Lead, Think, and Communicate: Embracing Air Force Intelligence Officer Agility and Versatility

Editor’s Note: This article is a follow up to “Building Critical Thinkers to Win Tomorrow’s Wars: Changing The Training Paradigm” that was recently published on OTH.  Although this article is focused on the Intelligence career field, the skills that are advocated here are applicable to all military specialties.

Approximate reading time: 10 minutes

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

Is the US Air Force intelligence officer a professional or an amateur?

To a member of the career field, the question spurs an instinctive emotional reaction, as it did when Samuel Huntington presented a similar formulation in 1957. Huntington explained why the modern military officer is a professional as part of a larger civil-military relations argument describing the role of the solider in society. We believe that the US Air Force intelligence officer is a professional as well, and we offer a general theory of the profession to help guide force development, training, and education. We believe the characteristics that distinguish the profession are the ability to lead intelligence operations, think by employing cognitive skill, and communicate, clearly and concisely, quality decision information.

One may notice that this construction omits any specific mention of specialized expertise. Our argument why it is better for an intelligence officer to possess greater breadth versus depth of expertise is one we address in this paper.

The Fox’s Advantage
In a 1953 essay, the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin leveraged a concept of “the hedgehog and the fox” to describe two types of individuals and how their thinking differs. In his telling, hedgehogs are familiar with only one important thing, such as a single, proven, survival method – like curling up in a ball to avoid a predator’s detection. Their method works, so they cling to it, but it tends to color how they view the world. Thus, “hedgehogs” may become confident (perhaps overconfident) specialists, narrowing their focus around a particular skill. Through specialization they build expertise.

In contrast, foxes know a little about many things. Fickle beasts, they lack the singular focus that may confine the hedgehog. Foxes employ several methods to escape becoming dinner and consequently tend to be open to multiple alternatives. Rather than making observations through the hedgehog’s myopia, foxes are willing to acknowledge divergent ideas and viewpoints. This dichotomy is roughly analogous to the Air Force intelligence enterprise, whereby specialists represent the hedgehogs and generalists the foxes.

The roles and responsibilities of Air Force intelligence officers are vast. Many in the approximately 3,000-member community, known colloquially as “14Ns,” argue that their broad arc of accountability prevents them from building expertise in any particular area. This, in turn, purportedly hobbles intelligence officers’ credibility. “Air Force intelligence officers are so well-rounded they’re pointless,” or so goes a saying used to describe the supposed failure to strike the correct balance between “breadth” and “depth” of one’s experience.

The breadth of the Air Force intelligence officer career field exists in stark contrast to the specialization of its enlisted counterparts. Most of the enlisted intelligence career field sub-divides neatly into a specific intelligence discipline. For instance, those with the enlisted functional code “1N2” focus on signals intelligence (SIGINT). As an even greater means to specialize these intelligence professionals, 1N2X1A’s focus exclusively on electronic signals and 1N2X1C’s focus on communication signals. 1N2 signals intelligence analysts progress through successive stages of proficiency earning a 1N2 “3,” “5,” and then “7” qualification pending the successful completion of SIGINT-focused competency exams. Enlisted intelligence professionals may conceivably spend a 20-year career concentrated in their intelligence discipline. This allows enlisted members to gain a high degree of technical expertise.

The state of Air Force intelligence human capital management is therefore comprised of two extremes. Intelligence officers possess a wide, but shallow, knowledge base. Most enlisted intelligence professionals retain a narrow, but deep, skill set.

Sometimes this situation naturally leads to anxiety in an intelligence officer corps expected to lead individuals who possess skills and competency seemingly greater than theirs. Four years ago, in a rush to alleviate a perceived officer proficiency gap, leaders in the Air Force intelligence career field began an initiative to “specialize” officers within space, cyberspace, and special operations assignments. The thinking was that these missions required a higher degree of familiarity for an officer to effectively contribute.

But should intelligence officers replicate the level of specific expertise demonstrated on the enlisted side? In short, no. Rather than prematurely bemoaning the plight of what seems like the intelligence officer’s lack of expertise, it’s worth reflecting on the strengths that a 14N with broad experience brings to the joint force. Perhaps the intelligence officer’s more generalized knowledge base possesses unconsidered advantages?

OTH, mutli-domain operations, emerging security environment

Expertise, What is it Good for?
It is necessary and important for individuals with specific questions to reference experts within the scope of their specialty. In his 2017 best seller, “The Death of Expertise” Naval War College professor Tom Nichols describes the cost of failing to acknowledge the opinion of those with demonstrated expertise in contrast to the layman. He decries what he sees as a culture of ignorance borne of non-credentialed, Google-search-deep pseudo-intellectuals. There is no argument that it is important to recognize the times and places where contextualized, legitimate expertise is valuable. Such instances include one’s ability to describe intricate details of how technical equipment works. In short, experts reign supreme where one’s ability to answer questions that ask “what” is more important than questions that ask “why.”

The psychologist Daniel Kahneman notes that in predictable environments the judgment of an expert over the amateur is measurable and notable. Kahneman calls these environments “high validity domains” where individuals with a degree of expertise can see patterns and fall back on internalized memorization. Kahneman references test pilots as an example of where expertise and standardized procedures are critical.

Using rated officers as a basis for comparison is particularly instructive. US Air Force (USAF) fighter pilots who have risen through their upgrade process to become instructors are among the most highly skilled aviators in the world. They develop their expertise with back-to-back assignments flying a specific aircraft. But this expertise can come with a cost if they become aircraft-specific proponents in support of a particular tribe. Narrow mindsets can perpetuate stubborn advocacy of limited ideas instead of collaborative, integrated solutions. In this environment, a 14N’s “generalist” skills are even more critical and valuable, serving as a bridge between communities.

