Defining the 21st Century Airman: Cultivating a Technology-Based Universal Skill Set
Since the birth of the United States Air Force (USAF) in 1947, Airmen have struggled to define the universal skills or common knowledge that all Airmen share. The easy solution, and one adopted since the services’ establishment, is to instill a ground warrior’s mindset, with skills traditionally associated with the Army or Marines. While these skills have proven effective in shaping the current culture, do they mirror what Airmen will be asked to do in a 21st century near-peer conflict? While future, friendly and adversarial operations will include: stand-off munitions, unmanned vehicles, electronic & cyber-attacks, automated processes, robust sensor fusion, artificial intelligence, and supply chain interruptions, will the service be prepared to fully integrate or counter them through its own operations. When an Airman serves in a joint environment, can they contribute expertise that is unique to the force, regardless of their specialty or experience? Finally, is the service fully capitalizing on the talent that is recruited into its ranks every year? Presently, the answer to all of the above questions is an emphatic ‘no.’ To maximize the USAF’s contributions in the next conflict, it must supplement or replace current force-wide training with a cultivated universal technological skill set. This skill set must be shaped through a deliberate assessment of tomorrow’s challenges, instruction on transformational technologies, and the embracement of critical thinking. A new approach to talent management must also be adopted, focused on recruiting and capitalizing on crucial technological talent. This shift will not only alter the USAF’s identity, but it will also significantly aid in continued air domain dominance well through the 21st-century. It was said that the “[p]en is mightier than the sword,” the future will prove that for the USAF, the computer will be mightier than the gun.
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