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NEWS | May 12, 2008

The road less traveled

By Lt. Col. John Steele 457th Airlift Squadron commander

At the end of his poem "The Road Not Taken" the American poet Robert Frost exhorts us to break away from the herd with the oft quoted

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 

There has been a lot of discussion recently about creative thinking and finding innovative solutions to today's problems. We often hear catch phrases like "thinking outside the box" or "breaking paradigms" which are just another way of saying "look for the road less traveled." 

In a recent letter to all Airmen, signed by Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley, recent comments by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates on this subject were put into context. Secretary Gates "...challenged his entire department and the leaders of every service 'to think out of the box' in continuous pursuit of better ways to deliver what is needed for the joint force in harm's way." Secretary Wynne and General Moseley went on to further state "Every Airman should take Secretary Gates' comments to heart and strive to find more and better ways for the Air Force to contribute to the War on Terror." Is this a new concept for our Air Force? Abso-lutely not! But it is one that bears repeating, lest we continue to tread on the well worn path. 

From our earliest days, even before we became a separate service, we have had maverick thinkers amongst us. The legendary Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell was a strong air power advocate that proved to the world that bombs from a plane could sink a ship when in July 1921 the unsinkable ex-German World War I battleship, Ostfriesland, was sent to a watery grave. Later, when the Navy dirigible Shenandoah crashed in a storm, killing 14 of the crew, General Mitchell issued a statement accusing senior leaders in the Army and Navy of incompetence and "almost treasonable administration of the national defense." Having crossed a line, Mitchell was court-martialed, found guilty of insubordination, and suspended from Active Duty for five years without pay. However, his air power theories would eventually become doctrine and the B-25 would carry the name "Mitchell"; the only American military aircraft type that has been named after a specific person. 

Another Air Force free-thinker who sought to challenge the status-quo was Col. John Boyd. Colonel Boyd, along with a civilian mathematician by the name of Thomas Christie, developed the Energy-Maneuverability theory of aerial combat. The work Colonel Boyd did with the F-15 led to the development of one of the world's premiere air-to-air fighters and his "Fighter Mafia" conceived the FXX Light Weight Fighter program which ultimately produced both the F-16 and F/A-18.
He is also credited with largely developing the strategy for the invasion of Iraq in the first Gulf War. His briefing, Patterns of Conflict, had such an impact on Rep. Richard Cheney (later to become secretary of defense and our current vice president) that Colonel Boyd was called back from retirement to aid in the invasion planning. 

The Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action Loop is also a brainchild of Colonel Boyd's that was originally a theory of achieving success in air-to-air combat. Finally, Colonel Boyd was a classic "glass breaker" who was known to stand in his doorway at the Pentagon screaming "Out there-business as usual! In here-thunder and lightning!"
So what are you doing to find alternate solutions to the problems we face today or may face tomorrow? We find ourselves in the midst of the Long War with a real need to recapitalize our fleet. However, we also find ourselves working under ever increasing budgetary pressures and energy costs that are going through the roof. Sticking with the same old processes, doing business the same way you've always done it, will most certainly lead to stagnation and unresponsiveness. 

I encourage you to adopt some of the nonconformist attitudes of those that have gone before us who made significant contributions to our country by non-conventional thinking. I am in no way encouraging anyone to become a rogue, or violate any of our military traditions, but rather to seek the road less traveled and see where it leads.