The Evolution of the Air Force NCO

Sept. 1, 1986

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.


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.