Building Critical Thinkers To Win Tomorrow’s Wars: Changing The Training Paradigm

By James Davitch, Ronaldo Martinez, Todd Fisk, and Paul Stump

Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) has grown into a globally integrated enterprise. The Air Force must continue focusing on how to build the critical thinkers that will take our ISR Enterprise into the future.

Approximate reading time: 9 minute

Editor’s Note: Although this article is focused on the Intelligence career field, the concepts discussed here are applicable across the entire joint force. Looking forward to future conflicts, we need to examine how we are building our Airmen and determine if there is a better way to increase efficiency.

“…to succeed, maybe even to survive, in the new environment, organizations must fundamentally change.” – Gen Stanley McChrystal (USA, Ret.)

 Our Air Force is engaged in a vigorous mission to re-evaluate how we can continue to successfully deliver winning effects in the high-end fight of tomorrow, including the merger of Intelligence-heavy Numbered Air Forces and the mass rescindment of dozens of training regulations that have proven a hindrance to the evolution of analysts in an era of rapid obsolescence. As a community, Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) has grown tremendously into a globally integrated enterprise. New sensors, aircraft, and software-based systems have become operational, providing previously unimaginable levels of access to growing amounts of information. Adversaries have not been standing idly by; they have rapidly created new capabilities that challenge any notion of comparison to wars of the past. In order to ensure the future effectiveness of US and coalition capabilities in an uncertain environment, the Air Force must continuously assess how to train analysts to leverage the enterprise at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. More importantly, the Air Force must continue focusing on how to build the critical thinkers that will take our ISR Enterprise into the future to keep pace with adversaries.

We believe there exists a growing imperative for Intelligence professionals to be agile and versatile, while relying on their ability to effectively utilize and evaluate their critical thinking processes. This proposal focuses on developing breadth over depth of knowledge, emphasizes complex analysis in an environment defined by access to data, and focuses on teaching effective communication techniques to better inform decision makers at each level. To incorporate these concepts, we posit that the current Initial Qualification Training (IQT) must fundamentally change. This change is required to reflect the emerging need for Intelligence professionals to adequately represent the Globally Integrated Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (GIISR) Enterprise at all levels, from the mission planning table at the fighter squadron to the conference room at the Pentagon.

Following the Wrong Training Model
The Air Force flying community established a baseline for training and skills development and other career fields quickly emulated their model. The Intelligence Officer training pipeline is one such example. As a comparison, the path for aspiring pilots begins with Undergraduate Pilot Training, where they learn aviation basics before being vectored towards a more specific platform. Once “tracked,” the follow-on courses, concluding with the Formal Training Unit (FTU), tailor training curricula in a manner designed to achieve their primary purpose of ensuring airframe proficiency before arriving at an assignment. This structure works extremely well as a building block approach for aircrew. They will then spend the majority, if not all, of their career developing and honing their expertise.

The Intelligence career field follows a similar training structure. All Intelligence officers attend the AFSC-awarding course at Goodfellow Air Force Base, where they learn the foundational knowledge needed to have a general understanding of the GIISR Enterprise. The initial training, the ISR 100-level course, produces an Intelligence officer with a basic understanding of ISR, as well as a familiar level of knowledge on numerous adversary weapons systems. The course curriculum has thus far been responsive to adjustments, where able, to introduce students to key emerging technologies and their application. As the Intelligence Community evolves and the speed of information accelerates, ISR 100 continues to lay the foundation for developing a solid analyst upon which follow-on training builds.

