The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.

Rapid Ascent: Warfighting Mindset

  • Published
  • By Dr. Edwin H. Redman, Col. USAF (ret.)


  • In 1948, the AFM 35-15 Air Force Leadership set out principles and techniques for early Cold War commanders to build cohesive and efficient organization to face the challenges of the post World War II security landscape.  Its values are timeless, but it was aimed at an audience familiar with references and examples that no longer reflect the experiences of a 21st century Department of the Air Force.  Its preface, by CSAF General Hoyt Vandenburg, insists “leadership techniques must change as the habits and thinking of the people comprising our units change,” so we created an updated resource with our contemporary context in mind.  At the suggestion of Air University leadership, we drew upon the expertise of AU faculty to offer a quick primer on six foundational concepts of the Human Domain.  This is the first in a six part series.

In World War I, pilots were nicknamed “Knights of the Air.” The moniker has undoubtedly appealed to military pilots ever since, if for no other reason than the romanticization of their profession. Yet the term also alludes to the Airman’s warrior mindset in ways that endure a full century later. After all, a medieval knight was a member of a warfighting elite, one associated with the profession of arms by way of skill and technical competency, perhaps by swordsmanship. Today’s Airman holds fast to a similar warrior construct; she or he is given both generally to the profession of arms and specifically to a profession of craft—employing aircraft, cyber effects, logistics, medicine, or communications, to name a few specializations. The Airman’s warrior mentality demands that one takes care of business in the technical aspects of their craft, supports those who serve and fight alongside them, and is ready to adapt as necessary to achieve operational objectives.

A warrior mindset may be critical to success and 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 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. The Air Force envisioned in AFPD-1 and its supporting senior leader messaging should look, not to the Spartan warrior, but to the enterprising Athenian citizen-soldier, with their “passion for innovation, and swiftness alike in conception and execution."--The USAF Warrior Ethos (Johstono & Ladymon)

This warfighting attitude has not substantially changed since the early days of the US Army Air Corps. Primarily, the mentality was founded on the attitudes that must accompany any association with aircraft, especially in the business of warfighting. Airplanes—whether fledgling and frail craft in World War I or modern, technically complex, and fast jets—do not suffer fools. Accordingly, the service has constantly blended regard for precision with the quest for lethality and has done so with a technological approach to making war: “Dependence and reliance on technology mean that the Air Force always measured itself by its aeronautical performance and the technological qualities of its aircraft.”[1] This is perhaps most clearly seen in the perennial Air Force mantra: Fly, fight, and win, which was reclaimed in the official Air Force motto by Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz in 2010 and again in 2021 by CSAF Charles Q. Brown, Jr. in the new mission statement: “Fly, fight, and win…airpower, anytime, anywhere.”[2]

A great example is of a weathered combat squadron that continued to find itself downrange for the better half of each year, every year. The ability of the commander to motivate his team and continually concentrate efforts on mission accomplishment was amazing. This often came at expense to himself and his own career, however, the team was always placed as a priority and there was never hesitation to place career or reputation aside to act in the best interest of the squadron. Another example of success has been the ability to relate to members in a squadron and carry a warrior ideology in which the commander will not hesitate when faced with conflict, decision points or corrective actions.-- SMSgt Jake Fason

Yet conversely, with the Air Force there is also a focus on the individual that may not be as present in other warfighters in modern nationalized services. This attitude is particularly evident in the officer corps because Air Force officers typically fly and fight rather than lead others—especially enlisted—in combat. In general, this perspective has resonated most with fighter pilots. As author and F-86 pilot in Korea, James Salter, mused, “You lived and died alone, especially in fighters.” Yet while this attitude has been amplified in the fighter pilot community, clearly it is not just a single-seat mentality; every student pilot must solo, and doing so reinforces the individual responsibility and reward that comes from the accomplishment. Again, a tremendous sense of affiliation and responsibility to the group exists with Airmen; however, such shared ideals are balanced in the Air Force by individual aspirations of technical competency, performance, and opportunity to demonstrate such abilities in war. Salter reflected on his feelings before going into combat in the F-86: “Whatever we were, we felt inauthentic. You were not anything unless you fought.”[4] His thoughts echo the weight his peers put on the individual rather than the collective, and this sense still informs today’s warfighting mentality in the Air Force.

