Editorial Note: There is no doubt that people are our greatest asset and the key to fully realising a fifth-generation Air Force. We are pleased to introduce a new contributor to The Central Blue – Shaun McGill. In this essay, he explores how the Royal Australian Air Force might attract the talent needed to make a fifth-generation force a reality.  This post is a modified version of an essay that Shaun submitted to the 2018 Chief of Air Force essay competition. We plan to publish more entries in the coming months.

The Air Force, through their exploitation of the air domain,  provides the Government with a military option for the defence of Australia and its interests. Taking into account both the core and enabling roles, the application of air power would not be possible without people. Fifth Generation Air Force outlines workforce requirements essential to evolving and demonstrating an innovative and professional force, with people essential for driving capability. This paper argues that people are the key enabler for air power and outlines how the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) can best attract, recruit, train, educate and retain a workforce of the best available talent.

This post will first explore opportunities available to exploit a skilled workforce through education and training, capitalising on the diverse skills personnel bring from outside industry into the military environment. It will then examine the impact of moral injury on commanders and leaders. The post will then explore elements of personnel well-being and detail the importance of retaining injured people to ensure diversity in professional and technical mastery.

EXPLOITING A SKILLED WORKFORCE

The RAAF has under gone a number of reforms in its lifetime. This has included the de-skilling of the workforce with the consequence of diminishing aspects of technical and professional mastery. Professional mastery is considered the application of air power and specialisations in a social context. It incorporates three tenants of technical, combat and social attributes acquired over time and defined by the role within the organisation.[1] Adaptability has proven to be a strong characteristic of a highly competent workforce in which it continues to demonstrate significant benefit in a joint and coalition environment.[2] A competitive private sector also threatens the ability of the Air Force to retain its best people. In this regard, there will always be a degree of loss, however, maintaining a quality force will negate large gaps in capability and experience. Support for personnel in a changing and competitive labor must continue to be brought to the fore. With this in mind, a balance must be struck between the development of people, the encouragement of innovation, and the promotion of equality; while also accepting that as a military force not everyone is equal.[3] To ensure this balance, there must be meticulous communication of initiatives to encourage retention. This can be achieved by proactive communication to assist with change management and prevent shock and negativity often associated with change. A Fifth Generation Air Force must enable up-to-date communications. Without this, the team will get frustrated and ultimately lose faith.7

Education is not merely about professional competencies relating to core trades or specialisations. It must encompass a greater understanding of the holistic delivery of air power. People make up a highly skilled and valued force beyond the scope of any daily tasks. Single service training must be acknowledged as paramount for achieving accreditation and ensuring people can apply their knowledge across a spectrum of conflict. Education is a significant enabler to achieving outcomes in a joint environment, rather than just a single service. Training must also focus on interoperability both within the joint and coalition environment. People are central to the effectiveness of achieving air power objectives, whether abroad or home-based support. Our people often demonstrate the RAAF’s modern air power capabilities, often exceeding expectations, in the joint or coalition environment, exploiting a level of professionalism from training and education.[4] Imparting innate mannerisms within procedures, processes and knowledge helps individuals to tackle problems of uncertainty.  Without a robust education and training systems in place, the application of air power fails to evolve.

The contribution of Air Force personnel experience can not be limited to the bounds of the military environment. Many of Air Force’s people come from industry or the civilian sector and represent the most intelligent, diverse and talented pool within our society. People must be enabled to leave the Air Force and return, thus continuing to impart new-found knowledge into the organisation to enhance capability. Air Force must recognise and harness the expertise and experience people can bring to the organisation. The skills and intellect individuals possess enables adaptive capability options in a rapidly changing fifth-generation workforce. People always have and will continue to shape the future of the Air Force. Commanders must enhance the “bottom-up” initiatives to ensure the momentum the organisation needs to succeed.

WELLBEING IS A CRUCIAL FACTOR

Well-being is defined as a sense of purposefulness and meaning amongst personnel, effectively contributing to capability. Commanders and leaders at all levels must ensure people’s mental, physical and spiritual well-being is upheld as this has an immediate effect on morale and the dynamic of a team that ultimately influences air power capability.[5] The organisation today encourages personnel to strive to reach their full potential. This includes the acceptance of individuals’ diversity, as well as the acknowledgement that there will be occasions when people may get this wrong and need support. Crucial to the future of the organisation is a person’s well-being; indeed it must be viewed as just as vital as the employment of air power assets themselves.

In ensuring a healthy state of well-being, Air Force leaders need to be cognisant of occasions when they are directing people to undertake tasks that challenge an individual’s ethical and spiritual beliefs. This notion is referred to as moral injury; an emerging concept that is characterised as a one of a kind of ‘non-physical wound’ that affects a person’s spiritual wellbeing and mental health. Conversely, leaders may themselves be subject to moral injury. No matter the circumstance or who may be affected, moral injury is to be treated as with any other mental health illness and not left to exacerbate; early intervention provides the best chance of a successful outcome.

Air power practitioners take great pride in knowing the RAAF was formed from a small group of dedicated professionals. A supportive culture that treats its people fairly will bring out the best in its people and subsequently enhance capability. Personnel mismanagement has the potential to erode the very nature of the organisation. The effective employment of air power assets requires maintenance and support; people are no different when it comes to well-being. Ineffective or lack of a personnel management plan has the potential of adverse effects such as loss of capability and an unsustainable force to conduct operations.  Merely directing people to websites undermine effective communication, and often takes away from the primary function of individuals.

