Q&A: Specialty Officers Needed

Aug. 1, 2019

Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly speaks at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference in September 2018. Photo: TSgt. DeAndre Curtiss

The Air Force circulated a proposed officer promotion system in May, aimed at giving experts in emerging specialties a better shot at ascending to the top ranks of the service. The current system lumps 87 percent of officers into a single promotion category. That disadvantages those with unconventional career paths­—frequently those with less common specialties. In mid-June, Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower, Personnel, and Services Lt. Gen. Brian T. Kelly spoke with Editorial Director John A. Tirpak and Editor in Chief Tobias Naegele about the new promotion system, the Air Force’s pilot shortage, and a new expeditionary force presentation construct.

Q. The Air Force is looking at a new way to promote its officers. What are you changing, and why

A. What we’re really doing is not changing the promotion system, but looking forward and saying, ‘What do we need to be as an Air Force’ And what type of officers are we going to need for the future

The development and promotion system we have today has served us really well. But as we look to the future, and the National Defense Strategy, we know we’re going to need a little bit more agility in terms of being able to develop our officers in a variety of ways.

The current system, particularly the Line of the Air Force category tends to be limiting in terms of developmental agility. The Air Force has evolved from operating in an air domain to air, space, cyber, and further; it’s also joint integration with land and maritime components. So the development paths can be tailored and look toward what’s required in a variety of areas.

We already do this in many ways. Our chaplains, doctors, dentists, nurses, and JAG (Judge Advocate General) officers are promoted in categories by themselves, which recognize the need for different developmental paths and opportunities within those categories. The way we educate, train, and experience officers in those categories are different, and so we’ve organized them into different promotion categories over the years. As we’ve evolved as a service, the number of specialty codes has grown significantly, and the differences in requirements in those areas have also grown.

[Now], we’re looking at whether it’s time to look at different developmental paths for education, training, and experience in the Line of the Air Force—as leaders or supporters of a joint campaign—depending on what your specialty is.

The work we’ve done to date has included lots of reviews with the field. We’ve talked with folks, starting with [Air Force Chief of Staff]General [David L.] Goldfein’s ‘revitalizing the squadron’ work. We’ve reviewed our existing databases and run some mock promotion boards to look at different configurations.

We’ve come up with six categories that represent the joint fighting skills we need: air and special warfare operations; space operations; missile operations; information warfare; combat support; and force modernization. We think those six categories will give us the developmental agility we need so we can maximize capability across the force.

Q. Is the idea that some specialties were stunted with everybody lumped into the Line of the Air Force, and this will ensure them some progression up through the ranks

A. The Secretary of the Air Force sets the promotion opportunity, which says how many folks are going to get promoted on each promotion board, based on the needs of the service. Those are not the same in every category. For instance, promotion to lieutenant colonel for Line of the Air Force, that category may be around 85 percent, but that’s not the same for chaplains, the JAGs, the medical folks.

We would expect that in this future system, the same thing would occur, but the requirements of the Air Force would dictate the promotion opportunities in each of these six new categories. It would be based on the existing inventory and what the Secretary views as the needs of the force at the time.

Q. This seems to expand promotion opportunities in certain categories, but doesn’t it also cap how far an officer can go if they are, say, nonrated? Are you creating more tribes and confining people to those tribes

A. That’s a good question. We hear that a lot. There’s a basic set of requirements for being an Air Force officer today across the categories that already exist. Now there’s going to be some unique routes or an agile route, for those folks in terms of development.

I don’t necessarily view that agility as creating additional tribes; even in today’s system, you can have tribes. What creates tribes is if we do not force ourselves to value integration across the service. But certainly I would decouple the promotion system from tribalism. What drives tribalism is behavior and processes, and we’ve got to guard against that, now or in a future system.

Q. Is there a way to institutionalize that or will it just be guidelines to promotion boards

A. Guidelines will be a big part of it. Boards will have to value things like being able to understand and integrate across different domains. We’ll ask our boards to make sure the [candidates] have an understanding of how multi-domain command and control works. We value people who can successfully integrate air, space, and cyber and then further integrate that with the maritime and land domains. When you value that, it drives behavior, and that will drive development and help us eliminate the stovepipes, which is our going-in position. That’s our way to institutionalize that.

