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The Culture of US Air Force Innovation: A Historical Case Study of the Predator Program

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

This study shows how the organizational culture of the US Air Force (USAF) shaped — and was shaped by — innovation in the Predator program. Current literature on UAV innovation has begun to question the conventional wisdom, captured in Col. Thomas Ehrhard’s 2000 doctoral dissertation, that USAF culture has minimal impact on UAV innovation, and to the extent that it matters it is a positive influence. This thesis aims to get to the bottom of the debate about the role of USAF culture in UAV innovation by exploring the nature of the mutually-­‐shaping relationship between USAF culture and the Predator program and how that relationship changed over time.
With the delivery of the last Predator to the USAF in 2011, this famous aircraft has become a part of history, yet it is still operational and its story is still recent enough to allow for the possibility of conducting over 60 interviews with individuals directly involved in the Predator program. Triangulating these interviews with sources inside and outside the USAF, as well as recently declassified historical accounts, official USAF correspondence, and secondary sources, this thesis provides a data-­‐rich analysis of the evolving relationship between USAF culture and the Predator program. It reveals new details on the relative roles of the USAF versus other actors in spurring innovations in the Predator program; it shows how the USAF’s enduring cultural tendency to favor manned aircraft over other technologies has slowed UAV innovation; and it demonstrates the importance of shifting perceptions of strategic contexts, visionary leaders, and USAF identity in mediating cultural attitudes toward UAV innovation. By revisiting the relationship between USAF culture and UAV innovation 16 years after Col. Ehrhard’s study, this thesis challenges his minimalist view of cultural influence and calls for further study into the relationship between USAF culture and UAV innovation.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date2016


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