The combat support force will take a bit more explaining, as an expeditionary posture and a combat re-focus significantly transforms the complexion of the support force. All the forces required to ‘set the globe’ and sustain the war become Combat Sustainers. All the forces that construct and field airpower, and the ‘firekeepers’ (for lack of a better term in this venue), become Combat Developers. Lastly, all the forces that keep the institution running, moving people and contracting for things, become Combat Accelerators – they troubleshoot the war by hunting down and eradicating ‘queep’ whenever and wherever they find it, so that everyone else can focus on the fight. Altogether, these seven tribes account for the whole of the current line category, while setting the stage for compelling war stories from every Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC).
Air Combat. The Air Combat Archetype looks to build an Air Operations Group commander who understands, to her very bones, the fluid and unforgiving nature of high-level aerial combat. This colonel leads a fight where a fleet of fighters sweep toward their enemy, treating abstract concepts like A-Pole as a visceral reality, while jammers reshape the electronic topography like a combat bulldozer plowing through an obstacle, all the while BINGO FUEL looming and threatening to pull away some key asset. In another war, she oversees a fleet of persistent attack aircraft parked overhead an entire country, clearing the way for them to swarm like sharks when an HVT is located or a friendly force needs air support.
The operational instincts of the Air Combat Archetype are honed through experiences across the three air combat sub-tribes: the Combat Air Forces (CAF), the Mobility Air Forces (MAF), and the Special Operations Air Forces (SOF). The MAF teaches her the art of grand synchronization, the essential ability to keep a flow of airpower moving quickly and efficiently upon a backdrop of constraints and chaos. The CAF is a schoolhouse for the unforgiving and unrelenting pace of air combat in a great power war – the fight is almost certainly decided within the first few days, and might be decided upon the first encounter, and it takes technical mastery if one is going to serve as a conductor in the orchestra of air war. And SOF teaches the flexibility and creativity that will be necessary in a war where human heuristic thought meets robotic algorithmic speed.
In terms of personnel nuts and bolts, this field includes all pilots, navigators, RPA pilots, and air battle managers. This is the largest category, containing 16,800 officers across all year groups (43% of the overall force). From a representative year group at the 3rd year of their career, this includes 1,000 officers (37% of the year group,) and by the 15-year point, they are down to 620 officers (43% of the year group.) In terms of game theoretic balance, the preponderance of the total population (8,000 total for 54% of the total) belongs to the Combat Air Forces, with the MAF (4,000 for 32% of the total) second and SOF (2,000 for 11%) in third. These trends generally hold across all year group samples. This should generate some interesting ‘triangle’ dynamics, where SOF and MAF can together counterbalance the CAF, which forces all sides to bargain and build partnerships. Moreover, in terms of aircrew, the CAF is split roughly down the middle between fighter aircraft and large aircraft (bombers, reconnaissance, and air battle managers), so some fascinating internal bargaining dynamics between elements of the sub-tribes should reinforce these positive tendencies. Pilots make up the majority of this category, but as previously discussed, it seems likely that ten years out, many of these technical distinctions will blur. The mission distinctions will likely remain, and in this category, they can work together for the greater good.
Space Combat. As aggressively pointed out by Congress during the current NDAA cycle, the
Air Force has a crucial national mission in space control. Assuming that competition in the space domain will move our thinking on spacecraft from the early fragile, low-performance craft of the Signal Corps toward the Air Service’s early forays into dogfighting, we will need a cadre of people who understand how to convert thin margins in kinematic performance upon a backdrop of gravitational terrain into victory. This colonel understands gravity and orbits as investments in rocket fuel and knows how to exhaust an enemy’s magazine of hydrazine and maneuver into a position of advantage. He understands, as a gut instinct, how orbits interface with the terrestrial surface, and knows how to block his enemy from the high ground. He knows every weak point of the platform, the datapath, and the lifecycle of enemy spacecraft. This is a different set of instincts, in terms of tempo and precision, from air combat.
The Space Combat Archetype would include the Space and the Missiles career fields. Across all year groups, these fields encompass 2,800 officers, for 7% of the force, though there is a major split at the sub-5-year point, where they comprise 10% of the force (290 officers), and afterwards, where the number drops to 5% (70 officers at the 15-year point.) The career field is roughly evenly balanced: Missiles comprises the preponderance in early year groups, and Space in the later, but this is an artifact of basing and retention strategies.
