Developing Aerospace Leaders

Dec. 1, 2001

The Air Force is the most technological of the services, and thus the most specialized. Technology and specialization bring strengths, but also problems. Its people become entrenched in their occupational specialties and identify with them strongly.

Over the years, for example, Air Force officers have evolved into some 40 occupational “tribes.” They tend to define themselves by their specialty first: fighter pilot, maintenance officer, navigator, personnel officer, and so on.

The phenomenon can be seen in organizational “stovepipes.” In The Icarus Syndrome (1994), Carl H. Builder noted that staff officers often take their policy cues from their functional counterparts at higher headquarters rather than from their local commander.

The problem of most concern, however, is that the middle and senior ranks of the force are increasingly populated with officers who are overly specialized, and that there are too few broad-gauge aerospace leaders.

Several years ago, the Air Force decided it had to grow more officers who understood and could apply a full range of aerospace capabilities and who could explain those capabilities to other military services, elected leaders, and the public.

Work began in 1999 and the Developing Aerospace Leaders program office was formally established in Washington in March 2000.

Retired Maj. Gen. Charles D. Link was chosen to head DAL. Link is a former 3rd Air Force commander and former commandant of Air Command and Staff College and the Air War College. He was the Air Force’s point man during the first Quadrennial Defense Review and, since his retirement, has been a noted champion of airpower.

Link says that all of the Air Force officer tribes-including the pilot tribe-need to develop leaders with greater depth and breadth. Obviously, the present system does produce some such leaders. Career broadening is not a new idea.

“But,” says Link, “we don’t do it in an institutional and purposeful way, so the outcome is not predictable. And predictability is pretty important when we look at trying to prepare the Air Force for the future.”

DAL was originally intended to be a temporary program, but the Air Force announced in September that it will be permanent, with a DAL support office and advisory board reporting to the Chief of Staff.

The Rise of the Tribes

“The Air Force was born out of technology, focusing initially on airplanes,” Link says. “Technological excellence rested on highly developed specialties. An early Air Force decision was not to form the specialties into ‘corps,’ as the Army had done. That left the specialties on their own, and over time, they developed into tribes. The first big tribe was pilots.”

For many years, pilots accounted for a large part of the officer force. As recently as 1956, for example, more than 40 percent of all officers were pilots. Under the “rated supplement” policies, some of these pilots were assigned to support functions.

“As the demand for specialists in the support areas grew, the expense of training pilots to fill support requirements led to an increase in the number of nonflying support officers,” Link says. “Still, the majority of the senior leadership positions were filled by pilots and navigators in order to keep flying personnel in the chain of command over flying operations.”

Concurrently, the percentage of pilots in the officer force was decreasing-it is down to 17 percent today-and a system of specified career path “gates” kept pilots in flying duties. “This resulted in more pilots seeing themselves as ‘specialists’ as opposed to potential Air Force leaders,” Link says.

“Overall, the emphasis on specialized competence and the lack of stated requirements for specific competence in leadership positions combined to create ‘tribally’ focused development constructs. Each specialty concentrated on raising its leaders as specialty leaders, resulting in officers more suited to lead at the tribal or functional specialty level than at the national or Air Force level. As the Air Force became increasingly specialized, its range of operational contributions grew to include space- and information-based capabilities. This increasing breadth of capabilities placed additional demands on the tribally developed leader.”

By the beginning of the Vietnam era, Link says, Air Force operational (and to some extent, the associated support) functions were organized into three major “tribes”: bombers, tankers, and missiles in Strategic Air Command, fighters in Tactical Air Command, and airlift in Military Air Command.

The decision to rotate bomber, tanker, and airlift pilots, navigators, and support personnel through “tactical” Air Force operations in Southeast Asia helped balance the prevailing tendency to remain in one’s “tribe” for an entire career. Many of the senior Air Force leaders in the 1980s were thus experienced in a range of Air Force operations during their developmental years.

“At the same time these broadened officers were leaving the force, the changing security environment began to point the way to development of the Expeditionary Aerospace Force construct,” Link says. “This construct called for leaders at several levels with the balanced depth and breadth necessary to effectively integrate the contributions of several highly developed specialized competencies. While some such officers were available, there were simply insufficient numbers to permit the kinds of selectivity necessary to support a sound and flexible personnel assignment process. Moreover, it became obvious that there was no institutionally based construct that would lead to the development of a sufficient number in the future. The looming operational capabilities in information and space operations only exacerbated the problem.”

Develop to Need

That set the stage for DAL, which was initially organized as a special program office under the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel.

One of the early actions was a survey in 1999 of general officers. Every general then serving, as well as the immediate predecessor of each of them, was asked what competencies were desirable for officers in their positions. Since then, DAL has also gotten other opinions, including the views of enlisted people, about the competencies needed in aerospace leaders.

DAL’s opening studies confirmed the problem of a narrow, overly specialized officer force. Correcting it calls for basic change in personnel management.

Officer development begins with yearly cohorts of second lieutenants, brought into the Air Force through various commissioning sources and then assigned, trained, and certified in the specialties the force needs.

The middle grades of the future force will be drawn from those junior officers selected for promotion, and so on up the line, with the future senior grades drawn from today’s middle grades.

The promotion system, however, is blind to Air Force specialty requirements. The criterion for promotion boards is to select those “best qualified,” regardless of occupational specialties and without consideration of force requirements.

That may or may not lead to the mix of capabilities, experiences, and skills the Air Force actually needs. In fact, it often doesn’t.

