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Not every innovation requires new equipment or technology

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- If you asked a majority of Air Force leaders, they would tell you that innovation is critically important to the past and future of the U.S. Air Force and the Department of Defense as a whole.

Innovation is making changes by introducing new methods, ideas and products. It’s the things Airmen do to improve what they do for the Air Force at their level. Innovation can, and in many cases does, come in the form of streamlining processes to save time and money.

“I was impressed that not every innovation we saw at Vance Air Force Base involved a new piece of kit or technology,” said Brig. Gen. James Sears, during a recent visit.

Sears, the Director of Plans, Programs and Requirements at Headquarters, Air Education and Training Command, was the graduation speaker for Joint Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 18-12.

“Don’t get me wrong, moving our outdated technology into the future is important work, but seeing how Vance can cut training time for local air traffic controllers in half without anything new is very impressive,” said Sears.

Innovation is the agile culture that allows Airmen to develop the creative confidence and self-assurance required to come up with creative ideas and the courage to experiment. Often times, Airmen that have the opportunity to explore new ideas will come up with the ways to innovate their job.

“Those Airmen will develop into commanders and senior enlisted leaders who have the confidence to allow their Airmen to explore,” said Sears. “They will also be leaders who are not afraid to make decisions and take calculated risks to make the mission happen faster, better and cheaper.”

Sears is responsible for producing AETC’s long range strategy and converting that strategy into resources using the planning, programming and requirements processes. They work to determine where AETC and Force Development are going, determine the requirements to get there, and then track how the command is doing on that journey.

“My goal is to take the Force Development strategy we have developed and use that to ensure commanders at all levels are using the concepts and thoughts we’ve already discussed to move forward with innovation and improving recruiting, training, and education in AETC,” said Sears.

“We want to ensure that Force Development, the Continuum of Learning and the entire life of an Airman is what AETC is thinking about so that we aren’t doing innovation just to train faster, but rather to get Airmen to their combat units faster, at less cost and better than before,” the general said.

However, not all innovation is beneficial to the success of the Air Force. Simply inventing things and using new technology will not increase the speed, quality or quantity of work produced. It is how technology is used that counts.

“I like to think more about how we use those tools to get Airmen to their combat units faster than we did before,” said Sears. “To go back to Vance’s improvements in training local tower controllers; if you now bring virtual-reality training devices into their upgrade training but you still execute the same 5-level upgrade training program, have you further innovated or moved the needle in the Continuum of Learning?”

What today says you need a certain number of hours in the simulator to move forward in your upgrade training can change to simply demonstrating the competencies expected before moving to the tower. An aggressive learner will spend more time learning away from the formal training environment and be better when evaluated, and will move through training faster, said Sears.

“An important part of innovation and change is ensuring it doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” he said. “Collaboration is imperative in order to affect the desired changes in culture we seek in the Air Force today.”

A lot of challenges have prevented changes to Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training for a long time. In the past the Air Force has had great success training pilots. It can be very difficult to walk away from success on the scale it has had for decades in undergraduate pilot training. However the Air Force is now willing to change its SUPT course.

“The fact that we were able to significantly change how we develop and produce military aviators for the world’s greatest Air Force without resistance from the rest of the Air Force is a great sign,” said Sears.

“I think that when the rest of AETC saw that, it led to the innovation we now see across recruiting, flying and technical training, and education. Leadership really means it when they say to innovate and take risk. The momentum is now on the side of innovation and change and I don’t see it going back,” said Sears.

Airmen and commanders should feel empowered to take risks, as long as the risks are educated, legal, moral and ethical, the general said. “Where are the places we can innovate? Where can we take prudent risk that might lead to big gains? If the risk does not end the way we expected, what did we learn? How do we try again? We should all be thinking this way every day,” said Sears.

“I was very impressed with what I had the good fortune to see in my short time at Vance and I look forward to much more in the future,” said Sears.