The U.S. Air Force faces challenges in force development to confront challenges posed by the battlespace of the future. Remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) pilot retention remains low even as the force looks to expand. Career fields continue to debate the virtues of generalization versus specialization, and the Department of Defense is more broadly considering significant revisions to officer career progression in order to draw more talent and enhance capabilities by allowing greater cross-flow between civilian professions and line officer positions; even considering direct commissions as high as colonel in some fields. Others, meanwhile, have advocated eliminating the officer/enlisted distinction as archaic and a hindrance to recruiting and innovation. As the Air Force looks towards the organizational challenges of the future, a revived and tailored warrant officer program must be seriously examined as part of the future of force presentation. This would enable the force to balance the leadership responsible for the control and conduct of war, the execution of strategy to accomplish the mission, and the rapid integration of emerging technical expertise to a dynamic and complex battlespace.
Reliance on internal growth of leaders and experts, as the military largely operates today, is a double-edged sword. The nature of military service and the underlying reality that military leadership is about the lives of those under command and the destructive power of military force on adversaries makes professional experience a prerequisite for military leadership. Current Air Force technical experts are senior non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and, in some fields, senior company grade officers (CGO) or junior field grade officers. They are developed through a standardized career pipeline that is often slow to modify training standards and serves as one component of a larger job, which includes leadership development, personal development, and the widespread perception of a series of boxes to be checked for advancement. This model has largely succeeded to date, but is unlikely to continue to keep up with rapidly changing technology of the future. A better talent management system, capable of breaking through these obstacles (actual or perceived), is vital to a force where innovation, rather than tradition, is core to its fighting edge. Or, as John Boyd put it several decades earlier, it’s people, ideas, and hardware—in that order.
What Are Warrant Officers?
To most Air Force personnel, warrant officers are an unknown and peculiar entity. In part, this is due to the Air Force’s reluctance to re-introduce warrant officers, but also because each service uses warrant officers differently. One characteristic they share in common across the Armed Forces is that they are all technical experts in their fields. Armed today with a commission above the basic rank of WO-1, granting the ability to lead and be responsible for personnel, equipment, and the authority to lead in conflict, their primary responsibility is not in exercising legal authority, but reverence derived from expert authority. Much as a senior NCO generally derives greater reverent authority than a junior CGO despite the latter’s legal authority owing to years of growth within the enlisted force as a leader and technical professional, a warrant officer derives similar respect for their mastery of technical expertise beyond an NCO’s broader career development.
Commissioned officers are broadly trained professional military leaders grown from an area of specialization; warrant officers are the masters of a very specific trade.
The Navy has the longest tradition of employing warrant officers, and their early history provides critical insights on their role. Dating to the age of sail, Western navies historically designated two classifications of officers—commissioned and warrant—to denote the two skills necessary to employ a warship: military leadership, and technical expertise of rigging, carpentry, weapons, and non-line professions such as doctors and pursers. In part this was a legacy of the British Navy and the connection between a commission and aristocracy: commissions were granted by the monarch to lords and aristocrats who were authorized to act on their behalf, bourgeois professions were granted elevated but inferior status to maintain the distinction. Although aristocracy has been replaced in the modern US military with a professional officer corps, the Navy along with the other services have maintained the divide between military leaders and technical experts by retaining warrant officers.
While the history of warrant officers stems from the Navy, it is primarily Army warrant officers who airmen have most likely encountered and likely would serve as a template for the possibilities of the Air Force rebuilding its own program. Warrant officers make up the technical foundation of the U.S. Army, and are generally subdivided between flight warrant officers and technical warrant officers. Flight warrant officers are eligible for a direct commission, while technical warrant officers (in the career fields of intelligence, special forces, human resources, etc.) normally require enlisted experience from E-4 up to E-6 in their field. In the Marine Corps, all warrant officers are selected from among the Corps’ enlisted members, generally at the 10-15 year mark, while the Navy typically selects late career enlisted personnel between 14 to 20 years of service. The differences in how warrant officers are selected greatly impacts both the pay benefits and promotion rates across the services: Navy warrant officers have a relatively small pay incentive over the senior NCO corps but are promoted rapidly, Army warrant officers have a greater pay differential over their enlisted peers but are promoted slowly.
Despite the distinctions in accession, growth, and relative pay, all three services recognize three commonalities of warrant officers: they are technical experts in positions that require the authority of an officer, and their assignments are repetitive in nature rather than aimed at career broadening. Their occupational specialties are more numerous than those of commissioned officers, while their areas of expertise are more narrowly defined. Commissioned officers are broadly trained professional military leaders grown from an area of specialization; warrant officers are the masters of a very specific trade. Both are generally dual professionals, with the key distinction being on the emphasis of their profession.
