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Education is the Premise to Progress

  • Published
  • By Major William Piepenbring


Back to School

In his recent keynote speech at the Air, Space, and Cyber Symposium, Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Q. Brown Jr. stated that “we must build our culture, not just our concepts” to meet potential threats. He identified multiple lines of effort “that will drive culture change, “including mission command, agile combat employment, multi-capable airmen, and the wing air staff construct.”[1] In order to operate effectively as part of a front-line warfighting staff aligned with our Joint Service partners utilizing the concept of mission command and agile combat employment, officers need more education in the areas of planning and orders processes. Unfortunately, Air Force Officer Professional Military Education (OPME) does not currently go far enough to instill the cultural change that is needed. In particular, company-grade officers need to learn these skills as part of their military education, either via restructuring of Squadron Officer School’s curriculum or creating a new training course specifically designed for the wing level.

Where is the Air Force Now?

Maj General Shawn Bratton recently stated, “there’s things I learned at War College that really I wish I had learned as an O-3 early in my career, especially the joint planning process.”  While the joint planning process may be taught at the War Colleges, this is too late in an officer's career. Currently, an officer’s first opportunity to obtain professional military education is a leadership course called Squadron Officer School, which all active-duty line and non-line officers are supposed to attend in-residence within seven years of commissioning under the present USAF policy.[2] The school is a five-week course designed to “enhance air and space-minded leaders...primed to prevail in competitive environments.” Traditionally, the officer in attendance is assumed to be a technical expert in their field with various leadership experiences from home station jobs and deployments. The course uses a phased-based approach when teaching its students.[3] The first phase of the curriculum focuses on introspection and understanding who you are as a leader. The second phase is designed to enhance problem-solving skills. The last stage instructs doctrine, international relations, and joint operations. Outside of SOS, there is only one other course that includes company-grade officers as its “target audience.” This is the Joint Air Operations Planning Course which is non-mandatory and instructs the joint planning process for air over a 9-day curriculum.[4]

Where is the Air Force Going?

Over the past twenty years, the United States has been waging war in operational environments where main operating bases were considered sanctuaries, logistics were assured, and connectivity to dislocated command centers was rarely interrupted. American and allied forces will not have these luxuries in large-scale combat operations with a peer adversary. Due to the increased capability of kinetic and non-kinetic weapons, enemies continually threaten our bases, logistics, and communications.[5] To mitigate the threat, the Air Force has developed a new employment concept, known as Agile Combat Employment (ACE), that provides “a proactive and reactive operational scheme of maneuver to increase survivability while generating combat power.”[6]

The primary Air Force combat force provider has identified specific units, called ‘Lead Wings,’ to execute ACE with the expectation that these units will “deploy as high-performing, task-organized combat teams, and operate in a contested environment with joint and coalition partners.”[7] These lead wings have transitioned to a new organizational model that better aligns with our Joint and Coalition partners, allowing them to better integrate immediately during crisis operations. This new alignment provides functional connections at the wing level up the chain of command as personnel on the wing staff “will have the structures and tools to operate in a joint model and learn to execute the joint planning process, generate orders, and execute the commander’s intent just like their sister service counterparts.”[8] However, these lead wing staffs have been sourced from within the current organization, which has revealed some glaring gaps.

Comprised of captains and majors pulled from their “day jobs” with little to no formal staff training, the creation of these staffs has been a significant shift in organizational structure, roles, and responsibilities for these officers. The crux of the issue is that Air Force military education has not taught these officers the core skills required to fill wing staff roles as the only mandatory education provided to company-grade officers does not provide adequate vocational content on planning and command and control. Although this transition may be rough, the silver lining is that the Air Force may be able to quickly identify what educational outcomes are required for officers potentially heading to a wing staff and adapt junior officer professional military education courses to adequately prepare them.

Experimentation at the Wing Level

Since Jan 2020, the 23d Wing at Moody AFB has been a cornerstone for the experimentation and evolution of this new force employment model and Lead Wing concepts. I personally got to oversee the experimentation of these two ideas during my stint with the 23rd Wing from May 2020 to April 2021. Since the concept of ACE and the lead wing staff requirements were ill-defined at this time, my team was charged with building a program from the ground up. Due in part to a lack of education on Joint processes at Squadron Officer School, we had to rely on extensive self-study, research, and mentorship from Joint Qualified Officers who had been trained and qualified as planners to build and execute the 23d Wing’s new staff. We also learned a lot by deploying to the Air Force’s first two experimentation exercises that tested this new force employment and organization model (Agile Flag 21-1 and 21-2).[9] Beyond the overall lack of real-world experience that is expected in a program still in development, there was a genuine absence of corporate knowledge or a shared mental model on how to think through problems and an inability to communicate a plan using collaborative processes.

