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The USAF’s Warrior Ethos

  • Published
  • By Dr. Paul Johstono & Lt Col Joseph Ladymon


The United States Air Force (USAF) debuted its Warrior Ethos alongside the Airman’s Creed in 2007, at the height of the Global War on Terror. [1] It identified the warrior ethos as “tough-mindedness, tireless motivation, an unceasing vigilance, a willingness to sacrifice one’s life for the country, if necessary, and a commitment to be the world’s premier air, space and cyberspace force.”[2] Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF) General T. Michael “Buzz” Mosely’s initial call on “Warrior Ethos” emphasized a heritage of sacrifice, when “during World War II, more 8th Air Force Airmen died than the total number of Marines killed in the war.”[3] He pointed out that at that time some—especially in the other services—looked at the Air service “as sideline watchers.” Even within the service “some people may have lost sight” of the service’s original fighting ethos, with its “hardiness of spirit, and moral and physical courage.” The Air Force’s Warrior Ethos was thus part of an effort to reforge a core identity for the entire service: all Airmen, all Wingmen, all Warriors.


The Warrior Ethos is at an inflection point now. The end of the Global War on Terror and the return of Great Power Competition have changed the tenor of the service’s worldview and expectations for roles in future fights. Russian belligerence in Ukraine, the shock of Hamas’ assault from Gaza, and aggressiveness from China in the South China Sea have triply underscored the seriousness and eminence of the threat. The anticipation of flying into and even basing within contested airspace has cast the warrior discourse in a new light and imbued fresh urgency. At the same time, the warrior ethos has become a battleground in partisan discourse and the culture war. Some imagine the Air Force and other American services having to choose between a warrior ethos and, for example, diversity, equity, and inclusion, only one of which they argue can help the United States prevail against a peer adversary.[4] These fights cast in relief the service’s travails articulating an intelligible, compelling, and distinguishable ethos, as well as the need to articulate such an ethos now.

The Lay of the Land

Voices in the Air Force had called for reforging the service’s “warrior spirit” or warrior ethos since the 1980s, concerned about the expanding influence of civilian management spirit and technocracy.[5] They pointed to models like fighter pilot Robin Olds as a model of martial spirit, invoking an ideal warrior who “lived every day of his life to kill for his country.”[6] Yet the Air Force defined Warrior Ethos differently. While it reflected the real hazards some Airmen were facing in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), it strove to unite the entire Air Force around a common identity through generalized attributes: commitment, sacrifice, vigilance, motivation, and tough-mindedness. The Ethos faced a double challenge: could its proponents defend and articulate it against its earlier, more martial sense and sell it to both ends of the Air Force spear?

The USAF Warrior Ethos had an embattled first decade. Many of the challenges the Ethos has faced have had to do with its resonance. Public Affairs polling from the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF) found discomfort and insecurity with the ethos, with about half of respondents reporting they did not feel like a warrior, whether they found the warrior identity appealing or not.[7] Warrior ethos was the most common topic identified in senior USAF leader discourse in the roll-out era, according to one RAND Study, yet the concept was not expounded with clarity.[8] Instead, many presumed, erroneously, that the popular film 300, about the Spartan defenders at Thermopylae, inspired the warrior discourse. Many proponents of the warrior ethos referenced the Spartans. To this day, a book titled The Warrior Ethos, about the Spartans, appears on many professional reading lists.[9]

Reception of the warrior ethos has varied. It resonated best with those who already had it, or something like it: the fighter pilots, operators, and patch wearers. Others have protested that calling themselves or other Airmen from certain specializations “warriors” comes across as inauthentic and forced.[10] Others object that the word “warriors” is unhealthy, capturing toxic tendencies, antidemocratic sensibilities, and a martial hypermasculinity.[11] Some argue that it is a poor fit for, perhaps even a reaction to, technological changes and especially the rise of remote-piloted aircraft.[12] Many USAF advocates have experimented with warfighter, or more frequently, warfighting ethos as alternate names. These measures have avoided some of the baggage but have not significantly advanced the clarity of the ethos. Its defenders argue the warrior ethos is tied directly to the service’s core values and is indistinguishable from professional soldiering in a democratic society.[13]