Once complete, an Intelligence officer spends the next two to six weeks at an Intelligence Formal Training Unit (IFTU), which serves as IQT. These courses are taught across the country at various locations, typically at a geographically-relevant Air Force base co-located with the applicable airframe. For example, a Second Lieutenant Intelligence officer with an assignment to an F-16 unit will attend a six week IFTU at Luke AFB, Arizona, which is home to several F-16 and F-35 units. Some commands have recently combined their courses for a broader approach to this training. One example can be found in Air Mobility Command, where Intelligence personnel assigned to support mobility aircraft receive a standardized IQT curriculum. This course builds on the fundamentals learned at Goodfellow by tailoring the application of ISR tools and analysis to the broader spectrum of air mobility operations vice a specific platform. Once at home-station, students enter Mission Qualification Training (MQT) where they develop greater platform-specific knowledge before receiving Combat Mission Ready (CMR) status. They then spend the rest of that assignment, approximately two to three years, becoming more proficient at providing ISR support to a specific weapons system. It is important to note this difference. The training structure for pilots serves as a building block approach for a career in aviation, whereas an Intelligence officer will likely have a more diverse path, potentially operating in different warfighting domains from one assignment to the next.

Instructors at every IFTU should ask themselves what their graduates are being “initially qualified” to do. The status quo curricula across many IFTUs is designed to focus on an airframe-centric initial qualification, which often includes in-depth academics on how the airframe operates in combat and the munitions or sensors it can employ. The course also focuses on memorizing threat capabilities and provides an introduction to intelligence briefings and reports they will be expected to know. While this information is important to effectively support their respective unit, we disagree with its placement in the analyst development timeline. The tasks, skills, and knowledge required to support an F-16 are different than those required to support a C-17. However, the capability to effectively leverage ISR across the wide range of mission sets in the Air Force does not. Intelligence professionals need to be familiar with the same resources, the same analytical principles, and the same threat foundation. The difference is how we communicate (tailor) that intelligence to a mission we are supporting, a process that should be accomplished during Mission Qualification Training (MQT). 

Desired End State: Analytically Tailored IQT
When a builder begins a project, it is done with an idea of what the finished product will look like. If the project is to build a bench, there are certain characteristics that must be planned for throughout development; a level seating surface, a back rest, and perhaps a certain color of paint. This approach should not be different for analyst development. What skill set(s) need to be built? How does an analyst need to critically think in order to win tomorrows fight? We contend that a mission ready analyst should have the ability to evaluate or characterize the threat beyond 3-1 Threat Guide numbers, leverage the GIISR Enterprise using near-real time ISR tools, provide actionable adversary courses of action (COAs), and then communicate the impact an adversary can have that may alter friendly force operations.

We recommend the development of a new course template that replaces the current IQT structure, and instead, focuses on Joint Intelligence Preparation of the Operational Environment (IPOE), ISR target development, and utilization of near-real time ISR tools in order to give analysts at any level the ability to conduct analysis to drive mission planning and execution. Advancements in technology and collection capabilities are now at our fingertips, meaning Intelligence analysts will be challenged, more so than in the past, to discover relevant information and leverage it appropriately. Our analysts have to be comfortable with the process of data culling, and ensure they do not become overwhelmed in the era of Big Data. Analysts need to thrive in a data-rich environment in a manner that empowers the analyst to positively influence the fight. Three primary ISR courses should be developed in order to synchronize and focus analysts within their primary areas of influence: Unit Level Intelligence (ULI), Surveillance and Reconnaissance, and Information Operations. The ULI course would teach analysts how to leverage ISR to support fighters, bombers, mobility operations, Air Force Special Operations, Global Strike, and personnel recovery. The Surveillance and Reconnaissance course would focus on High Value Airborne Assets, Air and Space Operations Center, and Distributed Common Ground Stations. The Information Operations course would focus on cyber and space operations. All three of these ISR courses would integrate critical thinking and various critical thinking-based analytical techniques. The most significant contributions Intelligence professionals can provide, regardless of the type of unit they are supporting, are accurate assessments and actionable COAs. This should be accomplished by using all available data and information to conduct analysis of an operating environment. The focus should be on threat systems and capabilities, target types and characteristics, and how one may leverage the GIISR Enterprise in near-real time to support the mission based on the threat and elaborate target analysis.

