Force Development Hits Its Stride

Oct. 1, 2005

Some three years have passed since the Air Force launched the initiative it called Force Development.Service leaders had been concerned about how well USAF was preparing members for careers. Force Development entailed a sweeping overhaul of USAF’s personnel system, the goal being to tie training and education more closely to an airman’s career development and to tailor assignments to the same end.

What’s happened since then? How has the initiative affected the preparation and competence of the force

A close look at developments over the past three years points toward a general conclusion: The career prospects for some officers have changed considerably. Similar changes are in store for enlisted airmen and civilian personnel.

The effort, backed by the top Air Force leadership, has sharply challenged the way the service has managed members in the past. Officials are now searching for alternative measures that would put the right people in the right jobs at the right time—with the right skills.

Nontraditional Approach

That may not always mean filling slots from traditional sources, declared Lt. Gen. Roger A. Brady, USAF’s deputy chief of staff for personnel, during an address to the Air Force Association’s 2004 Air and Space Conference. Brady, noting that the program had been under way for about two years, said the Air Force should be asking if a given job, traditionally done by an officer, can be done just as well, or better, by a noncommissioned officer, civilian, or another member of the Total Force.

A number of changes have already been made, and others are well under way. Among them:

  • For officers, where the Air Force is concentrating its main attention at the moment, there now are 28 development teams that meet two or three times a year. Their goal is to develop career paths or “vectors” for USAF officers, selecting them for courses that will advance their careers. The teams also help pick individuals for command opportunities.
  • The Senior Leader Management Office (SLMO) is looking for jobs that can be occupied by either a general officer or a senior civilian employee. The office came into being in 2001 at the time of the merger of the General Officer Matters Office and the Senior Executive Management Office. USAF is developing career management teams for civilians similar to those for officers. Management and development of chief master sergeants has also been turned over to the SLMO.
  • The service has set up a new advanced course for the airmen chosen for chief master sergeant. Some chiefs are being sent to courses previously attended only by top civilians, generals, and selected colonels.
  • When it comes to education, the service has broadened the traditional professional military education (PME) approach to include a variety of other training possibilities, including the offer of advanced degree work for members on specific career paths.
  • In the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve components, development is not as far along, but USAF officials say senior Guard and Reserve leaders have embraced the concept and are adapting it to their unique circumstances.
  • In ways large and small, the service is encouraging members to seek broader skills. For example, USAF is combining leadership of manpower and personnel. As a result, it will expect its manpower and personnel specialists to widen their expertise. In other cases, members will be urged to take on secondary skills and acquire greater breadth to enhance their careers.

The Force Development idea, announced in November 2002, stemmed from mounting frustration that the service did not have a systematic way of developing leaders and often was left filling top posts with individuals who were the “most available” and not necessarily the “most qualified.”

More Than One Size

The problem was that the Air Force had developed a “one-size-fits-all” approach to manning. Officers were sent through courses and assignments that did more to enhance their resumes than to meet the service’s future leadership needs. Enlisted members were pushed through career steps with little attention to their actual development, and the most senior NCOs often were stuck in jobs that did not require the expertise they had acquired.

Development of civilian employees had been largely “ad hoc,” officials say—unplanned and aimed more at filling immediate vacancies than at preparing people for future leadership.

The philosophy behind the new development approach is that members should follow standardized career patterns only up to a point, and then they should be groomed deliberately for leadership and supervisory positions.

Whatever career path a member may take, Force Development provides three levels of advancement:

  • Tactical. At the tactical level, members master their primary duty skills, develop experience in applying those skills, and begin to acquire knowledge of the service. Tactical level performance is seen in flying an aircraft, guarding a perimeter, loading a pallet, identifying a hostile radar return, treating a broken arm, and other activities accomplished by both military and civilian personnel.
  • Operational. At the operational level, members must understand the broader Air Force perspective and the integration of diverse individuals and skills to execute operations. This is where members make a transition from being pure specialists to understanding Air Force integration. Assignment to command a squadron or to head a branch or similar positions of authority occur during this phase. It is here too that warfighting is executed and the day-to-day command and control of Air Force operations are carried out.
  • Strategic. At the strategic level, Air Force members combine a number of highly developed occupational competencies to produce broad professional leadership. They understand how USAF operates within joint, multinational, and interagency systems. This level focuses on effects across an Air Force major command, a theater, the entire Air Force, or the Department of Defense. Individuals at this level have the ability to influence the Air Force’s role in military operations.

“The tactical level is going to be the first few years of assignment because it’s going to be where the individual is serving as an expert in his career field, usually at the squadron level or below,” said Air Force personnel official John Park. “The operational level is going to be about the [Majcom] level, and the strategic level is as they get into [the air staff] and out into the joint environment.”

Focus on Field Grade

At the moment, the development program is focusing mainly on field grade officers, Park said, but the effort will work down to the tactical level. Every officer will perform at the tactical level, said Park, so “there is less need for us to review them individually as we do the field grade officers.”

Senior officers will get more intense scrutiny. The Force Development teams that evaluate their potential will have much to do with their careers.

Roger M. Blanchard, USAF’s assistant deputy chief of staff for personnel, said the teams are made up of functional managers from the occupations the officers work in. They are aided by personnel advisors and personnel analysis. “One of the strengths of the Force Development concept [is] that it has heavily involved functional and line managers in the assessment and evaluation of people within that occupation,” said Blanchard.