This returns us to the critical point of definitions. Was the warrior ethos a rebranding of what the Air Force already was, or a thing aspired to? Were Airmen always already warriors, but needed to be reminded? Or was it something only a select few had known before, now democratized to all specializations? The USAF warrior ethos (or spirit) has been linked to the Air Force core values since at least 2000. The 2021 National Character and Leadership Symposium on the Air Force Warrior Ethos demonstrated that the service’s use of the term has become a big tent, integrating grit, self-development, resilience, wellness, and many other broad topics oriented largely toward personal development and achievement.[14] Is the ethos shaping a warfighting culture in the Air Force, or itself being reshaped to reflect the service?

What an Ethos is and what an Ethos does

The word “ethos” comes from ancient Greek and describes the habits, customs, and routines that comprise a way of life. An ethos is not innate but “becomes second nature.”[15] It could describe things animals by instinct learned to do habitually, like deer reusing a thicket in a wood or goat traffic wearing down tracks across the mountains of Greece. Because these routes had been worn down by use (habit) they were all the easier to follow, to the point of following them naturally (custom). In the same way a human ethos is the outcome of learning to travel certain “pathways,” a pattern of meaningful values, attributes, and behaviors, inculcated by practice.

It follows that an ethos can do two things. An ethos can describe a way of life as it already is. It can also describe new paths and new destinations that must be followed until they become second nature. To work, the values must clearly lead to attributes, which must clearly lead to repeatable behaviors. To succeed, the result must be, eventually, the naturalness of dispositions and behaviors.

Here is where the USAF ethos faltered. The original call for the Air Force warrior ethos clearly cast it as an aspirational call, an ethos shared between the crews of the 8th Air Force and the tip-of-the-spear Airmen in OEF and OIF. But with attributes linked to the existent core values, it prescribed few new, specific behaviors. A warrior ethos already implied other attributes and behaviors outside the Air Force announcement, like honor codes and ritual circumscribing the exercise of violence.[16] Notably, just violence is not a core element of the USAF Warrior Ethos, although “warriors are prepared to kill people…to protect someone against violence.”[17] The Air Force warrior ethos must make sense of harming and sacrificing by the just and expert application of military tools for a just cause. Uncertainty, incongruity, and debate about the fit of these behaviors to the concept put it on uneven ground. The official attributes are praiseworthy but have proven insufficient for gaining traction across the USAF as an authentic and compelling warrior ethos.

That returns the conversation to the current inflection point, where amid recruiting struggles and the long shadow of the next fight, a unifying ethos is as attractive as ever. Is the answer to invigorate the warrior ethos with greater warrior authenticity? A warrior mindset may be critical to success and a shared understanding of this new operational environment. Despite this appeal, it may nonetheless alienate others and continue to carry the baggage of defeated Spartans, samurai, and other warrior cultures who lost to more adaptive armies. There may well be a common ethos that Airmen of all specializations should cultivate, but it must heed three lessons. It cannot be forged by fiat; it must be intelligible, compelling, and distinguishable; and finally, it must call them upwards.

Ways Forward on the Ethos

There are two ways of approaching this problem. The prospective path peers ahead at 21st-century high-end warfare and the sort of ethos we might forge or reinforce to craft paths forward in a context of significant danger, fog, and friction. The retrospective gazes back, describing the ethos of Airmen and other military professionals at their best, as Project WARRIOR did in the 1980s.[18] The USAF may need to retailor its description of a warrior ethos in anticipation of costly combat conditions, both to identify the most meaningful pathways for success in the air domain and to establish a compelling, distinguishable shared understanding across our all-volunteer force. It may find some of those answers in the retrospective path, following the trajectories of Airmen who embodied a bold, enterprising spirit, visionary advocacy, daring execution, and ingenious innovation. In 2006, the Air Force experimented with a heritage coat that borrowed the Billy Mitchell collar, but the ethos did not incorporate as much of the Billy Mitchell character. It may be time.

