Every now and then, someone suggests that the Air Force restore its warrant officer (WO) program to give senior NCOs added career opportunities. Others say USAF should copy the Navy's limited-duty-officer (LDO) plan or think up yet another way of squeezing more layers between commissioned and noncommissioned officers' ranks. None of these things is likely to happen any time soon.
The Air Force may expand its airmen commissioning programs modestly when it needs new sources of officers. But it has little interest- in bringing back warrants and even less in setting up some other "almost-officer" status above the senior NCO grades.
The fact is that the Air Force already uses its top noncoms in many positions that the other services would fill with WOs, LDOs, or fully commissioned officers. Considering the pay they receive and the responsibilities they have, USAF's top-tier noncoms probably are the best management bargain any service has found. Why change a successful formula?
NCOs themselves would doubtless like to see their pay raised to match the responsibilities they carry. But few seem to see warrant or LDO status as a real career advancement. For many, anything short of direct commissioning into the field grades would amount to stepping from the top rung of one rank ladder to the bottom of another.
That view would not have been so common even a decade ago. It has evolved with the development of USAF's NCO corps itself. And how that all happened—by a combination of planning, necessity, congressional pressure, trial-and-error, and sheer luck—is the subject of what follows.
Traditionally, the Air Force marks September 26, 1947, as the date of its divorce from the Army. Actually, it was little more than a separation agreement that President Truman-signed on that date. The final settlement had yet to be worked out, and, like many a newly liberated spouse, the Air Force would spend the next several years searching for its own identity. Ironically, for a service that thought it already had set its own pace and style, the search for a workable personnel system would be one of its hardest.
The new force began with about 305,000 charter members. The officers included some of the pioneer flyers, but most were men who had joined either just before or during World War II. They had won their commissions as West Pointers, ROTC graduates, "ninety-day wonders," or aviation cadets. Some of them had only high school diplomas. Most of the warrant officers were former NCOs who had risen to the top of the enlisted ranks and, following Army's career system, moved into the WO ranks as the next layer of supervision.
The enlisted force numbered about 263,000 and included veterans of the prewar Air Corps, World War II enlistees and draftees, and a sprinkling of recruits. Many EM were serving on aircrews as gunners, radio operators, and flight engineers. More than 100 still were flying as enlisted pilots. There were a few enlisted women, now known as "Air WACs," who were assigned to separate squadrons and who worked mainly in clerical jobs. There were appreciable numbers of former officers to whom the Air Force had offered master sergeant stripes when it could not keep them on in commissioned status during the postwar cutbacks.
And there was yet another category of troops caught somewhere between the services. Several thousand Army officers and enlisted men remained with their parent service but served as Special Category Army with the Air Force (SCARWAF). Mostly engineers and construction workers, the SCARWAF were to be on loan to the Air Force only until it could build its own support forces. As it turned out, the arrangement continued until the mid-1950s.
Army System Inadequate
From this mix of members and borrowed help, the Air Force began to fashion a force suited to its new and growing needs. Fairly soon, it became apparent that many of the systems inherited from the Army were not going to work. One was the personnel system.
It was a relatively minor problem in the officer ranks. The Army's philosophy of linking officer specialties with specific branches of the service provided a logical basis for the transition from Air Corps to Army Air Forces to Air Force. Rated officers, who would perform USAF's primary mission and thus claim the bulk of its command positions, already were "branch qualified," and AAF organization tables provided for most of the support officer positions.
Warrant officers and enlisted members were another matter. Army's military occupational specialty (MOS) system was a complicated index of skills leading from private through master sergeant into the warrant ranks. It included the old AAF skills and a number of support specialties appropriate for any unit. But it also had numerous skills that had little or nothing to do with the Air Force mission, and the codes it did have were inadequate to describe the EM who were to become key technicians, supervisors, and middle managers.
By 1951, USAF officials had shaped a new system of Air Force specialty codes (AFSCs). These defined duties more clearly, got rid of unneeded Army skills, and allowed for the addition of specialties to meet the coming explosion of technology.
Under the new system, warrant officers still held the top (superintendent) positions on the enlisted ladders. For a time, officials considered creating two separate enlisted tracks within each career area. One would have been for noncommissioned leaders and the other for technical specialists. Fortunately, the idea was dropped. Otherwise, the Air Force, like the Army, might have spent the next thirty-five years struggling with an unwieldy specialist system.