Cyber & Information Combat. Cyber is baked into almost every warfighting technology of significance, and its meteoric arrival on the field of combat has found us still grappling with how to attract and retain a high-technology workforce. One way to help address these challenges is to provide cyber the institutional space to sort itself out, with increased latitudes to define what good looks like with less regard for what ‘normal’ looks like. The Cyber and Information Combat archetype does that, while leveraging the tremendous advances in intelligence gathering and processing made over the course of the last two decades. The set of instincts for this archetype is about generating leverage and effects from abstract concepts – one piece of information taken from, or added to, an enemy’s information architecture may reshape the entirety of their logistical chain, resulting in parts that never arrive, packets that are never passed, and weapons systems that drop their defenses at exactly the wrong time. Similarly, information might tell us where to strike, or might gain us the approvals to strike, or might tell us what it will mean for the enemy network when we do strike.
The sense of time and space for this archetype is truly unique – it may take ten months or more to produce a ten-millisecond hack that buys ten minutes of operational vulnerability. The topography of cyberspace, especially as it maps upon the human domain, is something we still have yet to wrap our minds around, but we need people who can think about a packet as magnetic states on a server in physical space as well as seeing them as pieces of information on a very different map drawn by latency. Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but think of building warriors in the light of William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Burning Chrome – the fundamental fracturing of the cognitive world required to fight well truly will challenge how we think about space and time in war. We need to be building people for this kind of fight yesterday, which is exactly when our competitors started building their cyber cadre.
This is certain to be one of the more controversial categories in our thought experiment, as it brings together the current cyber and communications specialties – network ops and cyber warfare ops – with the intelligence career field. The rationale for doing so is twofold – on the most practical level, the vastly expanded field of intelligence needs a home where they will be able to deal with risk as operational commanders rather than support forces, and they would overpower any ‘non-rated ops’ category without adding coherence to such a category. Intelligence has a number of very obvious shared equities with cyber – newer forms of intelligence are highly reliant on cyber access, and intelligence relies on the security of the cyber force to keep its lifeblood of information and data secure.
When we think about who we want to build for this sort of space, there is a healthy flow between information as combat and information as decision advantage. Our archetypal colonel knows from their intelligence DNA exactly where to hit an enemy’s network, and from the cyber DNA they know exactly how to hit that networks. When they are wearing the intelligence hat, their visceral sense of cyber gives them a sense of how their enemy’s process and data flow works, and while mapping a nervous system does not tell you what a brain is thinking, it can tell you how they think. Building this informational coup d’oeil is worth the renovation required to get here.
To the practicalities, this field includes Intelligence, Cyber Warfare Operations, Information Operations, and Network Operations, for a total of 5,000 officers and 11% of the force. At the three-year point, this field is heavily tilted toward intelligence, but the imbalance declines in more senior year groups due to aggressive hiring of intelligence professionals by national agencies following the five-year point. That said, both intelligence and cyber professionals will be severely in demand in the private sector once their initial commitment is up, so one more reason to bind these fields together is that they share similar talent management challenges. If cyber finds itself in a position of persistent weakness, just as the CAF had factions that might prove sympathetic to others, the signals intelligence professionals in Intel have common cause with cyber for obvious reasons, and cyber is likely to keep growing, so the tribe should balance out in time.
Combat Integrators. As with cyber, the role of battlefield airmen is on the rise. The reason for this is two-fold – first, battlefield airmen have an early lead in small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) expertise, which is very much a growth industry, especially as it offers a plethora of options against powerful adversaries. A cursory glance at the Russian war in Ukraine reveals the ubiquity of sUAS, even in state-on-state armored warfare. True to their heritage as airmen, our battlefield airmen bring organic airpower to bear from the ground. Second, in the most abstract sense, battlefield airmen are brokers between domains. Cross-domain warfare is a major feature of the emerging synthesis in warfighting, and battlefield airmen are the bridge between the ground and the air.
Battlefield airmen integrate airpower (to include space and cyber effects) into other domains – typically the land domain – and their missions are likely to become even more interesting than they already are when we think about enemies where the best way to get at the air may be cross-domain fires. These ‘Combat Integrators’ cannot be reduced into any of the other domains, and should have their own tribe, but that tribe should be expanded to include fields like Foreign Affairs Officer that integrate power in a more abstract sense.
