Want to Solve the Shortage of O-4s? Here’s How

The Air Force likes to solve things with blunt force polices that carpet-bomb a problem rather than target it discriminately and precisely. This is especially true with personnel issues, which is partially why airmen are left feeling commoditized like interchangeable parts rather than individual human beings. For about the last 15 years, the staffs have consistently done what makes life easier and better for the staffs … instead of thinking carefully about the impact of policy on airmen, commanders, and the mission.

The announcement earlier this week of 100% promotion opportunity to major is a prime example. Because the service has worked itself into a shortage of O-4s, you can be a fairly useless knuckle-dragger and still be bumped to what used to be a rank implying great responsibility and authority (as remains the case in other services, who also have far fewer officers than the USAF as a proportion of their rank structure). No felonies? Steam up this mirror. Good. Here’s your gold oak leaves.

But if the shortage of O-4s is driving this, and assuming that shortage is legitimate, I have a better idea. Promote people to the rank they need to hold to fill a billet, and return them to their original rank when they finish the job. This is what happens in many businesses, and it’s what happened in the World War II era US military. It’s time to revisit this idea, because it beats the hell out of promoting every upright-walking schmoe who has accumulated sufficient orbits around the sun.

Here’s an example of how this would work.

General X has a need for a major to fill a billet in the CAOC for one year. Putting aside for a moment that the billet is likely unnecessary, could be done by a chimp, or could be done by a captain in Florida instead of a major in Qatar, let’s assume General X gives his requirement to a sourcing agency.

Under the current circumstances, the Air Force is saying there’s about a 25-30% chance it can’t fill that billet with a major, or that if it does, it will create a gap somewhere else. The same is true for all of the billets belonging to all of the generals all over the world. As a result, the service either leaves billets empty or sends someone with greater or lesser rank and/or qualifications to fill the bill. Pressure on this particular pool of officers instigated the decision to promote them all, which means 200 or so more will be available every year to feed the demand for flesh.

But it also means 200 or so people who should not have been promoted will be. Only after they are given a permanent rank and pushed into an O-4 role will we find out they are unsuitable. It’s a one-way door.

So let’s make a two-way door instead and be more careful while creating some useful leverage and incentives. When a billet is empty, the demand signal will go out. Once the sourcing agency confirms it does not have a qualified O-4, it will then give General X a choice between gapping the billet or accepting a volunteer O-3 promoted to probationary rank of major for the purposes of the role.

That’s right. Give ambitious O-3s an opportunity to volunteer for deployment, command, or PCS to fill open O-4 billets as O-4s. If selected, they will wear the rank of major and be paid accordingly, with the responsibility and authority of their probationary rank. When the tour is complete, they’ll return to their old rank unless they’ve been boarded and promoted in the meantime.

To make things really interesting, create a business rule providing that a probationary O-4 who accumulates two years of successful service as a major automatically becomes a permanent O-4, changing year groups accordingly. This gives officers who crave more responsibility an enlarged share of control and ownership over their own development.

Provided AFPC and the Air Staff keep their noses out once the policy is live, this also gives senior officers a direct tool for finding and promoting the most promising of our O-3s. This is something currently missing in the developmental model.

Because this method would give hiring authorities a choice between gapping a role and promoting someone, it would, by definition, clarify which billets actually require an O-4. Generals unwilling to close the money-mouth gap by promoting a capable captain would be making a statement about the actual necessity of a position.

It would also allow the Air Force to return to a 90% (or preferably lower) promotion opportunity to major, halting the progress of bottom performers.

Would this create a shortage of O-3s? Perhaps, but no more so than promoting every O-3 will rob the service of 200 or so passed over captains who continue to serve until being passed over again and separated. The shortage created wouldn’t risk cavitating the pump, and would be closer to the feed point of the officer pipeline and therefore easier to address with recruitment.

Would this be susceptible to cronyism and favoritism? Yes, it would. But as I have long argued, those things will always exist until the Air Force starts grading its officers on how well their proteges perform in the roles for which they are sponsored and groomed. Right now there is no cost for putting a horribly performing pal into a key role and having him spin out of control. That needs to change.

Position-dependent promotions are one idea of many to address the shortage of personnel in certain ranks and disciplines. There are many other ideas. All of them would be preferable to lowering the bar and letting everyone with enough longevity wear the rank of major.

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