AF Reservist is leading scholar on Chinese military

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Timm Huffman
  • Headquarters Individual Reservist Readiness and Integration Organization

Forty-six weeks out of the year, Oriana Skylar Mastro goes to work along the banks of the Potomac River as an assistant professor of security studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

For the other six weeks of the year, she is Captain Mastro, an Air Force Reserve Individual Mobilization Augmentee assigned to Pacific Air Force, as a political military affairs strategist.

The Airman, who holds a doctorate in politics from Princeton University, said there is a symbiotic relationship between her two careers.

“Originally when I joined, the conventional wisdom was that my civilian career was ruined - the academic and military paths do no tend to go well together,” said Mastro. “But now, after over seven years, I'm happy to say that those fears were unwarranted.”

The Chinese military and security policy expert wasn’t always interested in East Asian studies. When she first entered Stanford University for her undergraduate degree, she was primarily interested in the drama and music programs. However, as she explored different subjects through her course work, she found an interest in Chinese language and history.

A life-long lover of languages, she set out to learn Mandarin as a way to challenge herself. Mastro took a year off from her regular studies to enter an immersive language program in Beijing, spending up to six hours a day learning the world’s most spoken language. 

Then, during her senior year at Stanford, her love for Chinese culture intersected with her future career when she was accepted into an honors program in international security. She discovered she also enjoyed studying the Chinese military.

“I realized that the U.S.-China relationship would shape the future and I wanted to be a part of that,” she said.

After graduating from Stanford, Mastro spent a year at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. According to its website, the think tank’s mission is “to advance the cause of peace through analysis and development of fresh policy ideas and direct engagement and collaboration with decision-makers in government, business, and civil society.” She spent her time there as a junior fellow, working under senior fellow Michael Swaine, an expert on the Chinese military.

After leaving the think tank, she attended Princeton University to earn her masters and then her doctorate in politics. During her third year, she met a former deputy commander of Pacific Command, Lt. Gen. Dan Leaf, who convinced her she could make contributions to the nation’s defense. In 2009, she joined the Air Force Reserve as an IMA.

IMAs are Air Force Reservists who are assigned to active-component organizations and government agencies around the world. In addition to their primary mission of serving as a backfill during times of war, they also offer a cost-effective way to increase manpower when needed. And, as in Mastro’s case, many bring a wealth of unique skills, knowledge and experience from the civilian sector that the Department of Defense would not normally have access to.

Mastro’s first job as an Airman was at the Pentagon, where she served as a China strategist with the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s Strategic Studies Group and later served in nascent a Asia-Pacific Cell. During her time at the Pentagon, she served under three chiefs of staff, writing memos for one and directly briefing the latter two.

“I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy this aspect of my life,” she said. “Little by little, I was making a difference.”

During her four years at the Pentagon, she finished a doctorate and landed a tenure-track position at Georgetown. As a professor, Mastro teaches a number of courses on security policy, research methodology, the Chinese military and Chinese foreign policy. She explained tenure-track as a trial period, during which she has a number of years to complete as much research and publish as many articles as possible. At the end of the evaluation period, her work is sent out to various experts for review. The university then decides based on her package whether she will have a job for life, or they let her go. In this role, teaching is only a small part of her responsibilities. Research is a top priority, and her agenda currently focuses on Chinese military and security policy, Asia-Pacific security issues, war termination and coercive diplomacy.

In fact, this year she isn’t even teaching. Instead, she is serving as a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. This one-year opportunity allows her to put her teaching duties on hold in order to focus full-time on her research, which currently centers on what China could and would do with North Korea’s nuclear assets in a contingency.

Before the fellowship, she had already completed volumes of research and writing, with scholarly articles and interviews appearing in numerous U.S. and Chinese podcasts, television shows, blogs and journals. She is also in the final stages of writing a book, her first.

Normally, a tenure-tracked professor has six years to build a body of work. However, because of her Air Force commitment of about two months each year, Georgetown University granted Mastro an extra year to account for the time away from the school to accomplish her Air Force mission. Unlike traditional reserve assignments, where the reservist works mostly weekends, IMAs perform their duty in one or two longer blocks each year.

Mastro said balancing her work at the university with her Air Force duties at the Pentagon was difficult at times, as she often found herself putting in a full day’s work in uniform, only to hurry across town to teach at the university. In order to find a better balance and to gain knowledge in the operational Air Force, she took her current IMA position at Pacific Air Force in February 2016.

As a top China strategist at PACAF, Mastro is responsible for providing input for strategy and plans in support of air, space and cyberspace across the Pacific region.

“In the day to day, Airmen often need inputs about what is happening right now with China, why is it happening, what is likely to happen in the future, and how China may respond to U.S. policies and actions,” said Mastro. “My job is to answer such specific questions on-demand to help shape Air Force strategy, doctrine and plans.”

Some of the things she has accomplished during her short time with PACAF include steering the joint bed-down plan for entire combatant command, developing and conducting a training program on China for over 120 action officers and shaping PACAF’s unclassified strategy. Her work at PACAF led to her being named the 2016 Individual Reserve Company Grade Officer of the Year.

Mastro said her military job has taught her about resiliency, how to be a leader, a follower and a team player, and affords her the opportunity to work around others – something that is often lacking when she’s holed up doing research at Georgetown. She added that the Air Force provides her a way to directly apply her research.

“I spend a lot of time researching and writing, and the fact that I can disseminate my knowledge directly to the people that care about security in the Asia-Pacific is personally rewarding.” 

Just as the military benefits from her civilian work, her civilian work in academia benefits from her military work. Mastro said she uses her knowledge of what interests her comrades-in-arms to guide her research. Her connections at the Pentagon also allow her to act as a conduit between civilian experts and military communities, often helping academics schedule meetings with people in defense, as well as introducing people in defense to top thinkers on the civilian side. 

“In this way, I hope to broaden people's minds to avoid bias in thinking,” she said.

She also said her military experience lends her credibility with the policy makers and strategists in Washington, D.C. -- a field largely dominated by men. As a woman in this environment, she said every ounce of credibility is important. She constantly needs to combat the misperception that somehow she is less qualified because she’s a woman, said Mastro.

“When was the last time you worried about how you would be greeted?” she asked. “When I’m in my civilian role, if my superior comes in and shakes the hands of all the men but then hugs me, or calls them Dr. so-and-so, but calls me by my first name, it puts me on a different level than everyone else.”

To combat this, Mastro puts a lot of thought and energy into the questions she asks, the meetings she schedules and equipping the next generation for success. Recently she participated in a panel discussion for students at George Washington University about how to succeed as a woman in academia.

Mastro said she knows some people roll their eyes at the idea of programs aimed at increasing diversity; she said they miss the point. When norms and institutional structures make it hard for a particular group to serve, then you are going to lose some of the best and the brightest, she said. Diversity is important because it’s about gaining the ability to bring the best people to the table, whether that’s in the military, academia or elsewhere.

Gender issues aside, Mastro has asserted her place as an expert. Even the Chinese consider her an expert on their military and she is often invited to participate in government-sponsored conferences and events. She travels to the country to meet with leaders and conduct primary research several times a year, though she admits it’s not as frequent as she’d like.

Mastro believes her experiences in the Air Force Reserve highlight the effectiveness of the IMA program. Her active-component organization is able to plug her in when and where she’s needed and she gets the flexibility to pursue a career in the civilian world; one that also has benefits for the Air Force.