Cover: Human Aspects of Air Force Operations

Human Aspects of Air Force Operations

The Roles of Social, Cultural, and Political Knowledge and Skills in the Full Spectrum of Multidomain Operations

Published Nov 30, 2020

by Kirsten M. Keller, David E. Thaler, Kathleen Reedy, Caroline Baxter, Ryan Haberman, William Mackenzie, Miriam Matthews, Phillip Padilla, Yuliya Shokh


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Research Questions

  1. Is there a precedent and need for a human domain or alternative form of doctrine for conventional Air Force operations?
  2. What is the current state of human-focused efforts and related doctrine within the Air Force?
  3. Are there similar concepts or existing models for human-focused efforts in the broader U.S. military and international partners that would be relevant for the Air Force?
  4. What are the training and education needs in the Air Force related to human-focused capabilities?

Countering emerging threats is not based solely on defeating a nation-state's military forces by conventional, kinetic means. Fundamentally, these threats are met by understanding and manipulating the human aspects that drive the adversary's ideological narrative within the target population. Understanding how local populations and foreign governments, and partner and adversary military forces, will read and react to different stimuli is essential to operating in the competition space. Consequently, it is important that the U.S. military understand the human aspects of military operations; or the social, cultural, physical, informational, and psychological elements that determine partner nations' and adversaries' motivations, thinking, influence, activities, and recruitment.

The special operations community has focused on leveraging human-focused capabilities, but the conventional Air Force has yet to fully embrace human aspects of military operations. In this report, the authors explore whether there is a need for a joint warfighting domain focused on human aspects of military operations, and they consider how sociocultural knowledge and skills related to human aspects of war could be better integrated into conventional Air Force multi-domain operations. The authors offer insights into how the Air Force can institutionally prioritize human aspects in its culture, improve the human-aspects–related knowledge and skills of its airmen, and develop regional expertise. The authors conclude that, instead of creating a separate human domain of operations, the services and the Joint Force should focus on better integrating human aspects of military operations.

Key Findings

Efforts focused on establishing a new warfighting domain in human aspects of military operations have never gained traction

  • There is hesitation about the theoretical need for a distinct human domain, and there are concerns regarding the constraints on resources that would make developing a domain challenging.
  • It is more important for each service to recognize its own need for such capabilities and develop them, even if done so in concert with each other.

Human aspects of military operations are considered to some degree in Air Force doctrine and activities, but the concept is not systematically institutionalized

  • Existing capabilities related to human aspects of military operations failed to meet needed capabilities in several areas.
  • There is no unifying terminology regarding human-aspects–related knowledge and skills.
  • At the operational level, a lack of coordination or systematization leads to gaps in education and training for relevant career fields (e.g., intelligence, cyber, and space).

The Air Force lacks baseline understanding and integration of human aspects of military operations, as well as focused education and training efforts in certain specializations

  • Developing and integrating these capabilities does not have to come at the expense of developing airpower, cyber expertise, and space expertise.
  • Not all airmen need to be experts in understanding the human aspects of military operations.
  • Interviewees suggested that, if the military does not take into consideration sociocultural understandings, it will have lost sight of the fact that warfare is intrinsically a human endeavor, and it will not be effective.


  • Develop Air Force guidance that reflects the Joint Concept for Human Aspects of Military Operations, a concept of operations developed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that offers a framework to enable the military services to incorporate human-focused capabilities into their training, planning, and organizational culture.
  • Better integrate human aspects into Air Force strategic planning and operations.
  • Cultivate security-cooperation skills within the Air Force.
  • Develop mission assessment plans that provide insight into the effects of the human aspects of military operations.
  • Give airmen (officers and enlisted) an introduction to human aspects in military operations early in their careers.
  • Institutionalize required human-aspects curricula at all levels of air education and training.
  • Identify a centralized institution to take responsibility for human-aspects education coordination.
  • Better incorporate nonkinetic effects into education for planners.
  • Institutionalize cross-cultural skills training for a wider variety of personnel.
  • Consider developing a special experience identifier for regional expertise at the enlisted level.
  • Consider aligning information-operations officers and enlisted personnel by geographic region.
  • Consider developing a specialized capability of reservists with thematic or regional expertise.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by Air Force Special Operations Command and conducted within the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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