Q&A: Chief Master Sgt. Roger Towberman, Space Force Senior Enlisted Adviser

Chief Master Sgt. Roger Towberman is the Space Force’s Senior Enlisted Adviser and command senior enlisted leader of U.S. Space Command. He recently spoke exclusively to Air Force Magazine Senior Editor Rachel S. Cohen about Space Force planning so far. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. How are you working to build a unique culture for the Space Force?

A. What I want to believe is that I don’t need to build anything. I think that applies on the individual level and on a cultural level, like for organizations. I believe that what we need for warfighting in the future, what we need as a service in the future, is already kind of ubiquitous in American young culture today. … I look at it more like unleashing the culture that they already have. When we talk about agility, we talk about speed, we talk about the first digital service, [Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond] has said, ‘Hey, we want to be the first digital military service.’ Those things are present. I don’t need to build them, I need to kind of get out of the way. We need to unleash the culture that already exists in the great men and women that are raising their hands and asking to do this.

I’m always picking things up. There’s plenty of books, and articles, and blogs, and I watch a fair amount of videos and stuff. … Daniel Coyle wrote a great book called ‘The Culture Code,’ and if we look through that book about culture, I think it points to those same things. A lot of times it’s there, you just have to get out of the way. Quit trying to force a round peg into a square hole.

I sat down with [Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright] a few months ago and we talked through this. We’re great friends, we’ve got a really good relationship. One thing that he said that I really took to heart, and it’s something that we’ve been doing, is … get a team. With his help, with the help of the Air Force Chief’s Group on the enlisted side, we’ve been able to really handpick some Air Force talent, recruiting, manpower, personnel, space, obviously, intel, cyber talent, training manager talent for how they do [on-the-job training] in the Air Force. We’ve got these senior non-commissioned officers and chief master sergeants that are going to come on board as soon as we can get on the other side of the pandemic and get them here.

That team is already being challenged to think holistically about talent management. I don’t believe you can change a promotion system without it impacting other parts of career development. I don’t think you can change the way that you assess without changing the way you retire. All of those things are connected. What I’ve promised them is, rather than me coming up with ideas and then having someone in the staff here try to champion those ideas up through the layers of others, I want them to come up with the ideas and then let me champion those ideas from the top down. I think that will help us move more quickly. I think that’ll help us see blind spots and second- and third-order effects to our individual decisions better than any way that I’ve seen done in the past.

Q. How could the roles of enlisted Airmen change as part of the Space Force?

A. Initially, it’s going to be pretty much the same. We started some things in Air Force Space Command that we’ll keep doing. Our Weapons School program for enlisted operators is one of them. We’re very excited the second class is soon to graduate. With that kind of, I’ll call it branded expertise, once you’ve been through an official school and we can put a patch on your shoulder, it changes your maneuver space as a warfighter. It improves your capability, but it also really improves your credibility at first glance. I think that will give us options to use NCOs and senior NCOs, in particular in the Joint Force, in different ways than we’ve used them in the past.

Q. Are you considering any new enlisted specialty codes in the Space Force?

A. We haven’t talked through that nuance too much yet. I think it seems counterintuitive that we would have Air Force specialties in the Space Force, right? I think there will have to be some new nomenclature. We’re bound by some system limitations, right? So some of this stuff in the human resource world is gonna change slower than we maybe would prefer, just because we’re beholden to current technologies. It’s trickier than one might guess to just say, ‘oh, don’t call them this anymore, call them something else.’ That may have impacts that reverberate through different systems. We’re being very careful, very deliberate about what we change and what we don’t change, especially in that kind of personnel, systems, pay things like that. Man, what a mistake it would be to change someone’s [Air Force Specialty Code] and have it all of a sudden cancel their reenlistment bonus because of some system that was connected to a code. So we’re trying to make sure that we’re careful on all that, but I suspect we will become individualized over time and distance ourselves over time from all those Air Force systems, or at least many of them.

Q. Will enlisted personnel need to restart their service commitments if they join the Space Force?

A. [Currently], if you’ve got a promotion line number, we’re going to delay the start of your transfer until that takes effect, for instance, to keep those lines clean. If you have three years or four years left to serve on your current contract, then you will continue to serve that and we’ll transfer you over and that time will come with you. If [you have] less than two years, then we will ask you to take on that two-year Active-duty service commitment. … They’ve got the plan for each one of those individual circumstances, and for the most part, it might be unfair to say cosmetic, but for the most part, people won’t notice much of a change in their service.