There will be a series of deliberate and rewarding challenges in education, training, and experience. Force Development is designed to provide the individual—and the Air Force—with the capabilities to foster leadership.

Senior members of the Force Developmental teams become familiar with the people in their occupational areas and learn their strengths and weaknesses. They discover who the high-potential people are, who is getting by, and who is not doing well. The team members have direct contact with the individuals and access to their commanders’ assessments and overall records.

Blanchard said the teams can apply that familiarity by vectoring people to developmental assignments.

The teams identify the requirements the Air Force needs to meet. They then will be able to specifically and deliberately develop the people to meet those requirements. Leaders can be drawn from the pool of best-qualified members.

The impact on civilian employees may be even more pronounced, as civilian roles in Air Force leadership become more defined. “I think what we are already seeing in the case of officers and civilians is a movement toward more interchangeability, particularly at the senior level,” Blanchard said. The SLMO is “heavily engaged in finding jobs that can be occupied by either a general officer or a senior civilian” and assigning those individuals based on the best choice.

Civilians To Step Up

Officials expect more civilians to move into positions previously limited to officers. They also predict more interchange between officers and top NCOs, making the best use of the service’s human capital.

This process of deliberately developing civilians to meet requirements is a departure from past practices and opens new opportunities. USAF is creating career fields on the civilian side to mirror the career fields on the officer side. Some of those career fields have gone so far as to integrate the military officer and civilian development teams into a single team. That, officials say, has tremendous potential to create greater synergy between the officer corps and the civilian corps.

Among enlisted members, the greatest changes to date have been in the ranks of the chief master sergeants. In addition to placing the management of chiefs under the SLMO, the Air Force has sent its first chiefs to the Center for Creative Leadership. The service is developing a cross-flow program to move chiefs in overmanned specialties into vacant leadership positions. And it is limiting chiefs to three years of service in joint, Air Staff, major command, and special duty assignments, to give more field units access to chiefs with these key experiences.

Selection for Air Staff and other designated chief master sergeant billets will come through a nomination process. When a top position opens, Majcoms will nominate their most qualified chiefs.

An aim of the career-shaping effort is to encourage more members to serve as instructors. “One of the things that the Chief of Staff has emphasized is the importance of paying back the Air Force for the training a person has received,” said Col. Lee Hall, director of assignments at the Air Force Personnel Center. “What we are trying to do is get the developmental team to help us identify the right folks to be instructors.”

In the past, the Air Force has had difficulty getting members to volunteer for instructor duty with Air University or the Air Force Academy. Such assignments have been considered sort of a tax, Hall said. People whom career field leaders did not particularly want, or those they had left over after filling key jobs, were often submitted for teaching assignments.

“That’s not good enough,” said Hall. “What we are trying to do is find people who are inclined toward being instructors. … This is one of those things we ought to be doing deliberately, instead of doing by chance or by whoever is left over in the end.”

Blanchard added, “The emphasis on instructor training is a key element of Force Development.”

The Air Force also has joined the other services in encouraging members to go into educational careers when they retire from or leave the military. This “Troops to Teachers” program is welcomed by school boards and local educators who value the discipline and lifelong-learning philosophy that former service members bring.

Developmental Education

Another major element of Force Development is what officials call “developmental education.” The Air Force always has put heavy emphasis on training, but it has tended to send members to school, based more on where they were in their careers than for the sake of furthering those careers. Under the new approach, more emphasis will be placed on courses that fit the individual’s career plans.

The Air Force has expanded intermediate-level developmental education—the operational-level training. This can be at Air Command and Staff College or its sister schools, and USAF has broadened operational education to include advanced academic degrees at the Air Force Institute of Technology and the Naval Postgraduate School.

The Joint Military Intelligence College, the Advanced Study of Air Mobility, and a variety of other courses also provide intermediate developmental education, said Maj. Patricia Ross in the personnel office. These are places where the individual who needs to go on a specific development path can be assigned.

In the case of the chief master sergeants, the service is developing a new PME course and a new leadership course.

While the service is putting more emphasis on training, it also is pressing for ways to instruct members already heavily burdened by work and often deployed to distant sites. Ross said USAF now has education offices in remote locations, and technology has brought the classroom to the students, through computers.

This distance learning makes it possible to check into class even in operational environments. Remote study requires self-discipline, but Ross said some members stick with it. One enabler is that some units allow students to use work computers after hours or during lunch breaks.

It will be some time before the full Force Development program is in place. Hall estimates it may take five years to bring all the vectors and career paths into the system.

Still, the colonel said the program is progressing. “I think the officers are going great,” he said, and the civilians have come a long way. “The next big challenge for us will be incorporating the Guard and Reserve. Their processes are less mature but I do think that there is good acceptance.”

Developing firm requirements comes next. Once needs are finalized, the service should be able to deliberately develop members to meet them.

“There is a lot of work to do,” Hall said. “It’s still a new process, [but] … the foundation is there, and people see the importance of it.”

Bruce D. Callander is a contributing editor of Air Force Magazine. He served tours of active duty during World War II and the Korean War and was editor of Air Force Times from 1972 to 1986. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The Class of 50 Years Ago,” appeared in the July issue.