While it struggled with weighty problems of form and structure, the Air Force was making more visible changes. In 1948, it replaced Army stripes with V-type grade insignia. In 1949, it approved a distinctive uniform and outlawed such carryover Army devices as shoulder patches. USAF leaders envisioned a dignified, uncluttered, military business suit. Critics noted the resemblance to the RAF uniform, officers mourned the passing of their Army "pinks and greens," and EM complained that they were being mistaken for bus drivers. But at least USAF members no longer looked "Army," and that was something.
Soon, the Air Force began to sound different as well. In 1950, it dropped the term "soldier," and Air Force enlisted members became "airmen." Military police became USAF's air police (later security police). Army airfields became Air Force bases. Commanding officers became simply commanders. And most major commands worked the word "Air" into their names. Shedding the outward evidences of the Army connection was one thing. Breaking with "the Army way" in other respects was something else.
One of Army's more basic principles had been to pass as much independence and authority as possible to lower unit levels. In the case of the Army Air Forces, air groups were the key operational units, and their squadrons were "home" to individual members.
The Power of the Squadron
Critics of today's centralized, seemingly impersonal Air Force see the return to the close-knit squadron as the means of restoring esprit de corps. For all its remembered virtues, however, the squadron concept of the AAF and the early Air Force had as many now-forgotten drawbacks, particularly for enlisted members.
For one thing, it gave tremendous power to the squadron commander and his immediate subordinates, including the first sergeant. In this period, long before the airman performance report was conceived, squadron commanders gave airmen simple character and efficiency ratings. These one-word evaluations could make or break enlisted careers. Assignments, transfers, and discharges were at the pleasure of the commander, and EM in the lower ranks even needed "the old man's" permission to get married.
In a sense, the squadron's first sergeant held even greater power. The "first shirt" could grant or withhold permission to see the commander. He also was keeper of the sick book, lord of the duty roster, and guardian of the three-day pass.
The real problem for ambitious airmen, however, was the system's commitment to the "unit vacancy" rule for promotion. It governed both assignments and promotions and often had more to do with shaping a member's career than did his own skill or ability. Simply put, the rule was that if the unit had a vacancy in a particular grade, the squadron commander could pick the person to fill it. He could promote to any of the enlisted grades, including master sergeant, and "bust" to any level down to private. At least theoretically, a commander had power to peel the stripes from a master sergeant and pass them to the nearest private.
In theory, this gave the promotion power to the leaders who best knew the needs of their units and the qualifications of the candidates. But it also offered opportunities for favoritism and politicking and put a premium on being in the right place at the right time. When somebody in the outfit retired, died, or shipped out, somebody else could move up.
For a time, there were few promotions for anybody because the service had begun life already top-heavy with NCOs, including those former officers who had come back as master sergeants. With its planned expansion suddenly quickened by the Korean War, however, the picture changed dramatically. By 1951, Air Force strength had doubled, and a year later it was pushing one million. Most of the former officers who had been serving as NCOs returned to their commissioned grades. Many units now had more vacancies than they could fill.
As the AAF had done during World War II, USAF now went on a promotion binge. When the Korean action ended and USAF growth was halted well short of planned levels, airmen again faced uncertain futures. With all its determination to be different, the Air Force seemed to have repeated most of the Army's mistakes and had found no better approach to managing its enlisted force.
Officials began a series of moves to control enlisted promotions and, with them, the use of EM themselves. Some of these moves worked and some didn't, but all had at least a part in shaping the enlisted career system. One early mistake was the dual (temporary/permanent) promotion approach. Another was the power given to commanders to name "acting NCOs," who could wear the stripes of sergeants but not draw the pay. Both experiments were dropped after a few years.
Beginning of Centralization
Among the early steps in the right direction was the end, in 1953, of the unit vacancy rule and the beginning of centralized promotions. Gradually and often against strong command resistance, USAF took over the process, tying promotions to Air Force-wide vacancies. In time, it linked quotas to specific career fields and even to individual specialties. The idea was to limit promotions in overmanned skills and promote heavily in those with shortages. In time, USAF hoped to reduce any surplus by attrition and retraining.
