The Air Force must be thinking of new ways to innovate over the next decade or two, to make sure it’s ready to win a new war, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright said Thursday.

“Some of you in this room will take to war in 10 to 20 years,” Wright said in his address to the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium. “So, we have to think about the technology and the innovation that we need 10 to 15 to 20 years from now. We have to start thinking about it and start building it right now.”

But airmen have to feel like it’s OK to fail as they try to come up with new, innovative ideas, Wright said. If they don’t have that freedom to fail, he said, they won’t take risks and step outside their comfort zone.

“Do you have a culture in your organization that allows airmen to fail?” Wright asked leaders in the audience. “That’s how we get there. Creative thinking. We have so many right airmen in our ranks that are just waiting to provide us ideas, innovative concepts, that are also waiting to be disruptive.”

Wright then displayed an image from the horror film “The Shining,” portraying Jack Nicholson frozen to death in the snow to illustrate the problem of what he called “the frozen middle” ― airmen who don’t feel free to step forward with their ideas due to tradition or culture.

Wright said that one of the most common questions he’s asked by airmen is, “Chief, how can we continue to do more with less?”

But Wright said he responds by asking what he thinks is a better question: “How can we do less, do it better, do it faster, and be more efficient, be more lethal, and, ultimately, create a more ready and lethal joint fighting force?”

He singled out Tech Sgt. Jeff Curtin, a public affairs photographer at Hurlburt Field, Florida, who came up with a new way to use 360-degree video to enhance flight training at Air Force Special Operations Command, as an example of innovation.

“This is what happens when we are allowed to be innovative,” Wright said. “How many of you honestly believe ... you have taken advantage of all the Tech Sgt. Curtins in your organizations? I’m asking you to help me to help them get to yes.”

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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