Air Force Proposes Overhauling Officer Promotions, Career Development

Col. Kenneth Black, Air Force Global Strike Command cyberspace operations division chief and AFGSC operations and communications directorate, promotes from the rank of lieutenant colonel to colonel by Brig. Gen. John Wilcox II, AFGSC operations and communications director, at Barksdale AFB, La., on Sept. 24, 2018. Air Force photo by A1C Tessa B. Corrick.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein issued a memo to commanders across the service on a new way of training and promoting officers that is better tailored to the needs of each career field.

Briefing teams will visit installations in June and July to hear from airmen and relay their input to senior leaders. The plan currently calls for splitting the line of the Air Force promotion category, which encompasses 87 percent of the officer corps, into six separate categories, but Shon Manasco, assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, said the service isn’t wedded to that idea and could still expand the number of categories based on feedback from the field.

“The team collectively feels really good about the analysis that’s gone on because we have been studying this for some time,” Manasco said. “There’s a chance that through the analysis that we’ve just missed something. We don’t know that we have, but this is a sign of a mature organization and a mature set of leaders that is willing to go out and allow, in this case, the force, to grade our homework.”

Air Force Magazine previously reported officers will be split into six new categories: air operations and special warfare, space operations, nuclear and missile operations, information warfare, combat support, and force modernization. Each of the six groups follow similar development paths with incentives and opportunities that don’t necessarily apply to people outside that category.

For example, manned and unmanned aircraft pilots, air battle managers, and special tactics officers take different courses, stay in their jobs for different periods of time, and vie for different leadership roles than an acquisition officer, a cyber operator, or a chemist might. By broadening the number of categories from one primary category to six, the Air Force would stop judging most of the service’s workforce by the same standards for promotion.

The service will decide whether and how to move forward with the initiative Sept. 1 after collecting feedback from wings, numbered Air Forces, and major commands over the summer. If adopted, the change would be the largest overhaul of how the Air Force prepares and promotes its people since the 1940s.

Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services, and Manasco told reporters May 29 the proposal is driven by the need to better prepare the Air Force for future, multidisciplinary warfighting. They argue training should become more job-specific as the service grows to 386 squadrons per the “Air Force We Need” plan, but it should also help airmen think outside their own domain at the same time.

“When you think about development, we do that through education, we do that through training, and then job assignments,” Manasco said. “It would be really great for us to be able to take some of our highly skilled cyber professionals or just broad technologists and send them for three years to either an academic institution or a technology company.”

The current setup can discourage airmen from taking an opportunity like that because it diverges from the traditional career path, he noted, but the service at large would benefit from those experiences.

Though not explicitly aimed at shaping new top-tier leaders, the policy change could have that ripple effect. Those in charge of implementing the new approach may make it possible for airmen in any field to become senior leaders—including Chief of Staff—as the service tries to include a broader range of people in high-level positions.

If the effort is adopted in September, Kelly believes the first promotions board under the new approach would convene in March 2020.