The essential feature of what is happening here is ‘integration’ – these airmen synchronize pieces of various domains in order to create a war-winning cocktail. We might easily imagine these combat integrators extending effects from the ground into space or cyberspace, but for our purposes here, we will leave these applications to the imagination. The iconic colonel from the integrator world might be the chief of air support for a major campaign, but if we were to dream bigger, I would imagine a sUAS version of Allison and Cochran’s Air Commandos, with battlefield airmen building quadcopters in safe houses and training resistance forces on how to build and use them themselves.
In a move sure to induce controversy, I lump the Regional Affairs Specialists (RAS) and Political-Military Affairs Specialists (PAS) into this group, and I would also recommend including all Combat Aviation Advisor (CAA) trained airmen from any AFSC the opportunity to join this tribe and become career CAAs. CAAs are a logical fit – they are cross-cultural integrators of airpower, and their primary unique value is their ability to bridge worlds and thereby generate combat power through partnered forces. RAS/PAS requires a bit more abstraction, but they are also bridging effects across domains and across cultures. This is a logical staff follow-on for CAAs, and given the in-situ experience of battlefield airmen, they would make a strong lead-in for a RAS tour. The majority of RAS/PAS will arrive from other career fields, as they do now, but they are more likely to get a fair shake in a tribe whose commonality is the ability generating combat effects by linking diverse domains, skills, and cultures. The most important reason for this marriage is that both, in their way, are masters of the ‘gray zone,’ and we need a specialized force capable of contesting this space. There is a practical reason for doing so, as well – retention past the ten-year point is currently low for Special Tactics Officers (STOs) and Combat Rescue Officers (CRO)s, and RAS/PAS careers generally start at the ten-year point, so it is a logical place to offset the losses and keep the field large enough to be viable for follow-on opportunities.
In terms of practicalities, the total population of integrators would be 2,400 officers comprising 6% of the force. This is not even across year groups, though, given the unique demographics of this category: for the younger year groups, the category comprises only 3% of the force with 100 officers. Battlefield airmen are the prime movers in this category, including Special Tactics, Combat Rescue, Air Liaison Officer, Airfield Operations, and Combat Weather. Given similarities in training with Combat Control, airfield operations is also included in this tribe, along with traditional weather. And as previously mentioned, PAS/RAS joins the tribe at the mid-career point.
This tribe is diverse, but it is small enough that leaders could take a holistic view of the various members. It is worth noting that this moves splits Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) Special Tactics from AFSOC Aviators, and another potential solution would be to make a SOF tribe. I prefer this answer rather than sequestering SOF because it creates cross-cutting identities, which are true to the integrator role and healthy for the service as a whole. Similarly, Air Liaison Officers work with Air Combat Command (ACC), but would probably be misunderstood on a board where they were weighed against pilots, because their track cannot be cleanly reduced to a role in air warfare where they might be that archetypal colonel directing the air war. I could see the Special Tactics Officer or the Air Liaison Officer much more comfortable in the unique organic small aviation role we described earlier, which would not be a good fit for the air combat archetype. For the value of that vision against great power enemies, I argue that these unique airmen should be able to chart their own fate.
Combat Sustainers. When other services go to war, they do so with an enormous logistics enterprise behind them. One consequence of growing up as a service that sortied forth from CONUS bases for its founding mission is that we gained an exquisite appreciation for how to lead and build one global integrated plan for extreme intensity nuclear conflict, but not as much of an appreciation for the more banal beans-and-bullets logistics that support conventional wars. This has been an impediment for us in leading joint task forces – we will always be at a disadvantage without a deep understanding of logistics, not of the general sense of logistics, but a greasy-hands intuitive sense of how to keep the lifeblood of combat pumping through the veins of the joint force. The colonel archetype of the Combat Sustainer is the Sustainment Wing commander that builds the war, and surely the person who builds the next Desert Storm would be a legend in at least their own community.
To generate airpower from forward bases, our theory of the Maintenance Group and the Support Group needs some adjusting. On one side, we have the maintainers, who are essential to the generation of aircraft sorties. On the other side, we have the civil engineers and security forces, who are essential to the construction and defense of bases. We also take the logistics readiness officers, who have the best sense of how to source anything and everything. Link up Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) with Security Forces and link up Bioenvironmental Engineering with Civil Engineers, and we have a full complement for a Sustainment Wing. In total, this includes 4,700 officers for 13% of the force, roughly balanced between the three sub-tribes of aircraft generation, base development, and logistics readiness.