When the Air Force became an independent service in 1947, included in its ranks were 1,200 legacy Army warrant officers. These warrant officers were phased out beginning in 1958 with the creation of the senior NCO tier, which resulted in the last Air Force warrant officer retiring by 1980. Officially, the decision was made because the Air Force had no place for another rank sandwiched between the enlisted and commissioned officer levels. In practice, it was more likely because the Air Force had no idea what to do with such ranks given the force structure at the time.
The Army’s solution was to fill the technical niche positions that required the responsibility and accountability of officership, and specialized education, training, and experiences beyond a leader in the NCO and senior NCO corps. As the Army maintained an organic air capability but did not want to build a corresponding large officer corps of aviators, this career field fit neatly in the warrant officer niche. As intelligence, electronics, and other advances associated with the budding revolution in military affairs occurred, these jobs similarly fit the specialization role of warrant officers.
The Innovative Service Needs Technical Specialists and a Learning Organization
With a stated mission to “fly, fight and win in air, space, and cyberspace,” the U.S. Air Force presents itself as the service most at the forefront of innovation. With the move to sixth-generation fighters, remotely piloted aircraft; and globally-integrated intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); mastery of new and emerging technologies is essential to sustaining the combat edge provided by an independent air force.
While the Air Force prides itself in innovation and points to the power of its airmen to innovate, many cases of difficulty to adopt new technological changes suggest a deeper challenge to maintaining an innovative edge.
Military innovation occurs when changes to technologies, operational concepts, or organizational adaptation combines to fundamentally alter the character and conduct of conflict. Often, a technological trigger spurs the innovation, but adaptation is reliant on the organization’s ability to integrate that technology into operational concepts and reorganize forces to effectively implement the innovation. Institutional, bureaucratic, and basic human obstacles towards understanding and appreciating the pace of technological innovation remain the largest obstacles to innovation. While the Air Force prides itself in innovation and points to the power of its airmen to innovate, many cases of difficulty to adopt new technological changes suggest a deeper challenge to maintaining an innovative edge. This could be due to biases that look to a technological solution over a manpower solution, the development of ‘tribes of airmen’ which creates bureaucratic and cultural obstacles to reform, or the Air Force’s reliance on growing all specialists from within the service.
The argument that senior NCOs fill the subject matter expert role of warrant officers is itself problematic both because of the timeline to grow a senior NCO and because it is in direct conflict with the stated role of a senior NCO. Their primary responsibility is mission accomplishment through the leadership and management of teams and maintaining the highest level of unit readiness to ensure mission success. The relevant Air Force instruction notably states that the first tier of senior NCO leadership represents the transition “from being technical experts and first line supervisors to leaders of operational competence” moving to a “broad technical and management perspective” through continued development of their management and leadership skills. This is vital to the professionalism of the NCO ranks, mentorship of the officer corps, and a number of other functions; but in practice is a barrier to continued development of subject-matter expertise in favor of generalization.
U.S. law permits a great deal of flexibility in the definition and career field management of warrant officers, flexibility that has allowed the services to use the warrant officer system in markedly different ways. Because of this, and because the services have not coordinated a shared perspective of warrant officer career progression, the Air Force could define the terms of its own warrant officer corps to meet the critical needs of the service. Here, the third layer of technical specialists drawn from the NCO corps, the private sector, and potentially CGO ranks, can provide the Air Force flexibility to leverage talent and specialization to meet the needs of the rapidly evolving modern battlespace. As direct commission opportunities to higher grades are under Pentagon consideration to meet the needs of the cyber battlespace, but would be highly controversial, the prospect of direct warrant commissions to higher-tier positions (CW3 or CW4) might represent a superior option. Pay and other differentials to make the track more appealing may be offset by a bonus program, usually reserved for enlisted ranks, but also not uncommon for critical officer specialties. The advanced education requirements for some specialties may also provide a means to draw recruits to a highly technical warrant officer corps, either through in-residence programs while on active duty or through debt forgiveness for high-demand degree holders in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Critical Operational Fields for Air Force Warrant Officer Specialization
Space and Cyber Operations
As the discussion of opening high ranking line officer positions to lateral direct commissions from the civilian sector emerged from the prospect of incorporating entrepreneurs from the tech industry into space and cyberspace operations, these career fields represent the most likely starting point for a reinvigorated warrant officer corps. The emerging and rapidly evolving prospects of cyber war, cyber security, and cyber threats will likely require a significantly re-imagined career path for the cyber field more generally, with opportunities for a portion of the force to regularly cross-flow between the military and civilian world. A direct commission warrant officer route would be superior to a direct commission in the line officer corps for this group of technical specialists as it would allow those members to focus on developing skills of specialization and tradecraft within the cyber domain, with less focus on career broadening and leadership development through the military lens specifically. As uniformed warrant officers, they would be recognized as full combatants, strengthening norms of conflict in the cyber domain and alleviating potential Laws of Armed Conflict problems that would come with an increasing reliance on contractors or civilians in critical cyber roles. Just as with the then-technically advanced sailing crews of the age of sail, a balance of military leadership, technical experts, and skilled crew will be required to effectively implement military operations in the cyber domain.
