The Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space & Cyber Conference, recently held at the Gaylord National Resort in National Harbor, Maryland, prominently bills itself as the “leading professional development event for Air Force and Space Force officers, enlisted members, civilians, veterans and defense industry leaders and representatives.”
Over three days, 47 public addresses and panels, a technology exhibition and a multitude of invitation-only side meetings, the independent 501(c)(3) charitable organization has indeed cultivated quite the occasion for industry dialogue and military officer speechmaking. But are the speeches unified around a coherent goal and agreed-upon audience, and does the format lend itself to the “professional development” publicity? For the association, and the Department of the Air Force, it is time to go back to the drawing board with these events.
If the intended audience and professional development-related messages were agreed upon by the multitude of flag officers on their platforms, then one would expect a greater degree of consistency from speech to speech. From “manifestos” intended to rally airmen and Guardians to a greater concentration on — and enthusiasm for — air power-delivered lethality, to guided panel discussions intended to showcase industry leaders alongside staff decision-makers, there was clearly an intent to speak directly with the military professionals and their counterparts in the industrial base. These audiences, and the services’ command echelons staking out specific goals and long-term objectives, make good sense within the professional development paradigm — even if the cross-cutting, take-home message was often confused.
But there was a third audience, on frequent occasion explicitly named, and at others implied given the stage: the Congress. In the shadow of a looming continuing resolution and fiscal 2024 presidential budget request, bolstering a force that is “getting smaller, getting older, becoming less capable, or all three,” and bluntly “trying to get resources” were clear messages aimed at the appropriators just up the river. This is to be expected; ‘tis the season and the location, and even in accordance with the core mission of the AFA.
Year on year, the organization’s bread and butter remains an advocacy mission “to favorably shape policy and resourcing decisions.” The second and third named pillars to the AFA mission are based on public education and support to the total force. If this annual conference were grounded on the central organizing concept of professional development, one would expect the education pillar to be most prominent. It is not.
A multitude of professional development opportunities are out there for the serious military professional. Applying such a banner label to this conference simply strains credulity. It is time to reconsider the fundamental format of this annual affair.
First, the Department of the Air Force, as the partner which is responsible for the content of most of the current speeches and the stewarding of the military participants’ time and attention, must be central to the solution. It should start with identifying whether the forum benefits from all the myriad flag officers’ scattered perceptions of who exactly is in the assembled physical and virtual crowds, and what they need to hear. A narrower set of official speeches — by the secretary, undersecretary and chiefs — would be easier to synchronize and deliver for effect.
Next, with the time surrendered back to the assembled multitudes, bona fide professional development may be realized by pinning the lapel mics on brilliant uniformed or civilian airmen and Guardians who have conducted research and authored important works over the preceding year. Air University — and other joint professional military education organizations — already host multiple annual conferences that may be used to identify the most compelling original pieces. The year’s best are literally waiting in the wings. Industry experts may also be loosed to speak more than an inch deep about those trends and opportunities identified within their spaces. The department could work with AFA and put out a call for papers or presentations from industry on a discrete series of topics in the months leading up to the conference, then collaborate to nominate the best candidates for more detailed, live seminars.
Lastly, should these or other needed conference modifications not be explicitly in the works by mid-next year, department wing and delta commanders should strongly consider downsizing their accompanying temporary duty contingents. Numbered Air Forces, major and field commands and higher echelons will likely still see benefits to the forum — especially through their pre-coordinated side meetings — but the wider cast of tactical leaders and operators should alternatively be sent to more focused, actual professional development opportunities. There are also exceptionally complex projects to be supported, and connections made, over at the headquarters — should travel to the national capital region be a high priority.
AFA’s annual Air, Space & Cyber Conference is quite the opportunity for assembling a crowd, delivering speeches to set direction, and creating time and space for industry and government conversations. The advocacy pillar of its host, however, along with the event’s timing and location, have allowed the visible forum to slide unmistakably towards a congressionally facing, make-the-case-for-resources focus. It may yet realize its stated professional development aim, but not without a significant break with tradition. Now’s the time. We can do better.
Maj. Mitch Fossum is a staff officer at Headquarters, U.S. Air Force. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
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