Building Air Force Intellectual Capacity: An Innovative Look at Creating Air University and the Air Force Acadamy, 1918-1955.

Author:Farquhar, John T.
 
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How does a military organization inspire learning? How does an Air Force build a professional educational system and generate intellectual capital? How does a military academy inculcate traditional virtues of duty, honor, country and not stifle creativity, innovation, and thinking? These related, but different, questions shape thinking about the creation of the United States Air Force professional officer schools, specifically the Air University and the US Air Force Academy. A premise forms the core of this article: thinking about military education, or creating Air Force intellectual capacity, parallels studies of military innovation, or military technical revolution. Examining the context, theory, and application of military educational developments provides insights into US Air Force organizational culture, politics, and leadership. These same insights mark the United States Air Force as a whole during its formative years (1918-1955), a period of rapid institutional, doctrinal, and technological change. To focus, this study proposes a tentative thesis: in establishing an Air University, Air Force leaders sought evolutionary, sustaining institutional change but may have achieved more; while in creating an Air Force Academy, air leaders sought a revolutionary, disruptive change to military education, but may have achieved less. Regardless of the validity of this admittedly shaky hypothesis, the US Air Force succeeded in creating educational systems that advanced the institution's educational capacity. (1)

Viewing US Air Force educational efforts through the lens of military and technological innovation provides useful insights. Throughout its existence, the US Air Force considered technology vital to its core mission, identity, and service culture. Hence, analyzing the creation of Air University and the US Air Force Academy with this in mind offers perspective and perception. In Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military, Stephen Peter Rosen warns that bureaucracies are not only hard to change, but are designed not to change. While military mavericks, those who "buck the chain of command," intuitively appeal to our society, their efforts rarely succeed and indeed may detract from progress. Rosen also posits that innovation requires ideological struggle, winning the battle of ideas is essential to changed thinking. Finally, he suggests that change occurs through those in power. Military technological and educational innovation must win backing by senior officers, ideally with a strategy for intellectual and organizational improvement. (2)

In "Technology and History: Kranzberg's Laws," Melvin Kranzberg offers additional insights of technological innovation as a human activity. Thus, technological determinism, the belief that technology is "the prime factor shaping our lifestyles, values, institutions, and other elements of our society" must be viewed as a human activity with all the foibles and irrationality associated. (3) The author articulates "Kranzberg's Laws" that with some adaptation inform understanding of military education. For example, he states that since entire systems interact, a system cannot be studied in isolation; one must look at the interaction of these systems with the entire social, political, economic, and cultural environment. Furthermore, Kranzberg suggests that although technology, might be a prime element in public issues, non-technical factors take precedence in technology-policy decisions. (4) For this article, substitute "education" for "technology."

Although there are many other authors and ideas in the field, innovation analyst Terry Pierce characterizes innovations as "disruptive" (major or revolutionary) or "sustaining" (incremental or evolutionary). He proposes that disruptive change requires a "product champion," a senior leader who forms and backs small innovation groups, and then steers architectural change by transforming both organization and doctrine. Because organizations inherently resist disruptive change, product champions succeed by disguising disruptive (major) transformation as sustaining (incremental). (5) In sum, the technological innovation thoughts of Rosen, Kranzberg, and Pierce inform understanding of the military educational innovations represented by the creation of Air University and the Air Force Academy that span the 1918-1955 time frame.

Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, ended American fighting in World War I, but initiated military and political efforts to establish professional military education for the US Army Aviation Service. On November 26, 1918, slightly more than two weeks from the war's last shots, West Point graduate and pilot Lieutenant Colonel A. J. Hanlon proposed creating a U.S. Aeronautical Academy "to inculcate into [Air Service] officers love of country, proper conception of duty, and the highest regard for honor." (6) Reflecting his personal experience, Hanlon explained the "dissatisfaction" of Air Service personnel for their treatment by regular Army officers and that West Point graduates "were anything but popular." In December 1918, Robert E. Vinson, President of the University of Texas, offered Camp Mabry in Austin as a site for an Air Service Academy to serve as the West Point of the air arm. A month later, Lieutenant Colonel Barton K. Yount proposed an Air Service Academy to the Director of Military Aeronautics with three primary objectives: (7)

To instill discipline, espirit de corps, and high ideals of honor...

To thoroughly train [officers]... in drill regulations and other military subjects...

To thoroughly instruct them... [in] the subject of aviation ... and to begin their flying training [ground school].

By the end of 1919, two more military proposals and a resolution from the Texas state senate backing an air service academy in San Antonio surfaced. (8)

The flurry of air service professional educational ideas revealed a split in thinking. Hanlon, Yount, the Texas Senate, and others backed a "West Point for the air," while Lieutenant Colonel William C. Sherman, Chief of Air Service Training, working for Brigadier General William "Billy" Mitchell argued for a more technical air academy that would instruct in administration, ground and air tactics, combined arms, and technical training. In short, plans for practical, flying-oriented training battled a focus on discipline (a recurrent theme from West Pointers aghast at the slack, informal Air Service), honor, and duty. The struggle over purpose proved moot as American doughboys shed their uniforms as rapidly as possible. Peace, a return to "normalcy," and budget tightening trumped plans for postwar universal military service and professional military education. By the end of 1919, plans for an Air Service Academy were dead and conscientious airmen shifted effort to adding aviation subjects into the West Point curriculum. (9)

The flurry of air service professional educational ideas revealed a split in thinking

Billy Mitchell's sensational efforts to achieve an independent air force returned attention to the creation of an air academy. First manifested in the 1921 Ostfriesland bombing trials where Mitchell's airmen "sank a battleship" and then escalating in his attack on the Departments of War and the Navy for "gross negligence" in the 1925 USS Shenandoah dirigible crash, Mitchell seized newspaper headlines and sparked Congressional debate over airpower. In his testimony before Congress and again at his court-martial trial, Mitchell backed an air academy as the "backbone" of a professional air force, but the message remained muted compared to his more headline grabbing statements. (10) Nevertheless, on April 3, 1922, the US Senate passed a resolution directing the Secretaries of War and Navy: (11)

To report to Congress (1) whether or not it is feasible and advisable to establish a school of aeronautics to be known as the United States Academy for Aeronautics.... (2) whether or not it is practicable to use a part of the buildings and grounds of the United States Military Academy and of the United States Naval Academy for separate schools in aeronautics.

In response, Major General Mason M. Patrick, Chief of the Air Service, backed the establishment of a separate academy for aeronautics as "highly desirable" and opposed using existing facilities at West Point or Annapolis. Unfortunately, Billy Mitchell's notoriety, Congressional testimony, and court-martial proceedings distracted from the "essential" air academy. By the end of 1925, he failed to secure either an independent air force or an air academy. Furthermore, Mitchell's beleaguered boss, Maj Gen Patrick changed his stance; Patrick now believed that "with certain changes," expanded courses at West Point would be "sufficient" for the Air Service. (12)

The Air Corps Tactical School played a vital role in shaping operational doctrine

The rejection of Mitchell did not end progress in air service...

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