Step up: Don’t be afraid to be a Mitchell, Doolittle, or Arnold

  • Published
  • By Lt. Gen. Steven L. Kwast, Air University Commander and President

The U.S. Air Force is sitting at a nexus in which the world is becoming increasingly dangerous and complex, and our nation is asking us to do things that keep us busier now than ever before, yet we have fewer people now than at any point in our history—just over a third of what we had in the 1950s! 

To meet these challenges, American military leaders and members must become more willing to question the status quo, speak out, and accept that smart risk taking is inseparable from effective leadership in such a dynamic environment.  Air University (AU) strives in every way—with its faculty and staff, education programs, labs, and infrastructure—to produce the innovative and outspoken Airmen needed to meet the security challenges of today and the future.

Innovation and calculated risk taking are the Air Force’s birthright. We can trace our lineage directly back to the Wright brothers when they brought together inspiration, education, innovation and perspiration to build a flying machine that “blasted the world asunder,” changing the course of human history forever.  AU’s headquarters at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, is situated on the very ground where these two brothers opened America’s first civilian flying school. Today, AU continues to emulate their inventive spirit, while also taking cues from several exemplar Airmen whose innovativeness, risk taking and outspokenness in their times were crucial to meeting our nation’s emerging challenges.

One such Airman is former General of the Air Force Henry “Hap” Arnold, who brought courage, vision and the importance of networking to create a mighty Air Force from the humble collection of Wright flyers that he had flown in 1911, with the Wrights as his instructors. He immediately became an instructor for other military flyers at the Signal Corps’ aviation school, underscoring the important role that teaching has always had in an Airman’s development. Soon, he ascended to positions in which he cooperated with civilian industry and research institutions to build the forces and infrastructure that would later dominate the skies over Europe and the Pacific during World War II.

Arnold had a talent for understanding and articulating the crucial systemic connections between numerous organizations and fields, providing visionary statements – as revealed in numerous historic written documents preserved here at Maxwell AFB – that are as relevant today as when he first penned them. Above all, however, he had the ability to find and promote talent, mentoring and placing the best future leaders in the key developmental positions they needed to grow into the vanguard of a force that would fly, fight, and win against America’s adversaries.

In 1918, Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell orchestrated the first large-scale coalition air operation in support of the St. Mihiel Offensive. It validated much of his thinking on airpower employment.  In the 1920s, Mitchell was an outspoken advocate for the offensive capabilities of airpower in war. He developed concepts for aerial attacks against ships that eventually spurred the U.S. Navy to develop its carrier-aviation capabilities that would prove decisive in the Pacific theater during WWII.  While often controversial, Mitchell was courageous in capturing, sharing and even testing his cutting-edge concepts for air operations. He put himself and his reputation on the line time and again to push the critical innovations he envisioned in detail before others could even imagine the potential of airpower. One of his most revolutionary innovations – one that is clearly evident today – is our independent Air Force.

During WWII, Army Air Forces Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle developed the ideas and plan for America’s first offensive strike against the Japanese homeland in April 1942, just four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. A daredevil pilot in his youth, Doolittle matured as a test pilot and innovator through personal courage, perseverance, a tremendous level of curiosity and dedication to education, culminating with his earning a doctorate in aeronautical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1923. Doolittle matched courage with calculation, achieving many significant advances in aviation techniques and technology during the interwar years. 

When an imaginative submariner, Navy Capt. Francis Low, asked Arnold if long-range bombers could possibly be flown from U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, the chief of the Army Air Forces knew exactly who to call. It wasn’t a crazy idea. On the contrary, it was brilliant – and it was exactly the kind of military option that President Franklin Roosevelt desperately needed in the wake of Pearl Harbor and numerous subsequent U.S. reverses in the Pacific. Still, Arnold knew that only one Airman had the intellectual agility to figure out how this might be effected and the energy and perseverance to bring the idea to reality, and that was Doolittle.

The daring Doolittle Raid caught the Japanese completely by surprise and gave the Allies their first taste of victory. It also caused the Japanese people to begin questioning their own military leaders’ assurance of invincibility. This was because prior to Doolittle’s success, everyone who knew anything about airpower simply concluded it could not be done!

So, what can we learn from these giants of Air Force history? First, they recognized that what had worked in the past was no longer sufficient to meet current needs. They also understood that things would only get worse unless they took positive action immediately.

They cultivated technical expertise and professional instinct to gain a deep understanding of the potential of airpower, and then harnessed their personal and professional networks to build support for and test their ideas. If the officials they needed to approve their ideas were not open-minded enough to give serious consideration to their innovations, they found other ways to overcome the inevitable bureaucratic barriers to progress. These pioneers understood that an acceptance of personal risk – whether it be physical, professional or social, with the latter often requiring the most personal courage – was necessary to generate the capabilities, processes, techniques, and ultimately the changes in culture that new strategic realities required.

At AU, our most significant challenge is providing the education and connections that will help today’s Airmen  adapt to challenge and change in our own times, with the specific purpose of protecting our nation and our friends with the strongest and most capable Air Force this world has ever seen. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein has offered his full support as we transform our organizations, methods and infrastructure to adapt to contemporary and emerging challenges. We’re enhancing our in-residence and distance-learning offerings and creating environments for enhanced personal and virtual collaboration. All of these will help our Airmen, sister-service, civilian and coalition partners master their subjects, explore new ideas together and reach their full potential as continually connected lifelong learners and innovators. In addition, they can always turn back to their alma mater for assistance and insight as they rise up to assume the mantle of responsibility formerly held by the very Airmen who created the legacy we seek to preserve.

This is a journey, not a destination.  AU will have to continually adapt. In the last year, we have taken steps to make our professional military education more relevant for the problems of the day. We have changed our curriculum, so that it is helping our students understand the geopolitical environment, understand humanity and understand technology. It will make our Airmen better problem-solvers, better strategic thinkers and better critical thinkers as they solve the very challenging and complex problems that face our Air Force, our U.S. military, and our nation.

America was built by people who questioned the status quo and believed that there was always a better way. Simply by leveraging the incredible wealth of our lands and oceans, and the even more incredible richness of our diverse national melting pot of ideas and culture, they understood they could create the innovations to change and even amaze the entire world.  In this critically important inflection point in air, space, and cyberspace history, we must capitalize on these unique strengths. AU is committed to training professional Airmen so they can grow and become the Mitchells, Doolittles and Arnolds of tomorrow. They are taking our courses, thinking and writing about the problems that have bedeviled them in their operations, and ultimately solving those problems. They are our faculty members, returning to the operational force with a wealth of professional knowledge that has been refined by the immersive leadership laboratory of teaching. And they are in our labs, engineering and testing the technologies that will take us to even greater heights in the future.  AU is at the forefront of innovation, preparing today for tomorrow’s Air Force – and we’re only getting started.