As a community, we must shape a deliberate path for academic courses and units to develop versatile critical thinkers by teaching the “What, Why, and How to Apply.” ISR 100 teaches the “What” and provides analysts the basic level of knowledge regarding Threat and ISR. They are familiar with the various forms of intelligence (e.g., SIGINT, MASINT, GEOINT) and have used this knowledge in scenario-based exercises. The next phase of development for an analyst should be to understand “Why” Threat and ISR are important to their future job, which we suggest is best completed during IQT. This will help answer the question of “What are analysts Initially Qualified to do?” Our proposal shifts the focus of IQT from specific airframe academics to broad areas of intelligence skills. Figure 1 provides a graphical representation of ISR analyst development that structures a new training approach designed to develop critical thinkers.
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Applying Critical Thinking to Airframes
The MQT process at home station should provide knowledge for “how to apply” all the intelligence skills learned in ISR 100 and IQT to a specific unit’s airframe and/or mission. By successfully employing this new model to build our next generation of critical thinkers, an ISR Analyst could achieve CMR in approximately 10 months, with the timeline beginning on their first day of technical training at Goodfellow. Notionally, an analyst who starts technical training in January would graduate by the end of June. This new analyst would complete one of the three initial qualification courses in July or August. Upon arriving at their duty station, an analyst could be in-processed and complete their MDS-specific mission qualification training by the end of September. At the end of 10 months, an analyst will be familiar with leveraging ISR tools, critical thinking, and have an understanding of concepts associated with ISR target development.

In a time when major combat operations could initiate with a moment’s notice, it is imperative to ensure our Air Force Intelligence Community is prepared to provide effective support to combat operations at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. Our current methodology is not evolving at the same rate as the contested environment. The removal of many Air Force Instructions has primed our community for dynamic, efficient, and effective changes. Embracing this paradigm shift empowers tactical and operational-level experts to implement the necessary changes needed to win in a near-peer conflict, and is a critical first step in the development of Intelligence professionals who can think, lead, and communicate in the conflicts of tomorrow.

Lieutenant Colonel James Davitch (BA, Penn State University; MA, University of Oklahoma; MS, Blue Horizons Fellowship) is the division chief of intelligence operations at Air Force Global Strike Command, Barksdale AFB, LA. He is the command lead for all intelligence unit support, formal training, and analytical functions. Lieutenant Colonel Davitch is a career intelligence officer and has held intelligence assignments at the tactical level in the combat air forces, operational level at the air operations center, and strategic level at Headquarters, US Air Force. He is a 2007 graduate of the Air Force Weapons School, where he was also an instructor.

Major Ronaldo Martinez, Jr. is a Strategic Communications Fellow at George Mason University as part of Air University’s Air Force Fellows program. He conducts research on communications theory, communications campaign planning, and behavior change. Prior to his current position, he was an ISR instructor and Chief, Threat and ISR Integration at the United States Air Force Weapons School, from which he is also a graduate. He has deployed numerous times supporting Joint Special Operations Task Force, A-10, F-16, F-15E, C-130, HH-60, and MC-12 operations around the world

Captain Todd Fisk is the Chief of Unit Support at Air Mobility Command, Scott AFB, IL, where he leads all command intelligence unit support and readiness functions. Captain Fisk has more than 20 years of combined enlisted and officer intelligence experience supporting operations at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels as well as a joint assignment. He has supported the US Global War on Terrorism and operations such as ALLIED FORCE, NOBLE EAGLE, IRAQI FREEDOM, ENDURING FREEDOM, RESOLUTE SUPPORT, FREEDOM’S SENTINEL, INHERENT RESOLVE, and Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa. He is a 2014 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School.

Captain Paul Stump (BA, Texas A&M University) is the Chief of Intelligence Weapons and Tactics at Joint Base Charleston, SC where he manages the intelligence training for 1100 aircrew across 4 Wings. Captain Stump is a career intelligence officer and has held intelligence assignments at the tactical level in the combat air forces, mobility air forces, and Air Force Special Operations Command. He has deployed in support of Operations FREEDOM’S SENTINEL, RESOLUTE SUPPORT, RESTORE HOPE, and INHERENT RESOLVE. He is a 2016 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US Government.

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