Air Force Decision Making Training

By: Leslie Woll
Approximate Read Time: 15 min
Executive Summary

Warfighters must deliberately train in Recognition Primed Decision-Making (RPDM) model utilizing training scenarios and personnel to build intuition. These scenarios should be dynamic, allowing for a different series of variables every time personnel execute training missions to amass experiences, which allow personnel to draw upon during other training event and combat missions. Debrief is also a critical portion of the training that allows personnel to understand why they made the decisions they did during the mission as well as the risk of relying on intuition and experience to be able to recognize when their intuition to lead them astray. Deliberate decision making training is necessary using RPDM will provide warfighters to be able to execute tomorrow’s conflicts. 

 “Today’s best is not good enough for tomorrow.”
– Franklin D. Roosevelt

Dichotomous, black or white, answers are sufficient for initial qualification training, but are rarely the case in the real time battlespace. Just as the United States Air Force (USAF) changed its training philosophy after Vietnam, the USAF must update the current real time battlespace decision-making education to the Recognition Primed Decision-Making (RPDM) model and deliberately train its personnel in situations that require rapid decision making.

The Future Fight

Warfighters have used uncertainty as a purposeful strategy and tactic throughout history on the battlefield, and fog and friction have caused ambiguity since warriors began fighting, creating a wide range of sources of ambiguity. State and non-state actors alike use ambiguity as a weapon, both in action and information operations. Russia has demonstrated the ability to adapt and update their capabilities, strategies, and tactics based on their enemy’s actions, using information to cause confusion amongst their adversary as demonstrated in Georgia (2008), Crimea (2014), and Ukraine (2014). Non-state actors, such as Hezbollah, have also practiced deception and ambiguity. The terrorist organization applied disinformation against the Israeli Defense Force using suicide bombers and martyrdom, causing disruption in the Israeli forces. Though this was not against the US, it reveals various forms of adversaries are willing to use ambiguity to wage kinetic and non-kinetic combat. The application also demonstrates that personnel must be prepared for opponents to purposefully inject confusion and deception that will make it more difficult for personnel to determine which actions are the best in a situation.

The NDS discusses the issues with the impact of COIN operations on current readiness for future conflicts. The Joint Operating Environment (JOE) 2035 is the document the Department of Defense uses to describe what the future force construct and capabilities. The JOE 2035 describes what is expected in future conflicts ranging from conventional to unconventional challenging personnel through the full spectrum of conflict, and that the nature of those conflicts is ambiguous. One example of the ambiguity is interactions with other nations in disputed maritime and air identification zones and economic exclusion zones, where the US and allies conduct freedom of navigation operations. The JOE also discusses the high likelihood of adversaries to use strategy that will induce confusion and utilize proxies due to shifting alliances and partnerships, making it more difficult for friendly operators to execute missions.

More countries are expanding their global reach and power projection and this will affect how the US will need to respond in new locations and more capable threats. Peer adversaries continue to improve their technology as well as the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) they execute. The NDS and JOE both purport that anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) will continue to be a factor in conflicts short of war, making blockades and containment increasingly difficult for the US against other great powers. More importantly, as alliances and partnerships potentially shift, there is a higher likelihood for non-combatants or neutral parties to be involved in conflicts. The ramifications can be strategically and politically volatile if friendly forces are not able to accurately identify neutral forces in the air, on the land or sea. The US relies on its allies and partners for collective security and defense and future wars will most likely not solely involve two parties. The more nations involved in a conflict, especially as nations may subjugate their warfighters to the nation’s own rules and instructions, there is an increased lack of clarity in which US operators must execute.

According to leading military thinkers, future conflicts will primarily be with unmanned vehicles or at long-range distances due to weapons capabilities. Therefore, the USAF is heavily investing in artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities and dedicating personnel to studying and developing uses for AI. One way the USAF is already seeking to incorporate AI is into decision making. This reduces the need for personnel to be trained to make decisions as there will be few humans in the loop to make those decisions. The National Defense Strategy (NDS) also discusses the development and use of autonomous systems in multiple domains to combat adversary technological advances. Though the US and USAF are conducting research, development, and application of AI, humans will most likely still be involved in decision making due to the ambiguity inherent in warfare and the consequences of incorrect battlefield actions, requiring humans to still need have decision making and critical thought skills. To this end, the DoD is investing in research on brain stimulation for personnel to be able to process more information and make decisions.