As with cyber operations, the intelligence and ISR fields are experiencing significant growth in reliance on technical expertise and the need for technological innovation to harness the potential of big data in fusion warfare. Against this backdrop, the Air Force intelligence community struggles with the challenges of generalization versus professionalism in its officer corps, and stovepipes of excellence in its enlisted corps followed by rapid generalization as senior NCOs. Officer training emphasizes four primary functional competencies (collection, analysis, targeting, and integration), with shifting guidance over time in the field for preference toward specialization in any one competency versus general competency across all four. The enlisted force is divided among multiple career fields for all-source intelligence, imagery intelligence, signals intelligence, network analysis intelligence, and cryptolinguists among several other specializations. As these fields grow in their reliance on rapidly shifting technologies, and as the officer corps continues to focus on generalization across four broader competencies, a strong warrant officer corps can bridge the technological-leadership gap. Further, it can provide a forum for talented NCOs to continue to grow and lead from a technical and tradecraft perspective while also facilitating a vital decision advantage in the future.
...there is a valuable role for flight warrant officers in the modern Air Force
Likely the third rail of the warrant officer discussion, there is a valuable role for flight warrant officers in the modern Air Force as demonstrated by the Army’s employment of flight warrant officers to date and even previous Air Force experience with flight officers in World War II. Air Force leaders have regularly acknowledged that the prospect of enlisted pilots was not a question of capabilities, but of “the right thing for our organization, for our Air Force.” The RPA force offers the most often mentioned possibility for flight warrant officers, but should not be alone in the discussion. Rotary wing, close air support, even advanced fighter aircraft should be evaluated for the prospect of mid-career warrant officer lateral movement from the officer corps as a means of retaining combat experience, tactical expertise, and to allow individuals to focus their career on advancing flight skills and Air Force tactics over leadership and broadening.
Flexibility is the key to airpower, and the prospect of reintroducing warrant officers on the terms the Air Force needs today are critical to that flexibility.
The main obstacle to enlisted fliers is combat responsibility. RPAs, rather than being unmanned, have a large crew construct requiring more command authority, not less, on the part of the pilot in position to employ munitions. This aspect of the RPA mission has likely driven the Air Force decision to authorize enlisted RPA pilots for the unarmed Global Hawk but not the armed Predator and Reaper. The second obstacle is likely cultural. The flying community has dominated Air Force leadership for its entire history, in some cases potentially stifling growth in other fields. In practice, flight warrant officers, properly utilized, may have a stabilizing effect on Air Force operations by enabling pilots, frustrated with demands for broadening, desk jobs, low flight hours, and additional duties, to alter their career trajectory in the late-CGO period by transferring to the warrant officer corps. This could translate into longer dwell times in one assignment, assignments to weapons and tactics shops to mentor junior officers, and greater career stability focusing on the job they most want—being the best pilots they can.
The debate surrounding warrant officers in the Air Force is bigger than simply money and prestige, both for individuals and for within the force. Today’s Air Force risks both bleeding talent from within based on the current force structure, and its education and training programs for internally growing talent is unlikely to adapt fast enough to keep pace with significant changes in the digital battlespace modern airmen confront. Flexibility is the key to airpower, as the saying goes, and the prospect of reintroducing warrant officers on the terms the Air Force needs today are critical to that flexibility. The authority and responsibility of officership combined with a laser-like focus on subject matter expertise is the ideal complement, not substitute, for the modern officer and NCO force to meet the needs of innovation in the information and cyber age. An agile force that embraces technological change must be willing to embrace equally rapid organizational change—it’s still people, ideas, and hardware, in that order.
Michael P. Kreuzer is a U.S. Air Force intelligence officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: MQ-9 pilot and sensor operator flying a training mission (A1C Michael Shoemaker, U.S. Air Force Photo)