In order for ACE to work, the Air Force needs its officer corps to understand, implement, and practice a deliberate planning model designed to work at every echelon of the force. While officers heading to mission command have been given sufficient tools and training, there does not seem to be a robust effort to prepare officers for serving on staffs. All Air Force operators who have been through the mission commander certification have been taught how to run a mission planning cell to tackle complex tactical problems on a battlefield. Furthermore, mission commanders have the Air Force Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures 3-1 “Integrated Planning and Employment” handbook to help guide them through the tactical planning process. Based on my observations, however, most Air Force company grade officers are unaware that an equivalent handbook for the staff officers exists in Joint Publication 5-0, Joint Planning.

Experimentation with the new force employment model and warfighting organizational structure has also highlighted the need for improved instruction on how to write operational orders. As the official language of the joint force, this communication method has been adopted in its regular battle rhythm. This is particularly important as future conflicts with peer adversaries are expected to be a dynamic environment that may lead to a breakdown and interruption between communication links in the chain of command.[10] With the new Air Force Doctrine Publication 1 promoting mission command as a key tenant to successfully operating in such an environment, it is crucial for commanders to issue mission-type orders in a five-paragraph format.[11] General Brown evenly explicitly stated that his Accelerate Change Or Lose action orders “were purposely written in the five-paragraph operation order format used to communicate guidance to the joint force.”[12] However, most Air Force company-grade officers do not actively use this format due to an Air Force culture that has been reinforced by a lack of education. In order for ACE and mission command to work, Air Force officers need to understand how to write operational orders and, more importantly, how to interpret and act on them.

This lack of exposure to the planning process and operational orders may be due in part to the curriculum at the one required educational experience for company-grade officers. Squadron Officer School currently has only one required joint planning class, which is introductory and only a two-hour time block. It appears to be insufficient for a student to comprehend and implement the planning process and writing operational orders. This is not to say that SOS has not been attempting to adapt to the aforementioned needs as it has recently added an ACE elective held at the SECRET level.[13] However, in order for a culture change to occur, as well as have the required amount of corporate knowledge to billet wing staffs, the Air Force needs to teach more than a select group of captains.

Shifting Fires

 The creation of the Multi-Domain Operations Officer career field was an attempt to help rectify these issues. The idea was that these officers would be deployed where needed to be “dedicated operational-level command and control experts.” As the program developed, their classes focused on Agile Combat Employment operations and emphasized the ability “to capture the commander’s intent through mission-type orders, multi-day tasking documents, and condition-based authorities.”[14] However, in February 2022, the Air Force decided to phase out the Multi-Domain Operations Officer career field. As General Brown put it, “we must be prepared to face future conflicts with our joint and combined partners, and the knowledge multi-domain warfare officers bring to the fight is too critical to confine to a single career field.”[15]

IDing the New Target

With the adoption of wing-level warfighting staffs and the shift to preparing for a peer fight in a joint environment, it has become essential for USAF company-grade officers to have the requisite knowledge at the appropriate breadth of understanding earlier in their careers. While there may be multiple approaches, this article will focus on the two options of restructuring of current courses or creating a new training course provided as part of another educational opportunity. While Air Force Primary Developmental Education (PDE) does not currently provide young officers the knowledge they need to operate effectively on staff, particularly in the joint environment, the Air Force already possesses the necessary academic content with respect to Joint Planning. The tricky part is identifying what salient lessons to compile and when to fit these academics into an Air Force officer’s career.

Squadron Officer School Restructure COA

This approach would entail adapting the tactical-level leadership course at SOS by shifting the focus from leadership techniques and concepts to actual warfighting processes and Joint Force integration. While Phase One and Two could still be conducted with the general population to ensure introspection and cross-job familiarization, Phase Two “problem-solving” should be anchored to joint planning understanding and practice. Phase Three should include job-specific training corresponding to where an officer would be positioned on a staff. Once complete with staff training, the class would come back together to go through war gaming as a staff scaled at the wing level. During this war game, students would receive relevant command and control instructions and mission-type orders from higher headquarters. Students would then be responsible for interpreting them, conducting the necessary planning, and generating orders for the wing’s forces. Red cells playing as a thinking enemy would provide students with the crucial experience of having to modify their plan because “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.”[16]