OTH, Emerging Security Environment, Multi-Domain OperationsFigure 1. How to Fight in the Future

With future conflict characterized, it is necessary to define the warfighter application along with the training required to prepare operators for combat. The NDS promotes the instruction of independent warfighters that are able to apply lethal and non-lethal effects in a degraded/lost communications environment. Therefore, the Air Force needs its own “strategic corporals,” operators who are able to make timely decisions with a variety of authorities, such as engagement authority and identification authority. Commanders need to actively empower subordinates and trust their people’s actions and decisions, which is necessary for both tactical and operational warfighters to shorten the amount of time necessary to conduct the real time targeting cycle and other real time tactical decisions as much as possible. Delegation of authorities to subordinates is also critical because there will potentially be insufficient connection back to senior decision makers in time sensitive operations.

Operators at all levels must be prepared to and understand how to rapidly escalate, de-escalate, or maintain a level of combat in a variety of situations. The omnipresence of the media and rapid information sharing makes it critical that leaders empower operators to take necessary actions in the battlespace, as the events can and will be quickly disseminated to the world, especially in the case of a delayed reaction. Open source information is a boon to adversaries as they are able to collect and act off what is reported to their military advantage, such as the Russians have done as previously discussed. Warfighters, including those at the tactical level, will need to understand the other instruments of national power as well as the applications and integration of those instruments. They will also need to comprehend how their actions effect the other instruments, particularly the second and third order effects of their actions or inactions.

Instructions, rules of engagement, and other guidance documents will not be able to cover every possible scenario warfighters will face as the authors and providers of the guidance will not be able to think of every possible situation that may occur in the battlespace. Additionally, if they attempted to prescript guidance for almost every situation, the guidance documents would be far too long and detailed for most operators to remember every instruction or even the majority of the instructions. Operators must be able to take a basic set of instructions, think through the instructions in an ambiguous situation, make a COA decision, and rapidly apply it prior to the enemy being able to do the same. Rapid critical thought and decision-making allows US forces to maintain the initiative through speed and maintains a competitive edge in a technologically equal environment. That environment has reached the point where another exercise RED FLAG type of change in training needs to happen in order for forces to be able to conduct operations effectively.

Recognition Primed Decision-Making (RPDM) model

The characteristics of future warfare require battlespace operators to be able to make complicated, high-stakes decisions rapidly in order to achieve necessary tactical, operational, and strategic effects. Ambiguity and the speed of war will only increase in the future and while technology will assist, human thought processes must keep up with the pace of conflict, wherever that conflict is within the range of military operations. Warfighters will most likely not have the time or thought capability to run through checklists or other lengthy thought processes during operations. Naturalistic decision making and RPDM rely on natural thought processes using well developed intuition and experience to assist in rapid decision making.

Cognitive psychologist Gary Klein presented a new decision-making model called Recognition Primed Decision Making to help people understand how they make decisions so that they are better able to actively develop their capabilities. The premise of the model is that experiential development leads to the ability of devising a reasonable COA when faced with a decision. Ideally, the first COA thought of will be sufficient for implementation to limit time between assessment and action and subsequent COA creation. The concept of the people using the first reasonable, albeit maybe not the best COA, is satisficing. Satisficing is more time efficient as COA comparison requires people to develop multiple COAs.   Decisions are routinely made in environments where the person has seen similar situations or elements of a situation before but also environments that present new scenarios or factors people have not seen before. People develop two patterns of choices, one a single stream of assessing one COA then the next and a COA comparison pattern; most people use the former until they find an acceptable solution or action. Additionally, personnel use recognition, which is a mental library of expectations, cues, plausible goals, typical actions, to find the best COA.

The first aspect of Klein’s decision-making model is developing and using intuition and experience to recognize key patterns. The next aspect of RPDM is the ability to transfer skills and knowledge to any theater of operations.  Transferable skills require the practice of skills in theater-agnostic environments or for personnel to understand they are learning the concepts of the tasks they are accomplishing, instead of a certain task that is only applicable to one theater or conflict.   Klein describes as “analogues” -examples drawn from same or related domain-and “metaphors” -example from a different domain-as the ability to rely on previous knowledge or already developed habits and skills based on concepts, which in essence is the ability to transfer experience and skills. Mental stimulation is the next portion of the decision-making model and enables rapid COA development and assessment. Essentially, mental stimulation develops the ability for personnel to build the who, what, where, why, and when (5Ws) in their minds during a situation to help determine a way forward. The last portion of the Klein decision making model is storytelling, which is the comparable to the common USAF vernacular of debriefing and lessons learned distribution. Klein describes storytelling as taking difficult, different, and non-routine cases and build into training programs to provide a wide array of experience, learn by developing patterns.