In the current day, the ethos does not even appear in Air Force Doctrine Publication (AFDP) 1 (2021), “The Air Force.” That document and a set of Air University videos that supported it attempt to describe how the USAF will operate in and through the air domain as part of all domain operations in contested and denied environments. It is, therefore, striking that the warrior ethos does not appear. Instead, Former CSAF General Charles “CQ” Brown and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass talk about needing Airmen who are smarter, more creative, and empowered, who are innovative, who challenge and question, and who take risks. These qualities are an ill fit to the warrior ethos the service has been articulating for the past fifteen years. The Air Force envisioned in AFDP-1 and its supporting senior leader messaging should look not to the dour Spartan but perhaps to the enterprising Athenian warriors with their “passion for innovation and swiftness alike in conception and execution.”[19]

The release of AFDP 1-1 Mission Command offers an avenue for articulating an intelligible, compelling, and distinguishable ethos. AFDP 1-1 establishes a direction for the service to operate in environments marked by high threat and adversity, ambiguity, and uncertainty, despite contested, degraded, or denied communications. It also notes the need for change: “Many elements of USAF architecture have deeply embraced centralization.”[20] Changes in structure will require changes in culture, and ethos is a driver of culture.

Two principles of Mission Command, disciplined initiative and prudent risk, must find traction in a revitalized warrior ethos. Disciplined initiative describes a bias for action shaped by discipline and martial virtues like courage and obedience. Without prudent risk, disciplined initiative will fail by being too brash or too hesitant. Prudent risk describes accepting potential harm or loss to do “the right thing at the right time for the right reason.”[21] It is too easy, particularly in light of an ethos defined by hardiness, to read prudent risk as risk avoidance and turn the reform effort on its head. Risk conservatism ties into a spartan warrior ethos, but for the air-minded warriors of the United States Air Force, our founders aimed higher. To enable mission command in the air domain, the service must instill disciplined initiative and prudent risk, immediately and comprehensively.

Acting CSAF General David Allvin’s 2 October 2023 memorandum to the force identified the SecAFs mantra “One Team, One Fight” as the service’s ethos. He elaborated its meaning through an emphasis on movement: speed, momentum, and connectivity, encapsulated in his closing exhortation to “lean forward together and follow through.”[22] In the spirit of General Allvin’s thought, the Air Force must work to articulate an ethos that combines the praiseworthy attributes of the existing warrior ethos, the cohesion, initiative, and rapidity of “One Team, One Fight,” and a warrior’s preparedness to employ violence for a just cause. Such an ethos, an Air Warrior Ethos, can be compelling, intelligible, and distinguishable, providing pathways for Airmen to cultivate the dispositions, behaviors, and values that the Air Force will need in the future fight.


Dr. Paul Johstono
Dr. Johstono is an associate professor at Air Command & Staff College, where he is the course director for Leadership and the Profession of Arms. He holds his PhD from Duke University and taught at The Citadel before coming to Air University. He specializes in leadership, ethics, and military history, with research interests ranging from classical history to the modern civil rights movement.

Lt Col Joseph Ladymon
Lt Col Ladymon serves as the course director for the Leadership in Command course at the Air Command & Staff College. He has a MA in Leadership from the University of Oklahoma. He is also a United States Air Force Weapons School graduate, a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, and commanded the 314 Training Squadron at the Defense Language Institute, Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California.



[1.] The views expressed herein do not represent the official views of the United States Air Force or the Department of Defense. A version of this work was previously published in Warfighter Ethos: The Leading Edge. Crown Publications: Tedder Academy of Leadership, RAF Cranwell College, Chief of Air Staff Leadership Conference 2023: 48-50.

[2.] Quoted in “Overcoming challenges to advance character and leadership development,” United States Air Force Academy, March 16, 2021, See also The Brown Book: U.S. Air Force Enlisted Force Structure (Department of the Air Force, 2022), 5 and 8.

