Commentary

October 4, 2013

Squadron Officer School: Tax dollars well spent?

Lt. Col. Jeff Donnithorne
31st Student Squadron, Squadron Officer School

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. – †At a time when every dollar counts, the Air Force continues to spend scarce resources to send thousands of captains every year to Squadron Officer School. With flying hours slashed, we are prioritizing eight-week TDYs to Maxwell instead of converting JP-8 into thrust, lift and airpower.

Can SOS really be worth that kind of prioritized investment? Our Airmen and the American taxpayers deserve a compelling answer, so, as a squadron commander entrusted with executing the SOS mission, I offer one perspective.

Captains arrive at SOS with varying degrees of skepticism about the value of the two months they will spend here. Moreover, such skepticism about professional military education is by no means confined to the company-grade ranks of our force. Limited resources demand tough choices, so PME is, no doubt, being scrutinized as a potential source of dollars. So why should we take 750 captains away from their tactical environment and family communities for eight weeks of team-building and guided discussion?

Part of the answer lies in the difference between training and education. Many Air Force captains have spent their entire careers training in technical fields, learning to operate sophisticated technology for a very specific warfighting purpose. Such technical training operates by a logic of direct effects, much like battlefield interdiction or close air support in an air campaign. The purpose and benefit of these endeavors are easily discerned. Consequently, most captains can intuit the correlation between their technical training and its utility in the Air Force mission.

Education, however, operates by a more subtle logic. PME generates its effects in the aggregate, more like strategic bombing or industrial web targeting – slowly, indirectly, across thousands of Airmen over many years. As a leadership-focused school, SOS hurls intellectual and experiential challenges at our students to spur their growth as leaders. We firmly believe that we accomplish our mission successfully and with excellence, but the direct effects of our eight-week leadership laboratory defy easy capture or quantification.

An SOS education – like nearly all education – is, thus, a calculated gamble, rooted in the proposition that negotiating a complex team leadership problem or a demanding Project X task will slowly but ultimately generate the desired behavioral and cognitive effects. PME, like SOS, therefore offers the strategic educational balance to the tactical focus of technical training.

In light of these acknowledged risks, our approach to SOS education is to make every learning event relevant by exposing its connective tissue and strategic potential. Every guided discussion or lecture must be connected and not isolated – connected to the rest of the curriculum, to the students’ career specialty, to the Air Force mission, and ultimately to their role as professional military officers who serve on behalf of the American people.

We do not deliver a sterile lesson on Air Force doctrine, for example, simply because the lesson plan or daily schedule says we must. Instead, our conversations about doctrine get stitched into the fabric of Air Force history and culture, showing the ways in which our unique ideas about air power ultimately birthed and sustained our existence as a separate military service.

Similarly, every experiential event gets connected to the cognitive and affective purposes behind it. Every TLP and Project X task serves as a metaphor for an exportable learning objective that can bear fruit across disparate career fields and locations. As instructors, we strive to make these practical connections convincing and clear.

With these long-view strategic purposes in my mind, my personal philosophy of delivering an SOS education is to explain the why, explore the what and make the connections. We start with why to provide a compelling context for new intellectual discoveries. We then explore each lesson’s content – the what – through empathic discourse and, at times, through tactile experience.

Finally, we make the explicit and implicit connections from each lesson to the overarching context of serving our nation as Airmen and professional military officers. As we do this more and more effectively, we begin to counter the myopic student impatience that breeds disillusionment.

We begin to foster the long view, encouraging our students to regard each SOS experience like another sortie against another strategic target, with small but important effects in the present that ultimately yield game-changing effects in the future.

SOS Commandant Col. Mark Czelusta frequently reminds us that the chief of staff of the Air Force in 2040 could be walking our SOS hallways today. The future chief will, no doubt, be technically superb in a particular career specialty, but that chief also must have the diverse knowledge, character and professionalism that only long-view strategic education can provide. This time at SOS may be the only formal PME the future chief receives from the Air Force, so we commit ourselves every day to make sure that time – and the American tax dollars we obligate – are well spent.




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