Combat Developers. In the recent Portraits in Courage speech, General Goldfein described the need for “courage in the research lab.” This is the vision of the Combat Developer. The Air Force has always had a strong foundation in the disciplines of developmental engineering and acquisitions. The Combat Developer archetype brings these two fields together, though this is more or less ratifying the status quo. What the archetype provides is a combat vision of the field. The RATPAC of aggressive engineers and acquisitions professionals, and the GHOST program developed by Hondo Geurts of United States Special Operations Command to build battle-relevant engineers, both stand as visions of what this might look like. These Combat Developers also are the ‘firekeepers’ – since they develop bleeding-edge emerging technologies, they are in the best position to manage and deploy special and secret technologies. This is their combat face, and their combat support face is to shepherd designs through the acquisitions process. The alumni of the GHOST program will surely demonstrate what a legend of this archetype looks like, and I look forward to them doing so.
By the numbers, this field includes operations research, behavioral scientists, chemists and nuclear scientists, physicists, developmental engineers, acquisitions managers, and material leaders. Test pilots and flight test engineers also join this archetype, as their ultimate function is as developers rather than air war integrators. This are 5,000 officers, comprising 13% of the force. At the three-year mark, this is heavily biased toward engineers, but it shifts toward acquisitions as time goes on. In practice, both career tracks seem to flow toward each other, so this should not be a problem.
Combat Accelerators. Finally, the vision of the Combat Accelerator provides an archetype of something more compelling than simple corporate governance for the deep support forces of Personnel, Public Affairs, Contracting, and Finance. In the traditional logic of a bureaucracy, people get promoted by building an empire of process. The vision of the combat accelerator turns this logic on its head, and envisions a cadre empowered to hunt down and destroy stupid and wasteful processes, with the tools and the resources to make smarter processes and troubleshoot problems. This would be the McKinsey of war, the indispensable support function that just made problems go away. These are the people that find a way to make sure the airman with the critical skill for the fight can get into theater on no notice as soon as possible, they are the ones who override the system so that a troop can get paid, the ones who find a way to make anything and everything work. The stories a Combat Accelerator would have from combat would be unique and fascinating, but I could easily imagine it involving carrying a briefcase of money or flying to a Forward Operating Base to find a troop with a key skill or piece of knowledge in order to move him to another base.
The career progression for a Combat Accelerator would likely be less between the two major sub-tribes of money and people, and more likely between the unit or base level and the Air Force center level. A personnel officer might start on a base running a team of these troubleshooters who supported squadrons as a commander’s support staff. After seeing the problems at the base level, they might head off to the Personnel Center for a tour where they not only learned the guts of the system, but stored social capital for later base-level tours. At the base level, they deploy forward and troubleshoot money and people problems for a Combined Joint Special Operations Air Component, where their knowledge of the system accelerates the combat capability of the unit. This archetype includes 2,700 officers for 7% of the force. Its AFSC balance slightly favors the people side over the money side, but if Public Affairs is a free agent, then the imbalance is not so severe as to colonize financial management and contracting.
In Conclusion and Moving Forward. We mentioned earlier that in order to advance to the General Officer tier, the same logics within the archetypes would apply between them. The winners within the archetypes are those who could successfully gain cultural capital in multiple sub-tribes, and the people who will prosper outside of the tribe structure are the people who can gain cultural capital between tribes. This system makes it possible to cross-flow officers at multiple levels, especially as technology reduces need for specific technical skills in favor of mission command instinct and tactical judgment. So, we might imagine a few vetted leaders being sent between tribes, much like an additional tier of PHOENIX REACH.
Typically, I would imagine this as a transition between a combat maneuver tribe and a combat support tribe. A test pilot would be an excellent example of this, beginning in the Air Combat Tribe and moving into the Combat Developer tribe. Alternately, a developmental engineer from the Combat Developer tribe who worked on space projects could flow into the Space Combat tribe if their broadening tour went well. A Combat Accelerator might apply and be selected for the RAS program, and transition into the Combat Integrator tribe. And so on.
Altogether, if there are two things that this thought experiment is ultimately about, it is combat and virtue-crafting. The system we just described conducts virtue-crafting by incentivizing team-building and collaboration at every level, and teaching officers to expand their horizons as they advance. And at all levels, we define ourselves by our relationship to combat. That is, after all, what we’re all here to do.
Dave Blair is a U.S. Air Force officer and is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy. He holds a PhD and a Masters degree from Georgetown, and a Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.