Will the Air Force Bring Back Warrant Officers?

Challenges with retaining highly skilled technical specialists could drive the Air Force to reintroduce warrant officers 45 years after the last Air Force warrant officer retired in 1980. The Air Force and Space Force are the only military services not to include warrant officers, who fill technical, rather than leadership functions in the other military branches.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall III expressed interest in the idea in a recent interview, saying “We’re looking at things like technical tracks for officers and NCOs, and possibly creating something like a Warrant Officer track for people that are in, cyber, for example, an area where we need people and where there are a lot of people who don’t want to do other than technical things.”

A copy of what appears to be an Air Force planning document began circulating on social media in recent days, indicating a possible pilot program. Air Force spokespeople declined to comment however.

The document, posted anonymously on the unofficial Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook page and the Air Force subreddit directs Air University to develop a concept of operations for establishing a training pipeline at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. “to reintroduce a USAF non-aviation warrant officer program as a technical corps.” 

The initial cohort, according to the document, would consist of 30 prior-service personnel, but a separate planning document obtained by Air & Space Forces Magazine says the pipeline could scale up to 200 junior warrant officers and 50 senior warrant officers a year.

“The Service must examine new ways to develop and retain a highly capable, technologically capable corps of air-minded warfighters,” the order states. A warrant officer corps would “fully leverage the technical depth and breadth of talent of our Airmen and cultivate the strategic advantage USAF technicians have historically provided[.]”

Reaction on social media was strong and positive.

The Air Force is expected to announce a series of changes next week after an extensive five-month review of challenges to readiness and its preparedness for great power competition with China at the AFA Warfare Symposium near Denver, Colo. “Anything related to the plans for Reoptimizing for Great Power Competition will be announced next week,” the spokesperson said.

Kendall is expected to unveil extensive plans meant to prepare the service for a possible conflict with China or Russia. Among other changes, significant changes to the service’s organization are under consideration, Air & Space Forces Magazine has reported.

Warrant officers are neither enlisted nor commissioned officers, falling in the middle between the two. The Air Force had about 4,500 warrant officers in the late 1950s, but phased them out after the top-most enlisted ranks were added, according to the RAND Corporation.

The last Air Force warrant officer retired in 1980, and the service has flirted with the idea of reinstating them in the past, both as a stop-gap to stem the ongoing pilot shortage and for other purposes. The latest proposal was discarded in 2018.

“Congress asked us … do warrant officers make sense to come in and help the Air Force with their pilot retention problem [and] pilot production problem?” Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, then the Air Force personnel chief, told Air Force Times. “We’re going to go back and say, ‘No, they do not.’”

But Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass has floated the concept as one way to retain highly skilled enlisted specialists.

“I think the Air Force has to, as we’re developing our broader talent management model, make sure that we have a pathway to be able to retain our technical expertise,” she told Air & Space Forces Magazine in July.

When asked if the Air Force ought to implement a warrant officer system, Bass said she was “definitely not opposed to the suggestion of that. We just have to do the analysis to make sure that is what is best for the U.S. Air Force.”

In the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, warrant officer and limited-duty officers help retain subject matter experts without pushing them into leadership or administrative roles. Then-Chief Master Sgt. of the Space Force Roger Towberman also expressed interest in warrant officers, saying in 2021 that the Space Force would study the option.