An Army War College Strategy Research Project covered RPDM in 2005, but the primary focus was on commanders making decisions, which while necessary for commanders, the focus is too narrow and more than commanders need to make decisions and understand how they make decisions. Those operating at the tactical and operational level must also be capable of RPDM to maintain a proactive edge in the fight. Personnel with experience enable commanders to trust their decisions given the appropriate authority. The theory is the more situations a person sees or hears about, enables that person to draw on those stories to develop and choose COAs. The US Army conducted a study on RPDM in 2003 to assess the difference between RPDM and the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP), and came to the conclusion that the RPDM model was helpful because it employed the brain’s natural decision-making process it uses to make basic decisions every day without thinking about them.

OTH, Emerging Security Environment, Multi-Domain OperationsFigure 2. Training for the Future

Training must improve to contain the concepts previously discussed in order to develop operators’ experience, intuition, and recognition capabilities in order to execute in the future environment as well as being able to transfer those skills between different levels of warfare, threats, ROE, and geographic environments. Personnel need to be able to develop recognition and retrieval of information automatically based on a situation. Furthermore, training should be concept based where the underlying themes and behaviors are what trainers focus on as opposed to situation specific COAs that are not applicable to other scenarios. Training and education are the primary ways to develop intuition because personnel have limited time in real combat situations. Virtual simulations are critical components of experience development as live training costs far outweigh virtual training costs. There will be a time and manpower cost retooling training as discussed in this paper, however personnel can integrate the changes into existing training, from single unit simulations to joint, coalition large force exercises.

Assessments of training effectiveness typically lie in the category of number of people trained, number of aircraft executing the mission, shots fired, bombs dropped, etc. However, training effectiveness rarely assesses how well the personnel accomplished the mission, tasks, or DLOs, mostly because these are difficult to assess due to the number of variables that can affect mission accomplishment. The ineffective training assessments lull operators and leadership into false senses of security about actual combat capability. In many cases, leaders and higher headquarters will want to see numbers to prove training effectiveness, but quantifiable data is usually sparse. There is some correlation between quantifiable data, such as flight hours and number of repetitions of skills, but these do not necessarily provide the means to qualitatively assess the capability of the operators. RPDM training requires qualitative assessment but will enable personnel to understand when and how to they make decisions. Building the mental databases of operators allows them to access the analogues and metaphors to be able to analyze and decide on COAs in situations they have not experienced before.

Controlled ambiguity is a cornerstone of developmental training as it provides the white force the ability to develop situations in planning and real time during execution where operators are in a focused scenario that is ambiguous and has anticipated reactions and solutions. White force personnel are the members who are responsible for the training scenario and adjusting it to the needs to the trainees. Training events should frequently include both operational and tactical operators, and these events need to be long enough in order for warfighters to understand the second and third order effects of their decisions. Training decision making needs to include decisions on authority delegation, resource management: fuel, weapons, ISR assets, and ROE application. Personnel also need practice on the application of the kinetic and non-kinetic real-time dynamic targeting cycle at the tactical level where senior leadership provide guidance and then delegate authorities to the tactical level to run the entire dynamic targeting cycle. Additionally, leadership must trust their people to be able to make decisions when authorities are delegated to the lowest level, which is necessary for both tactical and operational warfighters in order to shorten the targeting cycle as much as possible. Leadership must demonstrate support when operators decide a course of action for operators to not be afraid to make a decision. The decisions require debrief and personnel should record and report lessons learned for trainers to enhance other training scenarios for others train. Leaders must accept errors are inevitable and judge personnel on whether they are able to make a rational well-developed decision.

Measures of Performance are typically subjective in an ambiguous environment but objective standards must be developed to ensure the correct learning is occurring. Measurements should include whether a decision is made or not, the amount of time it takes to make the decision, and the number of follow on effects that operators assess effectively. Correct solutions are not ideal for ambiguous training as it can drive operators to attempt to replicate a scenario where they are right for taking certain actions. Instead, there should be no sanctioned solutions, but a series of indicators for instructors and evaluators to use to assess and grade performance.

