The Quality of Military Life

Dec. 1, 1995
The majority of active-duty members of the Air Force plan to remain in the military for at least twenty years.

Most of them have traveled somewhere in the world on temporary duty within the past twelve months, and this TDY has caused problems at home for many.

Some sixty percent of USAF personnel believe that senior officers do not give the greatest weight to job performance when they determine promotions. A substantial majority agrees that the needs of the service should be uppermost when it comes to handing out assignments.

All these assessments come from the 1995 Air Force Quality-of-Life Survey, a ground-breaking poll taken by service officials to gauge how they might improve the day-to-day lot of today’s service personnel.

Every member of the Air Force—officer, enlisted, and civilian—had access to a computerized version of the survey and could register his or her opinion. The Air Force Military Personnel Center received 356,409 responses from bases worldwide—meaning two-thirds of the entire Air Force weighed in with their opinions about the quality of service life.

Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, the Air Force Chief of Staff, said the results will give him “a baseline” for further work. The Air Force is “committed to addressing the concerns” expressed in the survey, he said.

Earlier this year, General Fogleman had approved the survey topics. For blue-suiters, the topics included career intent, optempo and personnel tempo, recognition, promotions, evaluations, assignments, housing, and base-level services. The civilian version of the survey dropped questions about housing and assignments; in their place were questions about flextime and civilian career paths.

Career Intent

Sixty-six percent of active-duty USAF members intend to make the service a career and stay in for at least twenty years, according to the survey. Seventy-four percent of officers expressed this view, compared to sixty-four percent of the enlisted troops.

The most noncommittal response came from USAF’s junior enlisted personnel. Twenty-nine percent said they would seek a full career, thirty-six percent said they were eager to leave the service, and thirty-five percent were undecided.

In contrast, Air Force civilian workers were highly motivated to stay; a whopping eighty-one percent indicated that they plan to make a career of the Air Force and stay on the job until it comes time for their retirement parties.

Optempo, Perstempo

As the Air Force in recent years has shrunk in size, officials have become increasingly concerned about work load. The service has set limits on TDY, stating its desire that no Air Force member should have to spend more than 120 days per year away from home on temporary duty.

The reality is that the Air Force, faced with a smaller force and a rising number of deployments to world trouble spots, is in a bind, and members in some critical specialties routinely exceed the 120-day limit.

The Quality-of-Life Survey found that, in the past year, ninety percent of all Air Force officers had been on TDY, as had sixty-four percent of enlisted personnel and forty percent of civilians.

Behind these overall numbers lay some statistics that Air Force personnel planners may find disturbing. As Figure 1 shows, more than one-quarter of rated officers spent more than ninety days on TDY. Fourteen percent of rated officers broke the 120-day barrier.

Survey respondents said that the increased levels of operations tempo damaged their “ability to receive professional military education (PME), obtain required training, and complete nonmilitary education.”

Many indicated that time away from home caused personal problems and hurt them financially, as shown in Figure 2.

Despite the negative impact of TDY, more than seventy percent of respondents said that their family remained supportive of their Air Force careers.


Survey participants were relatively positive about their chances to receive recognition for a job well done. As Figure 3 shows, senior officers were more likely to believe that their job provides opportunity for recognition than were junior officers. Next came civilians and then enlisted personnel.

A majority of respondents in all categories expressed the belief that, if they performed their jobs well, they could expect to receive praise from their superiors. Most also believed that they are usually given an opportunity to present the results of their work to others and that their unit usually recognizes good performance.


The Air Force’s promotion system received mixed reviews. Large majorities of all categories reported that they understood the workings of the promotion system. Most officers expressed a belief that the years-long downsizing of the force had made USAF promotions more difficult to come by.

Understanding this situation did not necessarily equate with support, however. As pictured in Figure 4, fifty percent of enlisted personnel do not believe their promotion system is fair. Fifty-three percent of rated officers believe the same thing, though a slim majority of nonrated personnel thought their system equitable.

Sixty-two percent of enlisted respondents and fifty-two percent of officers said they did not believe that the Air Force promotion systems gave greatest weight to individual job performance (Figure 5). Half said they believed academic education, professional military education, and other nonperformance factors carry too much weight in the promotion decisions.

According to the survey results, most blue-suiters do not believe the best people tend, in the end, to rise to the top (Figure 6). In one instance, the survey stated, “The Air Force promotion system selects the best qualified person for promotion” and asked for a response. Seventy percent of enlisted personnel and sixty-two percent of rated officers disagreed.

