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Critical Thinking In The United States Air Force

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Imagine an even more hard-core version of John Rambo flying an F-15 Fighter Jet, otherwise, considered the undisputed king of the skies. This Air Force pilot is flying over cities with $1,000,000 worth of missiles on board and his mission is to carefully deliver it to an Airbase 1,000 miles away. On his way, he encounters a large mountain in his direct path. The Combat Systems Officer did not account for the land mass, and had drawn on the map a direct path through the center of the peak. As the pilot draws near the mountain with no alternative path drawn out, he must use his skills of critical thinking to figure how to strategically maneuver around the landmass and find his way back on the course to complete his mission. Many readers also might not know exactly what a “CSO” is that was mentioned above, but can critically think using context clues, to figure out the CSO’s job it to plan the pilot’s route out. There will be times when we airmen mess up and the Air Force must count on their people to use critical thinking to pick up the slack when time is of the essence. If Officers in the United States Air Force do not have the skill of critical thinking, the missions that have been assigned to each Officer to strategically and safely complete will not be completed successfully and airmen and resources will be at a loss.

Since before 1997, the Air Force has identified critical thinking as a key skill, yet the Air Force has not established any metrics to provide a standard assessment of critical thinking skills that their Officers have. The 2015 Air Force Future Operating Concept (AFFOC) plainly states that the Air Force must “recruit and assess individuals with the demonstrated potential for critical thinking” to successfully fight and win (missions) in contested locations. If you were to ask an Officer in the United States Air Force if he or she believes all Officers have the skill of critical thinking, his or her answer will be “yes”. I find it ironic that the skill is at such a high demand in the Air Force, yet there is no statistic measure in place to test it. It is difficult to critically think, which is many people do not possess the skill. It is much easier to form an opinion, for opinions require no effort, and they rest solely on personal belief that in insufficient in providing absolute certainty. There are dangers in accepting someone else’s opinion. As a cadet in AFROTC who has taken hours of classes and graduated training, I can personally vouch for the Air Force that they highly value Officers who are capable of thinking for themselves and do not blindly follow leadership. Unlike Enlisted personnel in the USAF, an incoming Officer must have already obtained a college degree. This does not mean Enlisted personnel are not intelligent, the USAF is known as “The world’s greatest air force” because the standard is high for everyone. A lot of enlisted personnel also obtain multiple degrees throughout their career, however, Officers are held at a higher standard and are expected to lead the Enlisted airmen from the very beginning of their career. Because Officers are placed in high leadership positions, it’s essential that they acquire all the critical thinking skills, which include but aren’t limited to the skill of inference, interpretation, and deduction. In her book, Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom, award-winning author Bell Hooks states that “The heartbeat to critical thinking is the longing to know-to understand how life works.” She believes critical thinking involves “first discovering the who, what, when, where, and how things-” and this is required to truly learn, not to be confused with memorizing. It makes sense that Officers are required to complete their college degree first, for critical thinking is key to education in the classroom, and future Officers need to show that they are capable.

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One of the biggest mission failures known in Air Force history took place 1980, and is known as Operation Eagle Claw. This operation was a failed US hostage attempt in Iran, due to problems in Command and Control, Operations Security, and failure of equipment. Operations security failed to preserve information among participants in operation, Command and Control didn’t have clear lines of authority, and the preferred equipment for the mission was not available. While these problems are to each their own, there are Officers in charge of every dynamic and too many Officers in leadership positions failed to adequately preform efficiently. A mixture of lack of critical thinking, miscommunication, equipment failures, and a goodly measure of bad luck led to the failure of a mission that the servicemen deserved to win. Each factor was conflicting and led to decisions made and actions taken that were not in the best interests of the mission. Everything about this incomplete mission went against the Air Force mantra, “People first, mission always.”

Consequently, the US faced the death of servicemen, US hostages were left behind, and aircrafts that carried ammunitions were lost. Although the mission failed, it left many lessons that were applied to later operations and extensive training to later airmen to make better decisions.

The concept behind everything is critical thinking is a fundamental premise in the Air Force, especially as an Officer. It would do the USAF good if they found an even more organized, strategic way to implement a system, ensuring all Officers meet their standard, and acquire all skills necessary to prevent mission failures. Missions are successful more than not, so it’s clear we have improved tremendously as a military throughout the years. A good word of advice to future Officers in the USAF, from a renowned American Novelist who is well-informed on the importance of critical thinking, David Foster Wallace says in his speech This is Water, be “just a little less arrogant and have critical awareness about yourself and your certainties”. That thought will take you a great distance, not only in your career, but in life.


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