Unfortunately, Air Force's data-processing system at the time wasn't up to the demands of such an effort. Headquarters issued complicated instructions for controlling the percentages of eligibles who could be promoted in each skill. At the same time, it published detailed retraining advisories, showing the skills from which and into which EM should be retrained. More than once, officials were embarrassed to find they had allowed promotions into skills from which they were retraining and had frozen promotions in some of those into which it was pushing retraining.
Airmen were not happy with the new controls either. Under the unit-vacancy rule, at least they had been able to see roughly what their promotion chances were. Now, their units might be short of NCOs in the very fields in which promotions were frozen because of Air Force-wide surpluses.
Ironically, while the promotion system seemed to go from bad to worse, the Air Force was making a number of major efforts in other areas to improve the quality of the airman force and build a strong corps of noncoms. By the early 1960s, for example, it had developed an airman performance report patterned after the officer rating system. It had begun specialty-knowledge testing as a requirement for advancement up the career ladders. It had issued regulations defining noncom duties and responsibilities, and it was building a network of leadership schools and NCO academies.
By now, too, the services had two new NCO ranks to use. Congress had established pay grades E-8 and E-9 in 1958, and the Air Force was filling them quickly. Officials have insisted for years that the Air Force did not set out deliberately to replace its warrant officers with these "supergrade" NCOs. Whether it was calculated or coincidental, however, the Air Force stopped appointing new warrants nine months after the new grades were created. Soon, the superintendent-level skills at the top of the airman career fields were being filled by senior and chief master sergeants.
None of this activity seemed to reduce the complaints about the promotion system, however. Indeed, many airmen reasoned that the Air Force was spending a great deal of time and attention on their professional development, but leaving their promotions to a largely invisible and apparently not very efficient process of selection. Unpromoted airmen had no way of knowing where they failed or how they could improve their chances, and the problem of skill imbalances seemed no nearer solution.
By the mid-1960s, Congress was receiving so many complaints that Chairman L. Mendel Rivers (D-S. C.) of the House Armed Services Committee named a subcommittee to look into the matter. That panel held hearings on the promotion systems of all the services, but it clearly was most concerned about the Air Force. In fact, it seemed impressed by the Navy's promoting sailors on the basis of test scores and urged the Air Force to follow suit.
USAF officials did not want to copy the Navy. Their reluctance was more than a matter of pride. They felt that the Navy system put too much emphasis on test scores and too little on performance and other factors. But USAF's own system was not working, and it was under heavy pressure from both Congress and the Defense Department to try something new.
WAPS and TOPCAP
The program that the Air Force developed over the next several years went well beyond Navy's simple "point" system and into a broad scheme for force management. In time, Defense would urge the other services to study the Air Force approach.
The Air Force's new promotion system was designed to duplicate, using what amounted to a mathematical formula, the process that a live selection board goes through in making its choices. The "weighted airman promotion system" (WAPS) considered performance reports, test scores, seniority, and decorations, giving each factor roughly the same weight that a human board would assign them. EM were selected within each AFSC on the basis of their overall scores, and those not picked received "report cards" showing roughly where they were weak.
WAPS gave airmen a more visible selection system, but it did not solve the problem that had plagued the promotion system almost from the start. No matter how well qualified a candidate was, his promotion chances still depended on whether or not vacancies existed for his skill. All of USAF's elaborate efforts to cure the overage/shortage problem seemed ineffective.
Then, in 1971, Defense approved USAF's broad new plan to manage the enlisted force not just by juggling promotion quotas but also with a series of broader controls. With its usual penchant for long titles that can be reduced to catchy acronyms, the Air Force called it the Total Objective Plan for Career Airmen Personnel (TOPCAP).
Oversimplified, TOPCAP was to balance the EM force by regulating gains and losses at several points. EM would be recruited on the basis of their potential to fill skill vacancies. After their first hitch, airmen would be reenlisted against specific needs in the career force. At various points, those who did not progress beyond certain grades would be separated or retired under the same "up-or-out" principle long applied to officers.
Eventually, USAF hoped, TOP-CAP would reduce grade and skill overages by attrition. More immediate problems would be handled by retraining surplus EM into shortage skills. Unfortunately, this long-range approach still did little for the airmen awaiting promotion in surplus AFSCs. No vacancies still meant no promotions.
