DAF Fellows program develops leaders with broader, deeper strategic perspectives

  • Published
  • By Phil Berube
  • Air University Public Affairs

Even before Lt. Col. Cindy Dawson graduated from the Australian Command and Staff College, she knew she wanted to continue cultivating her interest in foreign affairs.

After graduating and earning the distinction of “political-military affairs strategist” from the school “down under,” the former commander of a tanker squadron and director of the innovation office at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington, pursued her interests by applying for a fellowship through the Department of the Air Force Fellows office at Air University.

Dawson was accepted into the National Defense Fellows affiliation and has been working as a policy advisor for the U.S. Department of State Bureau of African Affairs since August 2022. Specifically, she’s advising on the continent’s southern region and on the “cross-cutting” issues of cybersecurity and women’s role in peace and security, furthering the U.S. government's Women, Peace and Security strategies.  

“I had very little exposure to the Africa ‘area of responsibility’ previously and wanted to expand my awareness,” said Dawson, who has a master’s in cyber operations with a focus in security and warfare. “And I’m passionate about increasing the impact women have in society. So, when the African Affairs office of Regional Peace and Security offered me this portfolio, it seemed like a tailor-made opportunity.”

Dawson's national defense fellowship with the Department of State is one of the many fellowship programs managed by the DAF Fellows office under Air War College.

Currently, the program is hosting 148 fellows at 53 institutions. The fellows represent the total force: active Air Force and Space Force, Guard, Reserve and civilians. The institutions include some of the nation’s most-prestigious universities and think tanks, national research laboratories, government agencies, Capitol Hill and the White House.

“The DAF Fellows program enables competitively selected, highly qualified officers, civilians and senior enlisted leaders to gain an in-depth education in national security policy,” said Lt. Col. Dwight Rabe, director of the DAF Fellows Program. Rabe and his team manage the program from the Air University Liaison Office at the Pentagon and Air War College.

And the competition is tight to get a fellowship slot.

To be considered for a slot, officer applicants indicate their preference of eligible fellowship through the service’s “Talent Market Place.” Their preferences are seen by the Deliberate Development Education Board while conducting their selection process. Annually, about the top 2% of intermediate and senior developmental education applicants across the Department of the Air Force are selected, said Rabe.

Civilians or senior enlisted members interested in fellowship programs are encouraged to work with their Air Force Personnel Center career field functional managers.

The department has been offering fellowships in some capacity since 1958. The fellowships typically last 10-12 months, and a few fellowships last up to 18 months. Once a fellowship is completed, the member is usually earmarked to a joint or departmental, political-military affairs staff duty or command position.

“The Department of the Air Force benefits from the unique type of strategic leadership fellows can offer,” said Rabe. “Especially in the immediate years following their immersion in a non-Department of Defense organization.”

Conversely, the fellows, he said, gain a “unique, world-class education as they have the fellowship year to pursue their curiosity in relevant national security issues.”

Pursuing an interest in foreign affairs is what propelled Dawson to apply for her fellowship. She’ll be putting what she’s learned at the State Department to practice this summer at her next assignment on the Pentagon staff as a strategic planner focused on the north and west Africa regions in the Middle East and Africa Strategy, Plans and Program Directorate.

“This has been a fascinating opportunity to understand not only how foreign policy is developed but also how it is implemented across the interagency through a whole-of-government approach,” she said.

A major goal of the fellows program is developing leaders with broad skill sets and competencies in regard to perspectives of defense policy, strategic issues, civil-military affairs and emerging and future technologies.

“Developing senior leaders like Dawson with a strategic understanding of international security and defense and the ability to analyze and evaluate national and international security policies is a key component of the fellows program,” said Rabe.

To read about specific fellowships, interested applicants can review the annual Officer Developmental Program Description Guide, which can be accessed through the myPers website.