Air Force Lowers Promotion Standards to Address Officer Shortages

It’s been a season of relative optimism about the future of the Air Force. But the service is still prone to bouts of myopic personnel mismanagement. It will occasionally belch out a policy so bad that it beggars belief.  Its latest epic gaffe will fix nothing and create lasting dysfunction … all the while eroding the confidence of airmen.

In a September 13th press release, the service announced that captains will now have a 100% opportunity at promotion to major. Only those with conduct blemishes in their records will require formal recommendations. Everyone else will be promoted automatically.

The release is front-loaded with weaselly double-speak about the changing nature of what we value in officers, which would seem to be a way of saying we expect less of our field grade officers now than we did in the past.  That’s the opposite of what should be true. We should be expecting more, and pushing more responsibility further down the rank structure. Which means we should be exercising greater care with promotions to major than in years past … rather than less.

But when the fluff is stripped out, the Air Force is actually communicating its core message quite clearly, if tacitly: it is reducing standards in order to address a personnel shortage. This is not the road to a stronger and more lethal service. It’s the road to exponential growth of the same problems that have created the shortage in the first place … all traceable to weak, risk-averse, ineffective leadership. Promoting everyone to major is a recipe for more of the same.

This is the Air Force at its worst … reacting defensively with a move that doesn’t address the root cause and will only deepen the pathology. This is anathema to gaining and maintaining the initiative. It’s the opposite of confronting the shortage of majors and living with it … letting the pain register long enough to drive a genuine fix. It’s an answer to the question “how do we address the shortage of major?” … which is the wrong question. The right question is “why do we have a shortage of majors?”

There’s a shortage precisely because of knee-jerk personnel policies enacted over the past 15 years to address short-term imbalance. There’s a shortage because squadrons have become bad places to work. There’s a shortage because there are too many frivolous deployments taking too excessive a toll on officers and families. There’s a shortage because people have too little confidence in the direction of the institution to continue investing their future in it.

Maybe most of all, there’s a shortage of majors and lieutenant colonels because it doesn’t mean what it once did to hold those ranks in the US Air Force. Responsibility is narrower and authority is greatly reduced. Power is centralized among a small number of generals and their staffs. O-4s and O-5s in the field are mainly caretakers. They color between lines drawn by someone else. If they try to color outside the lines, they are turned upon by authoritarian bosses who revile ingenuity almost as much as they resent independent, critical thinking.

To fix the shortage of majors, the Air Force needs to make career service more attractive. By simply making it easier, the Air Force will retain and promote some of the wrong people … not those who could be doing other things but are choosing to serve. Instead it will keep and promote hundreds of low performers who’ve demonstrated they lack the capability to be effective at the next level.

There was a time it meant the world to be a major in the Air Force. It was a big leap from captain and one of the biggest leaps in a career. It was the first level where the curtain of command was pulled back and an officer was given a view into decisions being made at senior levels. Today, it’s been reduced to a test of whether someone can make steam on a mirror. For a service constantly banging on about its heritage, it’s a strangely contradictory decision to reduce its majors to captains with additional time in service.

Here’s where this leads: a further deterioration in trust and another giant leap for micromanagement. Senior leaders have already fallen into the habit of looking down their noses at anyone below the rank of O-6 (and in fact, even most O-6s are kept on a short leash). The knowledge that everyone and their dog is now automatically promoted to major will only make it easier for them to rationalize this habit. Every time some jackass who shouldn’t have been promoted makes this fact obvious to the world, it’ll cost every other major in the Air Force a little bit of latitude. These people will be viewed as captains, who are already viewed as little more than experienced lieutenants.

This change means officers will get to 12-14 years of service and be promoted three times before their potential to lead airmen at the next level is scrutinized. They know it, which means a major level for the creation of healthy performance pressure has been removed from the service’s hand.

What message does this send enlisted members? They’re bound by duty to follow the officers appointed over them. Majors command squadrons and administer large organizations comprised of NCOs who have had to compete for their stripes. They’ll now be taking orders from people who simply stayed around long enough to be gifted a rank and title that gives them legal authority over others. NCOs will take this policy as a signal that the Air Force doesn’t care enough about developing and selecting the right leaders to hold the lives and fates of airmen in their hands. They’ll resent this, and rightly so.

The Air Force starts to find its commanders at the rank of major. Because of this ill-advised policy, it will now let some of the wrong people into the pool where it looks for those commanders, and will therefore select some of the wrong officers for its most key and sacred duty. Some of them will be proficient sociopaths capable of fooling everyone into thinking they are committed and capable, and will continue to move on as a result. All this because we’ve removed from our own toolkit the opportunity to net them out.

This is the wrong move. Better to let the empty billets stand empty. Better to look at the billets closely and figure out which ones don’t need to exist in the first place. Better to do just about anything, to include nothing … rather than lower the standard for promotion. It was a dumb move every time we did it with NCOs and it’s even dumber to apply the same illogic to field grade officers.

Congratulations in advance to … well … everyone. Which is a way of saying that because of this policy, you’ve accomplished nothing more than taking up space by making major.

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