In 1972, however, the Air Force made what amounted to an end run around the old manning problem. Regardless of overages and shortages, it decided, roughly the same percentages of eligibles would be promoted in each career field. After years of trying to control the overages by holding back on promotions, USAF now advertised "equal selection opportunity" for all specialties. It would take care of the inevitable grade/skill overages by retraining the surpluses. Officials hoped that this, at last, would force the service into a serious retraining effort.
In a way, the Air Force's struggle to solve its enlisted promotion problems had led it to develop a full-blown career plan for airmen. In the past, the services usually had reserved that kind of attention for officers. Now, officials were pouring much the same time and attention into top enlisted management. All of which is not to say that the Air Force had solved all its enlisted management problems.
The WAPS system still draws criticism. The general inflation of performance reports has made test scores the key factor for selection. Some EM would like to see more weight given to seniority. Others think formal education should be a point-gaining factor.
The TOPCAP philosophy remains pretty much intact, but parts of the original concept have never been set in motion. While first-termers are denied reenlistment for failing to advance, USAF has not yet forced EM out for not climbing above sergeant after eight years of service.
The equal-promotion-opportunity idea also has survived more or less as planned. But, again, officials have been reluctant to launch the full-blown involuntary retraining program that was proposed to accompany it. And the equal-opportunity rule itself has removed one of the old incentives to voluntary retraining—the desire to escape from a field that is frozen for promotion.
The Air Force also has strayed from the letter of equal opportunity on occasion. It made a one-time exception some years ago for the security police field. The modest additional quota designed to boost sagging SP morale brought such demands from other career fields that USAF vowed "never again." Another exception was granted in 1982, however, when the Air Force allowed slightly higher promotion quotas in skills with chronic, critical shortages.
And, in a move back toward the days when unit commanders had broad promotion powers, USAF has set aside small quotas for the early promotion of young EM selected locally as fast burners.
The Three-Tier Approach
Recent years also have brought other refinements in the NCO system, including what USAF now calls the three-tier approach. It divides the nine EM grades into three levels of rank and responsibility. The lowest is made up of trainee-apprentices, the middle tier of technician-supervisors, and the top level of supervisor-managers. USAF has reworked its professional military education system for EM to support this concept with a series of progressively more advanced courses in leadership and management.
Today, NCOs in the top tier fill many slots that once were considered officer billets. The Air Force began converting such positions as early as the mid-1960s, but became bogged down for some time in an almost comic debate over nomenclature. It was all right, most officials agreed, for a chief master sergeant to do the work of a commissioned officer, particularly if it saved the government money. But it was not proper, some said, to include the term "officer" in his title. An NCO could be "custodian" of a fund, for example, but not a "billeting officer." In time, this resistance faded, and the list of officer-type duties open to NCOs grew substantially.
Officials are fond of counting the number of former officer jobs now held by NCOs. It seems to be the kind of statistic that impresses commissioned officers with how far the enlisted force has progressed. Most NCOs seem more interested in the considerably larger number of key management positions that NCOs have carved out on their own. With all its past problems and remaining shortcomings, the Air Force enlisted system probably is unique among all the services.
Where the Air Force has failed along the way, it usually has been because those making the decisions about the enlisted force have misread the capabilities and aspirations of enlisted members. Somehow, they had failed to notice that EM no longer were just good mechanics who could diagnose an engine by its sound but couldn't read the tech manuals. They didn't realize that NCOs had become highly skilled technicians as well as enlisted leaders. They didn't sense that the quality of NCO leadership had kept pace with the quality of the officer force and had, in some cases, outdistanced it.
Where the system has worked, sometimes with surprising success, it generally has been because planners, enlisted and commissioned together, simply weighed the services' needs and the enlisted resources realistically and put the two together wisely. In that sense, the status of noncoms has not really changed so much. They always have functioned best, it seems, when they have been given a job to do and turned loose without too many limitations and instructions about how to do it.
Bruce Callendar served as a Fifteenth Air Force B-24 bombardier during World War II. He was recalled to active duty as an information officer during the Korean War. Between terms of active duty, he earned a B.A. degree in journalism at the University of Michigan. In 1952, he joined the staff of Air Force Times and in 1972 became the Editor. Mr. Callendar is now a free-lance writer and lives in Virginia.
A Russian Su-27 Flanker intercepted a USAF RC-135U flying in international airspace over the Baltic Sea on June 19, 2017.
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