Many civilians were similarly critical of their promotion systems. Only about one-third of Air Force civilians in junior to senior grades agreed that they would be promoted to a level as high as is warranted by ability and interest.

Senior Executive Service civilians tended to have more confidence about promotion prospects. Sixty percent of these top-level employees judged that they could rise as high as their ability allowed.

The military promotion system criticisms may well have reflected problems of the past rather than the present. However, one survey result appears at odds with a change made to the officer system in response to an earlier review. [See “USAF Evaluation Systems Reviewed,” July 1995 “Aerospace World,” p. 19.]

Following that review, the Air Force changed back to a “whole person” approach, considering academic and professional military education as well as job performance in making evaluations. The survey results, in contrast, show that sixty-three percent of rated officers and forty-four percent of nonrated officers think nonperformance factors receive too much emphasis.

Air Force personnel officials said that they plan to look at this issue again and are considering another survey to further pinpoint disparities.


The range of opinion on promotions was mirrored in the survey’s findings about evaluations.

Slightly more than half of enlisted respondents felt that their evaluation system is unfair, as did forty-three percent of officers (Figure 7). Only thirty-two percent of USAF enlisted personnel thought the “right people” get highest ratings. Forty-four percent of officers had reached the same conclusion.

A majority of service members of all ranks said evaluations accurately document individual performances.

On the civilian side, the survey reported, evaluation systems get “poor ratings regarding effectiveness in identifying both good performers and poor performers.”


The survey disclosed that the officer corps and enlisted ranks held substantially different views about the fairness and worth of their respective assignment systems.

Only forty percent of enlisted members believe that the assignment system gives them the opportunity to move forward in their career fields. Officers expressed a much more positive view; fifty-six percent said that they believe the assignment system gives them the opportunity to advance. However, this view was held more often by nonrated officers than rated officers.

A similar split marked opinions on whether the assignment process allows opportunity to achieve personal goals (Figure 9).

More than twice as many officers as enlisted personnel told survey takers that they discussed career progression and future assignments with their commanders or supervisors at least once a year.

Overall, large majorities of all categories of blue-suiters said that, when it comes to the assignment process, the needs of the Air Force should be paramount (Figure 8).


Housing is one of the Air Force’s most important quality-of-life issues. This fact was reflected throughout the survey.

Sixty-eight percent of officer respondents said that the location of their home, whether on or off base, had a major impact on their morale. Sixty percent of enlisted ranks agreed.

For the most part, respondents living off base said they prefer to live that way all the time. The majority of those who reside on base said that their preference for base housing or private housing was on a case-by-case basis. For most, the major variable is their duty location. Safety, cost, and quality of housing, both on and off base, figure into this decision.

Overall, in the continental US a slightly higher percentage of Air Force people live off base than on, according to the survey. A breakdown by grade and location is shown in Figure 10. Those who are based overseas are more likely to live in government residences. More senior personnel, except for generals, tend to live off base in the States.

Base family housing received generally good ratings. Enlisted members who live in base dormitories were somewhat less satisfied (Figure 11). Eighty-eight percent of single enlisted personnel who responded to the survey thought that a private sleeping room would improve their quality of life.

Of the officers and enlisted personnel living off base, seventy-five percent cited “increased housing allowances” as the top housing priority.

Base-Level Services

For most Air Force members, the availability of such services as exercise rooms and clubs constitute important factors in determining quality of life. Most military survey respondents judged their on-base services positively, though half felt their suggestions for service improvement usually fall on deaf ears.

Fitness centers were judged the most important service available. Next in order of preference came child development centers, family support centers, golf courses, libraries, and clubs. When non–club members were asked what might make them join, “more family programs” was the top answer (Figure 12).

Civilian Issues

Work scheduling is a perennial topic among Air Force civilian workers. Asked if they liked the idea of flextime, an overwhelming majority (eighty-three percent) of civilian survey respondents said “yes.” Civilians approved of flex-days by a similar margin.

The survey suggested that, for Air Force civilians, the level of satisfaction with job-training opportunities depends on grade level. Only thirty-nine percent of junior civilians give the “good” rating to their training opportunities; among those in the Senior Executive Service, the figure comes to almost seventy percent. Similarly, more than half the junior and midlevel civilians were critical of career development counseling opportunities. The senior level and SES civilians were slightly more positive.

Asked if they would relocate to advance their careers, about one-half of Air Force civilians said “yes,” one-third said “no,” and the remainder was undecided.

Peter Grier, a Washington, D.C., editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and a contributing editor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent articles, “Aerospace Technology Exposition” and “Looking Back, Looking Ahead,” appeared in the November 1995 issue.