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Diversity, inclusion are tools for national defense, not buzzwords

  • Published
  • By Lt. Gen. Anthony Cotton, Deputy Commander, Air Force Global Strike Command

We live in a dynamically changing and increasingly complex global security environment. In order to maintain ourselves as the world’s leading Air Force, we must continue to adapt and prepare for any potential contingencies—in today’s highly competitive environment.

While present and future decisions on weapons systems, force posture and force employment will have their part to play in supporting the National Defense Strategy, so too will every member serving in the United States Air Force. It’s Airmen who drive our ability to adapt, it’s Airmen whose know-how and determination allow us to conduct warfighting, and as we push towards a more lethal and ready force, it is a diverse and inclusive force of Airmen that will help drive that end state. Diversity of thought, diversity of experience, and diversity of knowledge; will keep us competitive on the global stage.

During the time I served as Air University’s Commander and President, I had the opportunity to hear a lot of interesting conversations centered on diversity and inclusion. I quickly realized a team with more than one demographic represented tends to perform better, especially when it comes to being innovative and thinking about how to accomplish objectives differently. Groups with members from varied backgrounds tend to generate more ideas and encourage each other. The corporate world has already widely recognized diversity as a necessity in their recruitment and retention, and the Air Force is following suit.

While diversity can be seen as a sensitive or even divisive topic, Air Force leadership has come to view it as a warfighting imperative. Diversity is a necessity for how we do what we do. To that end, we welcome diversity and inclusion with an open, comprehensive discussion focused on more than just gender, race or ethnicity; this conversation includes personal life experiences, geographic background, socioeconomic background, cultural knowledge, education, language abilities and physical abilities, as well as philosophical and spiritual perspectives.

This compilation of identities contribute to the new and innovative ideas that are vitally important to our success as an Air Force. Collaboration and communication across our workforce is only enriched by the sharing of ideas and experiences by Airmen of various backgrounds; this will inform change.

The question that follows is how do we achieve these ends? To that I would say, start by reinforcing the need to widen our perspective and understanding what our less represented groups need as they navigate through the journey of military service. Then, give those same individuals opportunities to perform in order to be the influencers we need. In my 35 years of active-duty service, there is one thing I know for sure—you must be able to influence to make change.

Building those influencers of tomorrow requires empowering people to respect and encourage that which makes us different. It starts by maintaining a culture of dignity, respect and inclusivity.

Although I see them as vessels, African American History Month and Women’s History Month provide timely examples of why we consider these matters. Women became a permanent part of our service in 1948 when President Harry Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, but it wasn’t until 1976 that they were permitted to attend the service academies. Minorities in the Air Force underwent their own struggle, not receiving equal treatment until after the civil rights movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s, despite the armed services being desegregated in 1948. Even then, while women and minorities had been granted equal freedom to serve, having equal opportunity to succeed and greater representation would continue to take more time, bringing us to where we are now. We remember where we’ve been, so we have a clear idea of where we still need to go.

We have evolved as a force and look far different than in the years past. In 1950 the Air Force was barely over 1% female; now 21% of the force are women. In 1975 minority representation was 12.3% African American and 1% other (we did not even track ethnicity); today it’s nearly 15% African American, 15% Hispanic/Latino, and 4% Asian. While the make-up of the force has clearly changed, the same drive, innovation and boldness that lead to a separate air service remains, stemming now from a combination of different origins, backgrounds and religions. These figures are much more diverse than what I’ve seen before in my 35 years, both from an institutional level and as an African American officer; however, we still have a lot of work to do.

Normalizing diversity must be a priority, it should not be sensitive or divisive. In the face of an increasingly challenging global environment, it’s going to take diverse Airmen with different perspectives, to provide solutions to prevail in tomorrow’s fight. It’s going to take leaders fostering an environment of diversity and inclusion, seeing strength in differences and recognizing their own biases to ensure each Airmen reaches their full potential. The Air Force represents a diverse society of incredibly talented people, and if this talent is allowed to flourish, there is no limit to what our Airmen can do together.

Lt. Gen. Anthony Cotton is the Deputy Commander of Air Force Global Strike Command and Air Forces Strategic-Air, U.S. Strategic Command, located at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. The command is responsible for providing strategic deterrence, global strike capability, and combat support to USSTRATCOM and other geographic combatant commands. Lt. Gen. Cotton entered the Air Force through the ROTC program in 1986 where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Prior to his current assignment, Lt. Gen. Cotton served as the Commander and President of Air University, Air Education and Training Command, Maxwell AFB, Alabama.