Symbolism, Serendipity, and Strategic Wisdom: The Origin Story of a New Set of Wings

Estimated Time to Read: 8 minutes
By Jason “Toga” Trew

In 2016, US Air Force Chief of Staff, General Goldfein listed multi-domain command and control one of his three priorities as the US Air Force Chief of Staff. The new CSAF, Gen Brown, has retained this area of focus. Now known as Joint All-Domain Command and Control, this concept is critical to ensuring US security in an increasingly competitive world.

One element in this important line of effort was the creation of a new Air Force Specialty Code for “Multi-Domain Warfare Officers” (MWOs). This crossover career field selects leaders who have already gained expertise in their initial AFSC and prepares them to integrate diverse warfighting capabilities into joint all-domain operations (JADO).

In October 2019, the first class of 13Os graduated from the 505th Command and Control Wing at Hurlburt Field, Florida. At the ceremony, Lieutenant General Christopher P. Weggeman (Deputy Commander of Air Combat Command), spoke about the establishment of a new field: “You have forged the 13 Oscar breed and are launching the 13 Oscar brand across the joint force.”

The launch of this new AFSC is designed to contribute to the noble goal of “shifting the way the Air Force approaches the operational level of warfare.” Such change naturally requires administrative tasks that may seem superficial in comparison to supporting the National Defense Strategy in the context of Great Power Competition. One of those bureaucratic chores is the creation of new cultural artifacts, such as the MWO wings pictured above.

Simply put, a new career field requires a new badge. This is the story of how that symbol was created and the ideas reflected in its design, including a powerful metaphor that extends well beyond the seemingly mundane choice of a new insignia. It begins not with any sort of predetermined protocol – which is what I would have assumed – but rather with a surprise visit from a mentor.

Caption: CSAF 21 speaks to the Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium in 2017 about his priorities, including the mindset required for integrating joint forces across all domains.
(Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force Photographer, Scott M. Ash; https://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/1101100/goldfein-multi-domain-c2-is-way-of-thinking/)

It was late 2018, and I was delighted when one of my previous squadron commanders, Col Jeffrey “Jobu” Burdett (ret.), showed up at Maxwell AFB. His work on the Multi-Domain Command and Control (MDC2) initiative had brought him to Squadron Officer School (SOS), where I was enjoying my own opportunity to command. As we caught up over breakfast at the Cypress Tree golf course, he shared the challenges and opportunities of the MDC2 project, including the ambitious (and somewhat ambiguous) task of creating a new career field. He was there to gather ideas from SOS students to help further develop ideas for the emerging AFSC. When he mentioned that they did not even have time to select a badge, it struck me as an opportunity to assist the leader who had assisted me as my mentor.

I enlisted the help of my children and we thought about how to capture the spirit of what these new officers would need to embody: a commitment to prevailing in a complicated and complex operational environment through creativity, innovation, and “intellectual overmatch.”

I have no background in graphic design or art, but I do know history and mythology. Both offer productive exemplars for military professionals to learn from, if we know where – and when – to look. Unfortunately, an Airman’s sense of history often starts in 1903. That was my perspective, at least, until my year at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS). While reading books by Everett Dolman, Lawrence Freedman, Victor Davis Hansen, and Nassim Taleb, I learned the value of looking all the way back to the origins of Western civilization.  

I wondered if this rich source of information could be a useful inspiration for this new project. Though I had written and spoken extensively about our need to “rescue Icarus” as a metaphor for igniting innovation and reimagining airmindedness, and had used the creative tension between Apollo and Dionysius in my SAASS thesis on storytelling, a different mythological image came to mind — Métis, the goddess of strategic wisdom.

As recently explored in an OTH article, this largely unknown figure is an exemplar of “strategic sense for a wicked world.” The goddess conferred her name to the skill (métis) of finding competitive advantages, which seemed fitting for the vision of this new career field.

Caption: Métis was the inspiration for the center, but — at Col Burdett’s suggestion — the other elements were chosen to reflect a variety of other USAF badges. (Source: Author)

So, more for fun than anything else — certainly, I assumed, there were more official ways these sorts of things are created — I sketched some ideas. I sent them to my mentor with some tinge of anxiety that accompanies moments of vulnerability (again, I am not an artist, had not been asked to do this, and felt like I was risking some of my reputation with someone I respected). Thankfully, he welcomed the effort, and, after incorporating his feedback, I sent him a final sketch with a short description:

(Source: Author)

And then I heard nothing else.

Caption: After a decade of war in Troy, it took Odysseus another decade to return home where he faced more trials. I was not as patient as Homer’s hero.
(Source: Theodor van Thulden, 1606-1669; http://ucblibraries.colorado.edu/specialcollections/images/odysseus-bow.jpg; Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45857391)

Nearly half a year later, two images appeared on my phone. The first picture showed the wings. In the middle were the elements of Odysseus’s penultimate test: stringing his bow and shooting an arrow through the axe handles. The second picture showed the graduation program for the first class of 13Os. The first 27 MWOs would pin on the mythology-inspired design.

Retelling this narrative is not just about offering the origin story of a new cultural artifact. In the spirit of Odysseus, who often used storytelling for strategic effect, it is about how metic ways show up in more than just in the emblem. Indeed, métis was embodied in the very way that the emblem materialized: unplanned opportunities, the creative juxtaposition of diverse ideas, adventuring into unfamiliar domains, and the inspiration of a mentor (a term inspired by another character in Homer’s epic).

This story is also just as much about the future as it is the past. First, there is the hope that metic intelligence will be embodied by those who wear that badge as they do the important work of turning operational art into strategic advantage. They too will need to be inspired by diverse, often unexpected, analogies; to be prepared against and for surprise; to confront novel challenges; and to convert friction into traction.

More broadly, this is about the paradox of organizational culture and the types of leaders we need at all levels. In his classic work, Organizational Culture and Leadership, Edgar Schein explains how the shared assumptions that form the deepest, most essential aspects of culture are simultaneously the hardest to observe or change. Symbols, while easy to create or alter, exist at the other end of the spectrum as superficial reflections of values. Stories, however, occupy a unique position as both a reflection of culture as well as an “embedding mechanism” leaders can use to nudge that culture. As we seek to “accelerate change” – whether it is to embed a “JADO” mindset into the force or enhance our competitiveness across the continuum – we must balance investments in digital tools with the original virtual reality technology: storytelling.

In other words, we absolutely need specialized MWO operators – proudly donning their new wings — who can account for time, geography, tools, and data to synchronize actions across warfighting domains. Even more fundamentally, however, we need leaders with the strategic sense to creatively synthesize history, culture, technology, and divergent ways of perceiving and processing information into wisdom. These individuals appreciate that the critical work of anticipating and designing what is “over the horizon” often benefits from revisiting the experiences and exemplars of the past – factual and fictional.

Thank you to Lt Col John “Crash” Yi, a founding member of the new MWO community, for reviewing an earlier version of this and for providing pictures.  

Col Jason “TOGA” Trew, USAF. Col Trew is the Vice Commandant of the USAF’s Squadron Officer School at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. His operational background includes assignments as a F-15C pilot and an Air Liaison Officer (III Corps and 10 Mountain Division). He is a graduate of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies and earned a PhD in history from Auburn University.

Disclaimer: 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 U.S. Government.

Featured Image Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force Photographer, Mr. Keith Keel

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