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Research Questions

  1. How does the Air Force define the term professionalism?
  2. What can be learned from past professionalism efforts in the U.S. military?
  3. In the absence of metrics intended specifically to measure professionalism, what can we learn about the current state of professionalism from existing data sources?
  4. How can key themes from the literature on organizational culture and change inform the effort to improve Air Force professionalism?
  5. Based on the findings from these questions, what can the Air Force do to increase professionalism?

This report takes a broad approach to answering the overarching question, "How can the U.S. Air Force best improve the professionalism of its personnel?" The authors examine the definition of professionalism and what it means in the Air Force. They then look at past actions the Air Force, the U.S. Department of Defense, and other U.S. military services have taken dating back to the last substantial Air Force initiatives related to professionalism. In the absence of objective metrics specifically intended to measure professionalism, the authors examined statistics of cases in which professionalism was lacking, as evidenced by documented violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. For subjective metrics, the authors looked at trends in attitudes related to professionalism from surveys of civilian federal employees and uniformed service members. They then examined a selection of courses and seminars to understand the Air Force learning opportunities currently being offered and how they relate to the Air Force strategic road map for professionalism and instructional practices more conducive to building Air Force professionalism. Finally, the authors examined the literature on organizational culture and change to identify how the Air Force might effect changes on this dimension. The report offers key findings and conclusions from these investigations and provides recommendations for further actions to support the effort to enhance professionalism across the Air Force.

Key Findings

The Definition of Air Force Professionalism Needs Clarification

  • The definition of Air Force professional, in its use of the term Airman, fails to distinguish between civilian and uniformed members of the Air Force.
  • There is little shared understanding of the meaning of Air Force professionalism.

Past Professionalism Efforts Reveal Patterns

  • Professionalism efforts varied over time. Lower intensity of military conflict and public attention to ethical violations were associated with the presence and timing of professionalism efforts.

Reports of Ethical Violations Reveal Positive and Negative Trends

  • For UCMJ offenses, the Air Force was generally similar to the other services, but since 2005, it has had lower rates of courts martial and nonjudicial punishments.
  • However, complaints under UCMJ Article 138 increased in the Air Force, while declining in other services.

Attitude Surveys Reveal Items of Concern

  • Status of Forces Survey data revealed more than one-third of uniformed military did not agree that the military's values are their own. Responses from Air Force members were slightly lower than those of the other services.

Current Learning Opportunities Vary in Relevance to Professionalism Goals

  • Limited alignment between the objectives of current learning activities and the goals stated in the strategic road map for professionalism suggest that more work may be needed to establish a common understanding of the meaning of Air Force professionalism among Air Force educators and trainers.

Improving Professionalism Requires Several Key Ingredients

  • A sense of urgency, cultural leadership, communication, empowerment, and measurement are important to the Air Force's efforts to improve professionalism.


  • Actively promote a clear definition of what professionalism means for Air Force personnel to create a shared understanding of behavioral expectations.
  • Ensure that Air Force senior leaders consistently embrace and hold themselves and others accountable to the institution's standards and expectations for professionalism — regardless of media exposure and/or level of military activity.
  • Establish a sense of urgency for enhancing professionalism by increasing the visibility, engagement, and communication of senior leaders on the topic to reinforce its importance within Air Force culture.
  • Establish goals and standards for learning opportunities intended to foster professionalism.
  • Establish a dashboard of professionalism metrics to support ongoing monitoring of progress and needs.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by the vice commander of U.S. Air Force Air Education and Training Command and conducted within the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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