Experts with training and actual experience are able to handle routine situations but not able to mentally adapt to less typical situations or unpredictable situations, therefore, personnel need to understand the how and why of a situation’s variable to execute missions with the necessary intuition.   Experience, and therefore intuition, can be trained by exposing people to as many scenarios as possible and those scenarios should be difficult, complex cases to challenge personnel. Training should provide situations that force assessment of information where there is no written answer to the situation which forces personnel into not being able to, and more importantly not trying to, find a correct answer. If there is an answer that is expected, people will tend to make decisions and take actions to achieve what is considered the “correct” answer to a situation to achieve high marks in training and evaluations.

Instructors should develop training events underpinned by one single overarching scenario with multiple complex and unpredictable situation options possible within the scenario that enable a different training experience each time personnel conduct it. These scenarios can be theater agnostic, which is good for training concepts, or theater or threat specific, but all should be sufficiently flexible to allow for personnel to build experience by conducting new situations every time scenarios are run. Additionally, training events should not be so specific that personnel trained observe and assess that the preferred courses of action only apply to the situations in the exercise scenario. Specific and dedicated white force personnel can emphasize deliberate repetitions of key concepts and address the trainee’s weaknesses to improve performance. The flexibility available with unpredictable or trainer driven scenarios allow for trainees to see almost unlimited series of variables, developing the expertise and intuition necessary for RPDM.

Higher order skills such as decision making that is based on intuition and experience will atrophy faster than physical skills, meaning training must be more consistent to ensure operator capability. Trainees also need to frequently be in ambiguous environments where there is limited time availability to make decisions. As training increases in complexity, the time frame in which to accomplish the tasks is reduced to enable the speed of thought and decisions to create a time/ability gap that is favorable against any enemy forces can face. The limited time availability also forces personnel to use intuition to develop actions because there is a lack of time space available does not allow for COA development and assessment. Regularly occurring naturalistic decision-making training provides operators with the frequency and limitations needed to improve intuition and experience.

Deliberate practice provides specific instruction on particular skill sets and enables repetition to ensure understanding with multiple variables. This helps develop transferable skills as operators can see how a concept applies in multiple situations. Ideally, immediate feedback should be available from instructors, including a discussion on the second and third order effects caused by trainees’ decisions, if unavailable to run during the training scenario, so the trainee can comprehend what the follow-on results of their actions are. Follow on effects allow the trainee to truly understand if the decision made was the best possible or if other factors need to be considered. Repetition allows the trainee to attempt the thought and decision-making process again to be able to practice execution more effectively.


Institutional training culture is the overall element that requires change as it did in the 1970s post-Vietnam. The change in culture will enable the evolution of how warfighters execute their missions due to the changing nature of how missions can be executed compared to how conduct counter insurgency (COIN) operations. Deliberate planning models and checklists are inherently useful and need to remain in the USAF curricula and culture, but they mostly for when there is sufficient time to plan or in safety situations. Other times, operators must be able to have effective experience and intuition to draw upon to make decisions in real time operations.

Leaders need to be willing to delegate authorities and personnel must be capable of executing those authorities. Making decisions requires deliberate practice and understanding of how people can sift through the options available in a given situation to determine which is the best course of action. Utilizing the RPDM model to train and educate operators will provide them with the mental skills necessary to have trustworthy intuition. Real time mission execution evolution requires an advancement in training to prepare operators for current and future conflicts along the range of military operations the same way simulated combat missions did for pilots in Vietnam.

Maj Leslie “Nilla” Woll is a student at the US Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.  She is an E-3 SENTRY and CRC Air Battle Manager with multiple deployments to US Central Command.  She can be reached by e-mail at  

* A full academic bibliography can be provided upon request. Original thesis was adapted for online publication purposes. The full thesis is published by the USMC. United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College Marine Corps University AY18-19. Also, Major Woll would like to give credit to Gary Klein for the Recognition Primed Decision-Making (RPDM). Reference: Gary A Klein, Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, Vol. 2nd MIT Press pbk. ed. (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 1999)

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Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or positions of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

OTH, Emerging Security Environment, Multi-Domain Operations

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