Combination of Current Intermediate Courses and Multi-Domain Operations Officer Curriculum COA

Another option would be the creation of a new Air Staff Basic Course aimed at the wing-staff level with some additional wargaming. Air Education and Training Command could build this course from materials in three existing non-required courses (the Joint Air Operations Planning Course, the Contingency Wartime Planning Course, and the two-week Joint Task Force Staff Basic Course) and the phased-out curriculum for the Multi-Domain Operations Officer. While the three aforementioned courses are geared toward the theater level, they can be adapted to the wing level with a little bit of work. Although this may be the easiest COA to execute, it is unlikely that a non-required course will generate the necessary cultural shift across the entire Department of the Air Force.

In analyzing the two proposed COAs the reader may see a tension between the current capacity to produce a desired capability. The first option may be more difficult to execute but this paper argues that it would have a greater impact. The second option may be more feasible due to having the capability now, but the argument that a niche staff school would start would be tenuous at best.


Although both COAs would get after the issue, the costs and potential impacts of each are starkly different. While the creation of a new Air Staff Basic Course appears to be the easier COA to execute, it also has the inherent weakness of being insufficient to generate the institutional culture change required by our new force structure and Chief. Conversely, the greatest benefit of retooling Squadron Officer School is that all active Air Force officers would eventually receive this fundamental training and experience. Executing this COA, however, may require a significant restructuring of SOS. Furthermore, this approach would require a significant amount of time to develop the new curriculum, as well as the faculty development and training required to execute it. However, if preparing for the future fight requires a fundamental shift in USAF culture toward mission command and the use of wing staffs, then this can only be achieved through training and education, particularly at the PDE level. From my personal experience, it is evident that our only options are to accelerate change when it comes to our military education or prepare to lose in a peer conflict.

Major William Piepenbring
Maj Piepenbring is an A-10C instructor pilot. He is currently a student in the United Kingdom’s Advance Command and Staff Course.


[1.] General Charles Q. Brown Jr. “2022 Air, Space & Cyber Conference Keynote Address,” transcript of speech delivered at Air, Space & Cyber Conference, National Harbor, MD, September 19, 2022.

[2.] “Eligibility,” Air University, Squadron Officer School, accessed May 10, 2023.

[3.] Colonel Lance Rosa-Miranda. “Welcome to SOS, Class 22E! - Air University.” Future SOS Student, February 1, 2022.

[4.] “Intermediate courses,” Air University, LeMay Center, accessed May 27, 2023.

[5.] Sandeep Mulgund, “Command and Control for Agile Combat Employment.” Wild Blue Yonder, August 30, 2021.

[6.] Greg Hadley, “Air Force Releases First Doctrine Note on Agile Combat Employment.” Air & Space Forces Magazine, December 15, 2021.

[7.] Christopher Moore, “Air Combat Command Names Lead Wings.” Air Force, January 20, 2022.

[8.] Capt. Lauren Gao, “Combat Air Forces Wings Transform for Future Fight.” Air Combat Command, February 17, 2022.

[9.] Tech. Sgt. Carlin Leslie, “Agile Flag Paves Way for Lead Wings.” Air Combat Command, November 3, 2020.; 1st Lt. Teri Bunce, “Agile Flag 21-2: Airpower from Anywhere.” 633rd Air Base Wing, May 15, 2021.

[10.] Miranda Priebe, Alan J. Vick, Jacob L. Heim, and Meagan L. Smith, “Distributed Operations in a Contested Environment: Implications for USAF Force Presentation.” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2019.

[11.] Department of the Air Force, The Air Force, Air Force Doctrine Publication 1 (Maxwell AFB: LeMay Doctrine Center, March 10, 2021).

[12.] General Charles Q. Brown, Jr., CSAF Action Orders: To Accelerate Change Across the Air Force (Washington, DC: Air Force Chief of Staff, February 2022).

[13.] “Student Experience,” Air University, Squadron Officer School, accessed on May 27, 2023.

[14.] Debora Henley, “Hurlburt Graduates Third Class of Multi-Domain Warfare Officers.” 505th Command and Control Wing, November 20, 2020.

[15.] Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs, “Air Force to Phase out 13O Career Field, Strengthen All Airmen Joint Capabilities.” Air Force, February 17, 2022.

[16.] Ryan Noordally, “The British Army Has a Blackbelt in 'Bullshito'” Wavell Room, March 1, 2021.

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