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Air Force identity, symbol in transition

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman A.J. Bosker
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs
As the Air Force continues its transition to the expeditionary aerospace force, it is focusing its identity to help with recruiting and retention in the new millennium.

As part of this effort, officials said they are working to establish a single, compelling theme and symbol to represent the Air Force to its members and the public.

"We want to ensure our core identity is part of our culture and is understood by our own people and the citizens we serve," said Gen. Michael E. Ryan, Air Force chief of staff. "As we enter the 21st century, our identity - who we are, what we do and what we believe - will represent both our heritage and our future.

"We know who we are and what we do," he said. "We want others to know, and we want them to support our Air Force."

Secretary of the Air Force Whit Peters said, "We know Air Force men and women take great pride in what they do. Our identity effort crystallizes what they're thinking. It will foster unity in the Air Force and help the American public understand the worthy work we do - from fighting the nation's wars to peacekeeping to humanitarian relief."

How is the Air Force determining how to express its identity? "By doing a lot of research," Col. Ron Rand, Air Force director of public affairs, explained.

With the help of a private corporate identity firm, Siegel & Gale, the Air Force spent the past year conducting research among the service and the public to capture the common elements of its identity that have great meaning to bind its people together.

The Air Force committed approximately $150,000 to research internal and external audiences to determine current understanding and beliefs held about the Air Force, and approximately $655,000 to hire Siegel & Gale to help interpret the research and ensure its identity is effectively communicated to Air Force members and potential recruits.

"Since last February, we've conducted seven surveys, held 68 focus groups and interviewed 13 retired four-star generals and 110 other people," Col. Rand said. "We've taken input from about 10,000 people. Of this number, 7,500 were enlisted members, officers, and civilians in the active force, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve. The other 2,500 were members of the general public."

This extensive research was used to find strengths and weaknesses in Air Force identity, Col. Rand said. "We found that our people generally feel allegiance to the unit they belong to and to their job, more than they feel part of one big organization."

Research also showed that instead of one unifying theme, the Air Force has many different ways of expressing its identity, he said. In addition, there was little consistency in the visual representation of the Air Force.

"If you look at our base welcome signs, you don't get as much a sense of the Air Force as you do of the units behind the gates," he said. "The same applies to our aircraft, our newspapers and home pages, and even our uniforms.

"Unless you have really good eyes and can read the U.S. Air Force tape on someone's battle dress uniform, you may not know what service he or she represents," he said. "As for our aircraft, which are seen by millions of people, the tail markings tend to represent the wing and the command. You have to look pretty hard to see U.S. Air Force on our aircraft."

To overcome these inconsistencies, Siegel & Gale identified the four prevailing themes that emerged from the research: individual achievement, intelligence and technology, core values, and mission. They recommended the focus of the identity be the vital mission the Air Force performs around the world, because it was the theme that surfaced with the most passion throughout the research. The other three themes will support the mission focus, Col. Rand said.

In characterizing the mission, Siegel & Gale concluded the Air Force is a world-class, mission-ready organization. From this, they recommended the theme "World Ready." They also devised a symbol that captured both the heritage and future of the Air Force. These were presented to Air Force leaders in November. After much discussion, the secretary and chief of staff asked that more development work be done on both the theme and the symbol.

While theme alternatives are still in development, the proposed symbol updates the Hap Arnold wings and star with a more modern, angular design.

"Many people believe the Hap Arnold emblem is the official Air Force symbol, but it isn't," Col. Rand said. "We don't have an official symbol, and never have had one. With the transition to the EAF and a new millennium, our leadership decided the timing is right to modernize our identity and give us an official symbol which will preserve the heritage of the Arnold wings."

During research, Air Force and public audiences saw various meanings in the new design.

"Most saw an eagle in flight and a medal of valor," he said. "Enlisted members saw their stripes and officers related to the star. Air Force people and civilians alike identified the new symbol with the Air Force's leading edge, aerospace mission.

Don't expect to see changes throughout the Air Force immediately, according to Col. Rand. "There are no final decisions on any of this yet," said Col. Rand. "We're still working through all the options on the development of the theme, the use of the symbol, and the implementation of both.

"There is no intent to repaint the fleet or change all our base signs overnight," Gen. Ryan said. "When we reach a final decision on our identity, we're going to try it on for awhile as we develop a plan to roll it out with minimal disruption and cost."

"We're trying to encapsulate the essence of what it means to be in the Air Force," Secretary Peters said. "The Air Force is a wonderful organization. It offers extraordinary opportunities beyond the monetary and the educational benefits that we have been using in recruiting.

"The Air Force is a fast-paced, fun, tough, and rewarding environment. It's about teamwork, patriotic service, and belonging to a world-class organization ready to respond anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. That's what we're trying to communicate. My hope is that this identity effort will do that."