Q. Space Force Vice Commander Lt. Gen. David Thompson mentioned interviewing potential Space Force employees because turnover will be so low that you can afford to be pickier. What might that look like?

A. On the enlisted side, we already do that. Recruiters sit down and face-to-face interview every enlisted service member anyway, so it’s not a huge change for us, although we are going to be hopefully a little more deliberate. Just this morning, I sent an email to some of the recruiting planners to say, ‘hey, … we’re small enough that we should be able to capitalize, through conversations and hopefully through artificial intelligence, machine learning, etc. to really start finding talent in America that maybe doesn’t even know their talent yet.’ To me, that’s the desired end state. If I can find greatness where you, as a young person, don’t even see that greatness in yourself yet, but I can see that it’s there and I can cut a deal with you that says, we’re going to develop that and we’re going to make you a better human being, better citizen, better Space Force professional than you even think you can be. To me, that’s a powerful recruiting message. We want to look for those ways to do that. Interviewing is certainly one of those ways. … The questions we ask and the way that we hunt for these folks will be different.

I believe the intent is to talk to everybody. … Whether that boarding process will involve interviews or not, I don’t know that we’ve gotten there yet. … When those boards sit down, we want to be able to optimize both services. We should be looking for these bespoke, tailored answers per individual and per service to say, where is the best place for this person? How do they best fit in the department and get this right for both services? We absolutely can’t break the Air Force, so we’re committed to getting that right. I don’t know if that will involve interviews at this point or not. But certainly in the future, with a relatively small number of accessions, we think that accessions will get to that point where we’re a little more deliberate.

Q. What policies like leave, fitness standards, etc. are you considering now? Anything different from what CMSAF Wright is doing in the Air Force?

A. Chief Wright and I have worked very closely his whole tenure on policy. … We’re very much in sync as human beings, and so philosophically, I would say I fundamentally usually agree with him. If we were to go down a list of specifics, I’m almost certainly going to be far more in agreement with him. There might be a couple [of policies where we say] we don’t have to do that. But for the most part, he and I see eye-to-eye on most things.

I’m not looking at anything specific right now. It seems a little premature to do that, when we don’t even have another enlisted person in the service at this point except for me. We’re kind of letting the Air Force work through those and continue to sit at the table with him when he sits down with the major commands, so we’re represented. I’m listening, I’m watching, and we have the best of both worlds. If there’s something they’re considering in the Air Force that we like, we’ll say, yeah, we’ll do that with you. If there’s something they’re considering that we think we’re maybe not ready for, we’ll be able to opt out.

What I will say is, it has always been important to me to remember that people raised their hand and they promised that they’ll give their life for this institution. That’s the deal that they cut with us, that if it comes to it, they’re willing to die for their country. Things like personnel policies have to earn that level of commitment. We cannot expect them to give their life for us [if] we won’t figure out the best way to give them leave or the best way to be parents. … We’ve got to always be looking for that balance between what the institution is asking of them and what the institution is providing to them in terms of quality of life for their loved ones and for themselves.

Q. Any closing thoughts?

I’m not going to get ahead of any decisions, but I will tell you, when it comes to ranks, when it comes to logos and branding and all those things that are identity things and culture things, while I can’t talk through the specifics, I can tell you that we’re really trying hard to be deliberate, to be inclusive. We’ve done a lot of crowdsourcing, we’re talking to a lot of folks. We’re trying to make sure that nothing’s happening by accident and nothing’s an afterthought. We’re very carefully stepping through things to make sure that we can explain to ourselves, explain to our teams, explain to future generations, this is why we’re going this way, this is why we’re here. I personally have spent a lot of time on trying to define the heuristics that we’re going to use to decide those things and less time on the specifics. So we’ll see that rollout, but I really don’t want anyone to think that it’s an accident, or it’s just some old dude in a room somewhere, brainstorming. That’s absolutely not what’s happening. We’re trying really hard to come up with all this stuff and make it matter and make it relevant and make it kind of timeless right from the beginning, if we can.