No, the Air Force Will Not Bring Back Warrant Officers in 2018

In a recent piece from Air Force Times’ Stephen Losey, the question is posed and speculated upon. It’s good of Losey to keep this question in the lights, which takes a bit of effort given the Air Force would gladly bury this idea under the ocean floor if it could.

I give credit to CMSAF Kaleth Wright for being more open to this idea than any of his predecessors since the last USAF Warrant Officer retired 27 years ago. Wright has demonstrated that he’s genuinely interested in what’s best for the service. He doesn’t dawdle or dissemble or posture in the manner James Cody became notorious for in prior years. So when Wright says he’s receptive to Warrant Officers, we should believe him.

However, it’s not going to happen … and there are three principal reasons why.

First, the Air Force is run by risk averse management scientists rather than bold leaders. This isn’t intended as an insult. It’s just a fact.

The 3 and 4 star generals who control Air Force personnel policy (and the nameless, faceless senior civilians who sit at the boardroom table with them) are overwhelmingly (c)onservative. They didn’t become successful by taking risks.

Contrary to the popular image of the Air Force pilot — which has long since been exposed as more folklore than reality — reaching the highest levels of the USAF is about executing with by-the-numbers precision, supporting the big machine in whatever manner is requested, and not making too many waves. Those seen as risk takers will ordinarily be weeded out in the general officer nomination process, which requires sponsorship from above and gives negative control to anyone harboring a concern.

In this world, a move to revive Warrant Officers will be seen as an unnecessary risk. The question asked won’t be whether it’s the best thing for the service, but whether the positive impact it might bring can be approximated through small tweaks to the current personnel model.

This is, of course, tortuously bad thinking. It’s just the sort of milquetoast in-charge-ship that gave the service a pilot shortage in the thousands, which it is still trying to address with tiny adjustments yielding improvement in the dozens here or there.

Manning the remotely piloted aircraft fleet almost entirely with Warrant Officers would stabilize the career field, give thousands of enlisted airmen a pathway to a larger role in airpower, and would free up enough pilots to shore up shortages elsewhere across the force. A conversion and training course could be designed and implemented in the next 90 days if the USAF were committed to it, and we could start seeing the benefits by the middle of 2018.

But for two additional reasons, this won’t happen.

The E-9s will never go for this. The open-mindedness of Kaleth Wright notwithstanding, the Air Force’s senior enlisted population is not going to sign off on being inferior in rank to a Warrant Officer corps manned primarily by former junior airmen and NCOs.

Many of the Air Force’s E-9s are already resentful that they’re expected to salute Lieutenant Colonels, never mind Lieutenants. Forcing them to salute Warrants falls somewhere in the gasket-blowing zone.

They do have a legitimate argument, or at least the outline of one. When Congress created the “supergrades” of E-8 and E-9, the idea was to give the services the capacity to develop a stable of technical experts while simultaneously growing enlisted leaders to assure good order, discipline, and welfare.

But that was nearly 50 years ago, and the Air Force has since proven itself incapable of diversifying its talent pool without built-in guardrails. In its tireless push for uniformity, it has become intolerant of those who seek technical expertise as an alternative to seeking high rank and broad responsibility. This should be an acceptable choice, but it isn’t. Anyone not trying to become CMSAF is hunted and harassed. The tools of policy and culture have been co-opted by careerists, who enforce their ethos with a full-on pack mentality as a matter of “high standards.”

But the generals are no better, and will be even more resistant to this idea for a reason beyond mere risk aversion.

Deciding who gets to be a pilot is itself a sacred cow, and wielding the power to keep this club exclusive is a main reward endowed to senior officers. For more than half a century, this power has been wielded to carefully guard who gets the chance to earn USAF pilot wings. In that time, a college degree and officer’s commission have been inviolate requirements.

As the unstated argument goes, we need officers flying planes because the responsibility associated with delivering lethal combat power argues for something like command authority. This is a decent point given the political stakes associated with aerial bombing — especially in an age of nuclear weapons and drone-enabled impunity.

On the other hand, controlling who delivers nukes or who drops a particular bomb on a particularly sensitive target does not require that all pilots be officers or have college degrees. We know this is the case from our own heritage, which contains examples of NCOs flying combat aircraft and delivering lethal combat power with legendary effectiveness.

Nor is it the case that every pilot needs to be interchangeable — another popular personnelist argument that contains no content. The service doesn’t allow inter-clan movement. Even as the fighter pilot shortage is cresting 2,000 with relative health in many heavy communities, you’re not seeing a conversion course stood up to make new fighter pilots out of our best from other communities. The Air Force would sooner spend two years training a brand new Lieutenant than introduce such impurities into its fighter bloodstream.

Of course it’s also the case that lethal combat power is delivered by NCOs already — more so in the other services, but also in the Air Force. Taking a step back to think about this critically, it’s absurd to argue non-officers can’t be trusted to wield lethality … when nearly all of the lethal effects delivered by our ground forces on foreign soil are delivered by enlisted soldiers and Marines. (Oh yeah, and Army Warrant Officers flying armed helicopters).

But the fact it’s a hollow argument will not matter. This is about control over the future of the USAF. Generals want to maintain it in their favored image: one where institutional power, priority, and resources are carefully guarded by a trusted order.

Consigning a chunk of the combat aviation community to Warrant Officers would water down the idea that airpower is as sacred and special as it has always been insisted is the case. Saying Warrants can do it is like saying enlisted airmen can do it. If they can do it, we don’t need near as many officers supervising, and therefore not near as many headquarters, operations centers, or general officers to oversee and calibrate. This starts to unravel the logic of centralization in both control and execution, which are ideological tenets with airpower traditionalists: they don’t question these ideas, but simply choose to believe in them as one would a cherished religious principle.

The key to understanding any USAF personnel issue is to decode how the service sees its interests being served or undermined. This will predict how it reacts to an idea or challenge.

When it comes to the question of Warrant Officers, there is a lot of potential upside in the idea, and this can fool us into thinking it’s possible. This is because we believe USAF leaders are rational acting agents with the service’s best interests at heart.

But this is mistaken. Individual motives will be overborne by group preferences, and those preferences will carefully guard group and institutional interests. The burden of proving bold action is best will rest with a tiny cohort of proponents operating without sponsorship or resources and arrayed against a line of powerful actors hostile to unsettling the established order.

You won’t see Warrant Officers in the Air Force until it is commanded by someone willing to unsettle everything to do what’s best for national defense.

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