HOWARD WHEELDON FRAeS considers the Royal Air Forces' recently published conceptual component - 'Thinking to Win'- designed to return the service to the forefront of air power strategy leadership.

Will 'Thinking to Win' enable the RAF to exploit information-heavy, 'game-changing' platforms like the F-35? (Crown Copyright)  

To have any chance of achieving its objective strategy must be well thought out, agreed by all those involved in its formulation and be well communicated to those who will be responsible for delivering it. Over the past year the Government has, particularly through SDSR 2015 and the National Security Strategy, put innovation and prosperity agenda along with capability enhancement, increased efforts on cyber security and intelligence high up on the agenda. Government has become far more aware of the need to influence and to ensure that the arguments for ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power are fully embraced through foreign and security policy objectives. The military have also been charged with looking at all aspects of strategy to ensure that these are fit for purpose and in the case of the Royal Air Force this has led to the creation of a new and very interesting leadership strategy called ‘Thinking to Win’ (T2W).

Air power plays the most vital of all roles in defence and security in part due the speed that it can deploy and the flexibility it offers. Air superiority may “only be a means to and end” but as Air Marshal Sir John Slessor wrote in Air Power and Armies’ “it is the only sure way of achieving the means”. Slessor was suggesting that ‘air power itself is only as good as the strategy that determines its use’.

It is a need to constantly review strategy has caused the Air Force Board Standing Committee to even question whether the Conceptual Component element of RAF leadership strategy is still fit for purpose. Surprisingly, the answer that has emerged from the research done internally is that this is no longer in part deemed fit for purpose and that sitting alongside Doctrine and Principles of War, Conceptual Innovation has been considered now to be the least best understood aspect of the strategy by those that it is designed to influence. 

What is the conceptual component?


Could T2W lead to new thinking on to how to integrate manned and unmanned platforms? (BAE Systems) 

For those of you who managed to escape Staff College it will be helpful to perhaps remind of what the so-called Conceptual Component really is? To do this requires that the reader understands what in this particular context ‘doctrine’ means. Different views will no doubt be heard but from my aspect I suggest that for ‘defence’ today the answer is that doctrine should be seen as an outline of the broader philosophy and principles underpinning how defence is employed.

We are talking here of high-level and desired future characteristics of defence operation but get it right and you will have created an air power culture and structure of operational design that can be innovative; that can capitalise on all air power related developments, one that not only allows strategy to be better exploited but also one that provides a ‘Whole Force’ thinking culture, capacity and prowess. It is also one that can be free to challenge and be challenged before it becomes an accepted part of the overall process and structure. If it is able to fully target and embrace future state and vision and provide as it is intended to do, a focus for innovation and that can be articulated within powerful air power advocacy, ‘Thinking to Win’ has the power to reinvigorate RAF leadership strategy.

Conceptual Component is something that goes across all sections of the armed forces as opposed to just the RAF. In recent years the strategy has determined a concentration on policy and operational experience, the need for cross government and inter-agency cooperation and perhaps, a shift away from campaigning on Defence engagement and contingency. This is, I suppose, as much about understanding of competence just as much as it is about furthering doctrinal aims. The bottom line is to create ‘Whole Force’ strength, to assist in training of RAF personnel to produce best judgements, to assist in the better understanding of the utility of defence, hard and soft power and how all of these functions are used through deterrence, coercion and defence engagement. I might add that if done well they are also there to pave the way to educating the minds of future commanders

Inspiring innovation

New platforms bring new capabilities - but is the RAF conceptually equipped to exploit them fully? (GA-ASI)

So what this new ‘Thinking to Win” (T2W) programme is really attempting to do right across the RAF? It is primarily to reinvigorate thinking through a cultural change programme aimed at re-igniting the Conceptual Component. It is also about clarifying focus, inspiring innovation, asserting air power influence and equipping leaders with sufficient skills to drive through innovation. T2W is there to define, optimise and communicate RAF strategy and in my view, this is far more than being seen as yet another strategy narrative, it is a real strategy designed to clarify, equip, optimise and inspire.

The eight individual initiatives if T2W are based around having a common vision, training to win, driving innovation and change, supporting ideas, recognising talent, developing diverse thinking, finding new ways of applying air power and then finding ways to better promote them.

A smaller, more efficiently run RAF understands that it must listen and debate all issues and concepts that air power currently delivers and to ensure that leaders and future leaders are well trained to sustain and develop innovation within the Whole Force concept.

In its current state the ‘Conceptual Component’ one third of the RAF fighting power. This requires a constant flow of ideas to overcome new challenges as they are presented and T2W recognises that if the Royal Air Force is to continue to operate on a reactive basis there are dangers that unless it embraces change and finds better ways of communicating it risked becoming less relevant and being seen as out of touch with reality and increasingly ineffective.

Equally important is the realisation that T2W should be as much about demonstrating the quality of the decision making process, showing good leadership and recognising that it isn’t just the quality of output and delivery that impacts but also the importance of how people are requested to do whatever it is that they are required to do.

The Physical Component (people, machines and infrastructure) and the Moral Component (the courage and will to fight) go hand in hand with Conceptual Component (Innovation) which is clearly not as strong as it needs to be. The RAF knows that it has lacked an innovation culture for some time as it was forced to focus on cuts and that it has failed to capitalise on training and education as well as it should. Sometimes the structures and processes that have developed have unintended consequences in that they tend to stymie rather than promote innovation. There has perhaps been a lack of a clear goal that everyone can understand and can help to achieve. The bottom line is that the RAF has in recent years failed to champion Air Power as effectively as it needs to do.

At the tactical level the Conceptual Component is probably strongest when it is at its most reactive. At the operational and strategic levels, the Conceptual Component does need to be much stronger and be able to support, inform and make compelling cases for business or operational need. T2W has the potential to impact on all Royal Air Force trades and professions be they regular, reserve, contractor or indeed, civil servants.

Embracing new ideas

Chief of the Air Staff, ACM Sir Andrew Pulford outlined 'Thinking to Win' at DSEI in 2015.

Without a functioning Conceptual Component at the heart of what the RAF does today it will lacks the ability to promote the collective capability that Air Power offers. It is this that provides the basis of national defence and that, through a Whole Force concept and structure provides the opportunity to influence worldwide and better serve our national interest. T2W provides an opportunity for everyone to roll their sleeves up and be part of what it offer - change by embracing challenge, rewarding innovators and trumpeting of new ideas, concepts and better ways of doing things. Do that well and the RAF will be far better placed to confront and overcome future challenges. Fail and the effectiveness and relevance will diminish.

Sponsored by the Air Force Board Standing Committee and led by the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford personally, T2W represents an intention to re-ignite Whole Force innovation culture for a ‘Whole Force’. I suspect that a key aim of T2W has been built around a perceived need to ‘apply’ Air Power more effectively today and to think more imaginatively about the needs of tomorrow through an attempt to better clarify focus, inspire innovation and in better advocating Air Power influence. T2W is physical, moral and conceptual in its design and as I suggest, is intended to create a culture of innovation within the Whole Force and to applaud and encourage the thinking power and opinions from all individuals.

15 April