RETAINING OUR SKILLED PEOPLE

To retain a skilled workforce and remain an employer of choice, Air Force must change behaviours, expectations and social attitudes to continue to evolve. This is especially the case when dealing with mental health issues. Supporting highly professional and intellectual people is no easy task, especially as no one person is the same. While military activities will expose a group of people to similar situations, the impact on individuals will differ. Defence personnel are trained to have high resilience; however, this does not negate the possibility of suffering from a wide array of mental illnesses. Mental illness does not discriminate, and a social acceptance of this must be paramount. No matter the situation, organisational mechanisms must be in place to enable people to receive the appropriate support. Commanders and leaders, at all levels of the organisations, must be aware of the resources available to provide practical strategies for support when dealing with mental well-being.

Air Force must also continue to work on shaping the culture around early reporting of mental health issues. The stigmatisation of mental health illnesses can detrimentally affect team cohesion and individual well being. Mental illness does not discriminate, and there is no shame in seeking assistance. Early and supportive intervention has been proven to provide the best outcome for recovery. Noting this, it is reliant on all members of the Air Force to ensure all members feel valued as part of a professional, supportive team. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and personnel feel they are not supported and made to feel isolated. The First Principles Review concurs with this assessment and has identified a requirement to ensure a supportive culture is one that enables Defence to deliver effective and efficient outcomes. Air Force leaders must shape culture to ensure this type of behaviour does not exist, and they are creating an environment in which everyone is valued and supported no matter their injury or illness.

In other scenarios, Air Force members may  suffer injuries that preclude them from continuing their Air Force careers; whether voluntary or through medical discharge. Often, these people have specialised skills and exceptional knowledge in niche fields, with the organisation having made significant investments from their initial recruitment through to their current role. The anguish personnel endure not being able to continue their career results in the organisation losing exceptionally qualified people; this has undoubtedly been the case in the past. Air Force needs to look at a wider variety of ways to retain people who remain employable in the public sector, Defence industry or the civilian sector. Through maintaining a comprehensive education system and continuing military employment benefits, individuals retain their self-esteem thus also enhancing rehabilitation. Developing a force capable of operations abroad and domestically strengthens the ethical competency of personnel applying skills with purpose and integrity; essential to members’ overall well-being, providing positive outcomes for effective and efficient capability output.

CONCLUSION

Commanders and leaders must always consider people as a key enabler in the application and execution of effective and efficient air power. Leadership at all levels must provide support mechanisms, and recognise their peoples’ education; especially the experience gained through industry or the civilian sector. Air Force must also continue to work on creating a culture that is supportive of personnel suffering from mental health issues. This occurs through being vigilant of how people respond to carrying out a military task, and how they may be morally affected. Likewise, Air Force leaders are not immune from this effect and can be affected by moral injury too. De-stigmatising mental health issues creates a healthy culture and environment where all people, no matter the position, have access to resources that will provide the appropriate support to benefit their well-being. Retaining Air Force personnel affected by mental health issues is key to retention, as well as preventing the loss of niche skills and experience. The experiences gained by dedicated people is irreplaceable; with their loss leaving a significant void in capability. Ensuring practical and robust education and training systems are in place helps provide adaptability and resilience within the workforce.

Pilot Officer Shaun McGill is a Personnel Capability Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. He is currently in his final year of a Bachelor of Business at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA). The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

[1] Royal Australian Air Force RAAF, ‘Leadership Companion: Character, Professional Ethics, Followership and Leadership’ (Department of Defence, June 2013), p. 24; Sanu Kainikara, Professional Mastery and Air Power Education (Tuggeranong, A.C.T.: Air Power Development Centre, 2011), p. 4; Keith Brent, ed., Masters of Air Power, RAAF Air Power Development Centre (Canberra: Air Power Development Centre, 2010), p. 8.

[2] Mark Hinchcliffe, Commanding Air Power, p. 6; Sanu Kainikara and RAAF Air Power Development Centre, Seven Perennial Challenges to Air Forces (Canberra: Air Power Development Centre, 2009), pp. 8–9.

[3] Hon. Ian McLachlan, ‘Building to the RAAF of 2020’, ed. R. S Clarke and RAAF Air Power Studies Centre (Testing the limits: the proceedings of a conference held by the Royal Australian Air Force in Canberra, March 1998, Fairbairn, ACT, Australia: Air Power Studies Centre, 1998), pp. 10–11; RAAF, The Air Force Approach to Personnel Capability Support, p. 39.

[4] General Michael E. Ryan, ‘Expeditionary Aerospace Forces: A Better Way’, in New World Vistas: USAF Air and Space Power for the 21st Century, ed. R. S Clarke and RAAF Air Power Studies Centre (Testing the limits: the proceedings of a conference held by the Royal Australian Air Force in Canberra, March 1998, Fairbairn, ACT, Australia: Air Power Studies Centre, 1998), p. 14; RAAF Air Power Development Centre, The Air Power Manual, 2013, p. 93.

[5] RAAF, ‘Leadership Companion: Character, Professional Ethics, Followership and Leadership’, p. 99.