[3.] MSgt. Mitch Gettle, "Air Force fosters 'warrior ethos' in all Airmen," Air Force, March 21, 2007,

[4.] Kevin Roberts, "Beyond 'Wokeness': Recovering the Military's Warrior Ethos," The Heritage Foundation, June 26, 2023,

[5.] Donald Baucom, "The Professional Soldier and the Warrior Spirit" Strategic Review 13, no. 4 (Fall 1985): 57-66; Barry Watts, “American Air Power” in The Emerging Strategic Environment: Challenges of the Twenty-First Century, ed. Williamson Murray (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999), 215; Mark T. Mathews, “A Search for Warriors: The Effects of Technology on the Air Force Ethos" (master’s thesis, Air War College, 1997),

[6.] John D. Sherwood, Fast Movers: Jet Pilots and the Vietnam Experience (Macmillan: New York, 2001), 41-42.

[7.] Jonathan Riley, At the Fulcrum of Air Force Identity: Balancing the Internal and External Pressures of Image and Culture, Drew Paper No. 11, (Maxwell AFB: Air University Press, 2014), 46-47,

[8.] Carolyn Chu, Brandon Dues, Laura L. Miller, "Cultural Themes in Messages from Top Air Force Leaders, 2005-2008" (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporatoin, 2010),

[9.] Steven Pressfield, The Warrior Ethos (Black Irish Entertainment: Los Angeles, 2011).

[10.] Scott Hoffman, "The Air Force Warrior: Institutional Rhetoric versus Reality" (master’s thesis, School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, 2010),; Jonathan Riley, At the Fulcrum of Air Force Identity: Balancing the Internal and External Pressures of Image and Culture, Drew Paper No. 11, (Maxwell AFB: Air University Press, 2014),

[11.] William Astore, "Our Military's Disturbing Transition to Warriors," Huffington Post, July 29, 2010,; “Stop Calling Us Warrios,” Angry Staff Officer, December 14, 2016,; James Do and Steven Samuels, “I Am a Warrior: An Analysis of the Military Masculine-Warrior Narrative Among U.S. Air Force Officer Candidates,” Armed Forces & Society 47, no. 1 (2021) 25–47,; Jessica Wolfendale and Stoney Portis, “Toxic Warrior Identity, Accountability, and Moral Risk,” Journal of Military Ethics 20, no. 3-4 (2021): 163-179.

[12.] M. Shane Riza, “Two Dimensional Warfare: Combatants, Warriors, and Our Post-Predator Collective Experience,” Journal of Military Ethics 13, no. 3 (2014): 257–273; Joseph Chapa and David Blair, “The Just Warrior Ethos: A Response to Colonel Riza,” Journal of Military Ethics 15, no. 3 (2016): 170-186. This is not exclusive to the Air Force: Scott Humr "Protecting Our Warrior Ethos Tomorrow," Proceedings 144, no. 2 (2018) (

[13.] Justin Stoddard, Donnie Hodges, David Huston, Matthew Johnson, Jarad Underwood, David Durnil, and Harrel Morgan, "True Warrior Ethos -- The Creed of Today's American Warrior," Journal of Character & Leadership Development 8, no. 1 (2021): 11-21,

[14.] United States Air Force Academy, 28th Annual National Character and Leadership Symposium: Warrior Ethos as Airmen and Citizens, February 25-26, 2021,

[15.] Julian, Misopogon 353a, from Wilmer Cave Wright, The Works of the Emperor Julian (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1913).

[16.] Shannon French, The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values Past and Present (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).

[17.] Karl Marlantes, What It Is Like to Go to War, (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011), 222.

[18.] John Shiner, “Project Warrior – A Headquarters Perspective” Navigator 30 (1983): 27-28.

[19.] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. by J. M. Dent (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1910), 1.70.2.

[20.] Air Force Doctrine Publication (AFDP) 1-1 Mission Command, 14 August 2023, Foreword,

[21.] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 6.9.6 (1142b), from H. Rackham, Aristotle, vol. 19: The Nicomachean Ethics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934).

[22.] Gen. David W. Allvin, Vice Chief of Staff, to the Department of the Air Force, memorandum, subject: Address to the Force, 02 October 2023.

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