The USAF is not, nor never shall be an organization that will fail to accomplish its bigger mission, no matter what setbacks or mini-failures we may suffer. Nobody in the profession of arms likes failure – so we will always find a way. Never underestimate the ingenuity of the American GI. All of this does come at cost though: good people don’t tend to stay in resource starved environments as the adventure of working through challenges can wear thin over time.--CMSgt Christopher Almeria

This Airman’s mentality also informs how the service does business outside of the aircraft. For example, airpower historian Dr. Melvin Deaile observed, “Pilots often displayed the same skills and techniques required to fly an airplane in their management of operations;” accordingly, management styles oftentimes are “technology dependent, highly structured, and highly controllable.”[7] Thus General George C. Kenney, upon becoming the Southwest Pacific theater air commander for General MacArthur in World War II, and recognizing a poor airpower performance that predated his arrival, brought in new deputies, what he called “operators.” He later described these men as “aggressive energetic, and flexible individuals capable of leading and concerned foremost with getting on with the war.”[8] It should surprise no one that Airmen would be inclined to take attitudes that serve them well in their aircraft and apply them more broadly to leadership, management, and performance of non-flying duties.

General Goldfein demonstrated aggressive initiative in visiting all the flying units across a 20-nation AOR to bring back everyone’s focus on what was important and evaluate each unit on its flying safety and aircrew discipline culture. He appealed to each unit’s warrior spirit, refocused them on attention to detail, and highlighted our values and strength of character. He delivered the poignant message that demanded we hold each other accountable to be disciplined combat operators. This resonated with me because it demonstrated how important it is to set the right environment and culture when it comes to performing the important work that we do. When we send our personnel off to combat, we have ensured they are properly trained and in the right mindset to fight and win our nation’s wars. --Col. Kristen D. Thompson

Airmen value the technical craft commensurate with their profession. Airmen love working and fighting alongside others who do likewise, but they also hold to an individualized sense of obligation and opportunity. And Airmen respect flexibility and want the approval to adapt means as necessary in training and in warfighting. The Air Force warrior mindset is rooted in its heritage born from flying aircraft in war. As the Air Force’s mission sets expanded in the late early 21st century, the service’s warrior mindset expanded relatively unchanged into space and cyberspace. Today’s Air Force is once again focused on airpower operations, as the newest mission statement announcement observed: “Since the domain of space falls under the Space Force, the Air Force can now focus solely on airpower and maintain a sustained focus on core air domain missions.”[10] It will continue to do so by embracing its enduring warrior mindset.

Dr. Edwin H. Redman, Colonel, USAF (Retired), is Chair of the Department of Airpower and an Associate Professor of Military and Security Studies at the US Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College (ACSC). Dr. Redman is a command pilot with tours in each of the Air Force’s bomber aircraft. He served as an instructor pilot in the T-38, B-1 and B-2, and flew combat missions in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM in 2003 in the B-2. He is a graduate of the US Air Force Academy, ACSC, and the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS). Following SAASS, Dr. Redman attended Duke University, where he received his PhD in History. His last operational assignment was Deputy Commander, 509th Operations Group, Whiteman Air Force Base. He completed his active-duty service at Air University, holding several positions, including Director of Warfighting Education at the LeMay Center for Doctrine Development and Education, and Director of the Grand Strategy Seminar, Air War College. He retired from the Air Force in 2014 and joined Air University as a civilian professor in 2015. 

Textbox quotes from individual Air Force personnel collected and edited by Dr. Paul J. Springer as part of his study of leadership during the tenure of General David L. Goldfein.

Many thanks to the volunteer participants whose comments and experiences helped to shape the contours of this project: 

Air University’s ACTS “Disciples”

Lt. Col. Lyndsey Banks, CMSgt Jason Blair, TSgt Zachary Bennett, Col. Stephanie Boger, Lt. Col. Jose Crespo, Lt. Col. Christy Cruz Peeler, Col. Jerry Davisson, MSgt Ashley Evans, Lt. Col. Mitchell Foy, Maj. Ray Funke, CMSgt Steven Hart, Dr. Robert Hinck, Dr. John Hinck, CMSgt Joshua Lackey, Mr. Mark Logan, Lt. Col. William Mendel, Capt. Denny Miller, Ms. Rhonda Miller, TSgt Israel Navarro, Lt. Col. Amber Ortiz, SMSgt Joshua Penery, Lt. Col. Don Salvatore, Col. Eltressa Spencer, Dr. Susan Steen and the AY24 AU Resilience Research Task Force, Maj. Jonathan Tolman 

[1] Melvin G. Deaile, Always at War: Organizational Culture in Strategic Air Command, 1946-62 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016),  pg.16.

[2] Joshua Dewberry. “Air Force Unveils New Mission Statement,” 8 April 2021.

[3] Robert Westbrook, Why We Fought: Forging American Obligations in World War II (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Press, 2004).

[4] James Salter, Gods of Tin: The Flying Years (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2004), pg. 39.

[6] AFMAN 11-2T-38V3, 14 May 2020, pg. 5.

[7] Deaile, Always at War, pg. 17.

[8] Thomas P. Griffith, McArthur’s Airman: General George C. Kenney and the War in the Southwest Pacific (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998), pg. 59.

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