In Kahneman’s less predictable “low-validity” environments, such as intelligence analysis, the judgment of singularly focused experts is suspect. Recall the hedgehog’s myopia, they often suffer from overconfidence wrought by their narrow view of a situation. Philip Tetlock writes convincingly in his 2015 book “Superforecasting” that so-called expert judgment routinely falls short of making correct assessments stating, “Knowing a lot can actually make a (person’s prediction) less reliable.” His data analysis of predictive forecasting tournaments shows that expert judgment is clouded by overconfidence and cognitive bias. He points to one’s expertise not as an as an advantage, but a hindrance, due to its tendency to prevent doubt. Kahneman’s research supports this supposition. His writing on cognitive biases shows the mind seeks to form a rational story and that a narrow knowledge base “makes it easier to fit everything you know into a coherent pattern.” Tetlock notes that those who tended to predict accurately the probability of some future event occurring were also more open-minded. These individuals’ willingness to let doubt creep into their assessments allowed them to consider more possibilities than “hedgehogs” who might otherwise focus only through the lens of their singular expertise.

Rotating Air Force intelligence officers through various assignments within differing core competency areas approximately every three years institutionally prohibits them from becoming narrowly focused “hedgehogs.” Multiple assignments within the same core area, especially for junior officers, is counterproductive to creating the desired intelligence officer and limits their ability to develop breadth of knowledge. Intelligence officer “foxes” are better positioned to draw upon diverse viewpoints from their various experiences. This allows them an analytical edge over technical experts that may see answers to difficult problems only through their unique SIGINT/GEOINT/HUMINT prism.

Some of the strongest proponents for intelligence officer specialization come from organizations with rigid adherence to a specific intelligence discipline. The National Security Agency is one such organization that prizes fluency in their specialty: SIGINT. Believers in intelligence officer SIGINT specialization fear that a lack of expertise stifles the potential for Air Force officers’ promotion and progression in the NSA hierarchy. They reason that working within organizations like NSA can take a career to master, not only from a technical perspective, but also regarding learning how to navigate the bureaucratic and political landscape of a large government agency. They believe that simplifying the responsibilities of the 14N to a specialist makes the challenge of building expertise easier. However, we argue this expertise risks creating a myopic perspective that may default to SIGINT as the answer to a tactical problem, much like the pilot’s solution may default to his aircraft’s specific capabilities. Further, our counter viewpoint asserts the specialization advocates arrived at their conclusion based on incorrectly extrapolating that the lack of leadership within the NSA, a joint agency, is a byproduct of their lack of expertise. Rather, the opposite is true.

At the request of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, the RAND Corporation examined why the Air Force lacks significant representation within the senior most ranks of joint commands and agencies and revealed that expertise, in fact, hurts an officer’s potential to rise through the joint ranks. The report describes how Air Force values technical expertise over strategic thinking, a formula that is not conducive to breeding senior leaders in today’s joint environment. Therefore, Air Force officers should focus on deliberate experience broadening and education. Accordingly, the goal of 14N force development should be to build intelligence officers with a breadth of experience who can see things from multiple perspectives, identify biases, mitigate mental errors, and provide integrated solutions rather than contribute to the group think. Unlike aircrew and other Air Force operators, the majority of 14Ns are, by design, not technical experts. The career field should not try to make them into something for which they are not organized, trained, or equipped to become. Air Force intelligence officers have special, often underappreciated broad skills, that allow them to lead men and women as well as prioritize integration efforts during mission planning. These skills should be prized, not seen as a barrier to career advancement.

We do not suggest that intelligence officers should settle for mediocrity during a given assignment. On the contrary, they should strive for proficiency then expertise within reasonable bounds. One method to accomplish this is by attending mission qualification or similar orientation training specific to that unit. It is, however, important to be realistic regarding what the reasonable expectations are. Borrowing from the Army infantryman who strives to shoot, move, and communicate we return to our premise and offer the expectation for Air Force intelligence officers: they should be able to lead, think, and communicate.

Arguably no organization in the Air Force represents technical expertise better than graduates from the USAF Weapons School. Resident within the Weapons School is the 19th Weapons Squadron, which in 2003 split its intelligence curriculum into two courses to develop expertise: sensors and collections in one and flying unit operations in the other. A little over ten years later the squadron “re-merged” its courses back into one. The 19th Weapons Squadron recognized the marginal benefit from the technical expertise it gained from two separate courses was eclipsed by the overriding benefit it received from a more versatile intelligence officer. Now the 19th Weapons Squadron graduates intelligence officers capable of speaking effectively across most of the spectrum of intelligence disciplines. Intelligence weapons officers are no longer narrowly focused on sensor or aircraft capabilities. They are expected to be agile foxes – to have the ability to integrate capabilities in order to solve problems. In sum, even the bastion of technical expertise at the Weapons School saw that a little breadth of experience is more useful than narrow expertise.

The wide scope of the Air Force intelligence officer is a feature, not a bug, of the profession. Such diversity of exposure allows the 14N to experience more practical situations from more diverse viewpoints than many of his or her civilian and enlisted counterparts. The Air Force ISR enterprise should recognize the value of the intelligence officer as it stands – a professional capable of leading, thinking, and communicating. By stepping in and out of various intelligence assignments the Air Force intelligence officer provides the joint force an agile and versatile professional, an intel fox.

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. Email: james.davitch@us.af.mil, Twitter: @jimdavitch12.

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. Email: ronaldo.martinez@us.af.mil.

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 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 OPERATION 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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