The typical outcome is that officers move up in their tribes. The system produces many officers well equipped to lead their functional communities, but not enough broad-gauge aerospace leaders.

The Air Force would like to have at least three qualified officers to choose among when filling a senior job. At one point recently, however, there were fewer than two candidates for some leadership positions but as many as six for other positions.

DAL offers a different approach: Determine the competencies required and purposefully develop those competencies. To understand the competency requirements, begin at the top and work down, grade by grade. For example, determine the requirement for general officers, then take steps to ensure that the field of rising colonels will serve up appropriate candidates. The development and flow of rising lieutenant colonels would be managed to produce the right pool of competencies for future colonels.

The force profile will be a pyramid in all respects. Not only will there be fewer people at the top than at the bottom, as now, but there will also be fewer tribes at the top levels, and the specialties will be much broader.

New Levels, Fewer Tribes

Officers will be assigned in their initial specialties for approximately the first six to 10 years of service, after which they develop into “core specialists,” knowledgeable and capable in a family of related skills. Later on, some of them will acquire competencies and familiarities outside that original family of skills to become “aerospace specialists.” At the most senior ranks-the “transformational leaders”-officers will have evolved into the generalists desired in most senior positions.

Link described the objective for PACAF News Service last summer. “For example,” he said, “in Space Command, we will first develop a good ‘space officer’ who can represent Space Command across the force. Then in order for that officer to be a good senior leader, we will need to bring them through an experience that makes them comfortable with air and information operations.”

Advancement to core specialist and aerospace specialist will require certification by an appropriate general officer. DAL officials anticipate a transition period in which officers serving in intermediate and senior ranks would be “grandfathered” at those levels. The certification requirement would apply to those who come after them.

Specialists. Lieutenants and junior captains will continue to serve as specialists, in some 40 areas ranging from aircraft maintenance officer to fighter pilot to civil engineer to personnel officer. As these officers move toward the middle of their careers, they will begin to branch out and broaden.

“What we are trying to do is create a smaller number of larger tribes in which we take advantage of similar competencies,” Link says. “This is not unlike what happens naturally throughout the Air Force every day. A young officer specialist manifests exceptional talent and diligence and, as a result, is placed in a position to lead a group of specialists in the same family of skills. We want to take advantage of these natural processes.”

Core Specialists. These are middle grade officers certified as competent to lead others in a broader specialty related to their primary specialty. At the core specialty level, there will be 12 tribes rather than 40.

Pilots, for example, might broaden into the air operations or the mobility operations core specialty. Or they might evolve into one of the “open” core specialties-suitable for any primary specialty-such as political-military strategy.

An aircraft maintenance officer might move toward the broader maintenance core specialty, which also encompasses munitions, missile, and other maintenance. Alternatively, a maintenance officer might broaden into installation operations, resource operations, or an open core specialty.

“The key here is the emphasis on core competence as a prerequisite to broadening,” Link says. “We envision a rigorous certification process to ensure the depth of core competence is achieved.”

Aerospace Specialists would typically be colonels or senior lieutenant colonels, who are core specialists certified in at least one of 14 specified areas of broadening, with some familiarity in other areas.

At this level, for example, a space operations core specialist might broaden into air application or command and control application. An officer would not be allowed to broaden from a core specialty into the corresponding broadening area. A mobility operations core specialist must broaden into an area outside of mobility application.

“Broadening does not necessarily convey core specialty competence in the broadening area,” Link says. “On the other hand, it could make the officer more suitable for a No. 2 or No. 3 position in the associated core specialty. Broadening an info ops specialist into air application would not automatically qualify the individual for command of air operations, but it would increase that individual’s utility and assignability throughout the air operations area. It would also make the officer more useful in almost any position because of broader knowledge of aerospace power.”

Transformational Leaders. These are general officers (and perhaps some senior executive service members) certified for depth in envisioning, developing, planning, and employing aerospace capabilities. There will be only seven categories of transformational leader, but even so, several paths to the top may be open. A space operations core specialist, for example, has more than one possible future. One might ultimately become a combat operations leader. Another might become a materiel leader.

Broader and Deeper

As officers move up in the ranks, their competencies will become steadily deeper and broader. Occupational development into core competencies gives depth. Broadening gives breadth.

“We believe that the emphasis on core specialty competence combined with the identification of specific broadening experiences (informed by the requirements process) will strike the best balance between functional depth and the breadth we would like to see in future leaders,” Link says.

Along implementation lines, the Air Force human relations system will need to keep track of occupational competencies and certification. This may result in adjustments to the Air Force Specialty Code and classification systems used today. However, Link points out, “The DAL construct reviews issues in a 360-degree way, deliberately thinking through second- and third-order effects and works to minimize turbulence to the force at large.”

Whereas DAL intends for occupational competencies to define “what we do,” there will be institutional emphasis on universal competencies to create a new level of understanding and appreciation for “who we are.” Universal competencies (such as leadership and integrity, as well as various levels of understanding of the application of aerospace power) are relevant to all airmen, regardless of their occupational competence and will be the institutional guide for curriculum development in training and education.

“The Air Force has a good reputation for taking care of its people,” Link says. “The DAL construct will provide a rational basis and a set of tools for more purposeful development of Air Force members over the time they spend with us. Fact-based personnel decisions informed by Air Force needs will lead to a stronger Air Force populated by people with realistic and attainable aspirations and skills and talents purposefully developed to improve their utility to serve.”