Q. How does this play into the ‘Force We Need’ of 386 squadrons

A. A couple of things. The Air Force We Need is the 386 operational squadrons, and then, of course the supporting squadrons that go behind that.

Another thing is the right level of decision-making. The Secretary and the Chief were working on pushing that down, revitalizing squadrons, getting folks at lower levels to be comfortable with accountability and decision-making. That’s another aspect of it. But it’s all part of making sure we create the right development paths to build the officers we need, to build the force we need for the future. The work we’re doing on promotion categories is required, but it’s not sufficient in and of itself.

Q. What are some of the biggest drawbacks to this new approach that have emerged

A. When we ran the mock board we had to figure out how to group these AFSCs [Air Force Specialty Codes] together. We did a lot of work to create them, but I’m 100 percent sure we didn’t get it 100 percent right. Goldfein has asked us this summer to broaden the conversation, which we’re doing by visiting bases, having virtual town-hall meetings, sharing what we think, and having folks give us feedback, so we can sharpen what we’ve already got. And some of that was already underway with the revitalized squadrons discussion.

Getting those categories exactly right is difficult. We may not have the categories exactly right.

Q. Are you concerned that this system could create an officer corps that’s too specialized and lack the breadth necessary to operate wider forces

A. That’s certainly another risk. And when we’ve messaged this, we talked to both technical depth and breadth. [Officers are] going to need the breadth to be able to integrate that into a joint campaign. And so when it’s appropriate, we’ll make sure the promotion boards value breadth.

Q. It’s unusual for the Air Force to socialize something like this before it’s policy. Why are you doing it this way

A. Promotions affect everybody. This is a rather large adjustment for the Air Force, right? And I think a sign of a very mature organization is that it’s willing to have open dialogue and discussion. We did this with revitalizing squadrons, where we went out to the field and got grassroots-level inputs, talked to the airmen, made sure they got to be a part of the discussion and the process.

I think we’re doing the same thing here, knowing that this is a pretty significant adjustment to how we’ve operated since 1947. It makes sense for us as a learning organization to get everybody’s inputs and make sure everybody understands what we’re doing before we make the major adjustment.

Q. What feedback are you getting from Congress

A. We’ve talked a lot with our personnel subcommittees on both the Senate and House side. They are very supportive, actually. They’ve put language in previous National Defense Authorization Acts that spoke to the need for each of the services to utilize a flexibility they had been previously given to adjust promotions and the categories. Congress recognizes the nature of warfare is constantly changing, and the National Defense Strategy sets new requirements. They had previously indicated to all the services that this was something we should be doing. So from a basic standpoint, they’re supportive, they’re interested in what we hear and learn as we go out on our roadshows and get our feedback. Goldfein has talked with a number of key members in the Air Force caucus and on staff subcommittees, both House and Senate, as have the Secretary, legislative liaison, myself, and others. They’ve asked us to come back after we’ve gathered feedback and keep them informed.

Q. Do you need permission from Congress or do you have the go-ahead already

A. No, we already have the authorities needed.

Q. On a different topic, General Goldfein has said the pilot shortage is easing. What’s happening there

A. There are multiple lines of effort we are taking to mitigate the pilot shortage. The main levers are, we’ve got to produce more pilots, we’ve got to keep and absorb and train more pilots, and we have to retain them. And I think we’re making headway in all three areas.

Last year, we increased production slightly at Air Education and Training Command, there are plans to increase production this year, and across the rest of the FYDP (Future Years Defense Program). So that’s going in a positive direction.

On retention, we’ve focused on quality of life, quality of service issues. Getting rid of some additional duties and things that were a distraction. And we’ve provided more support staff in a squadron to help them with associated and administrative duties. Work was done on the assignment system to help our airmen have a little more visibility and say on where they’re going to go. So they have a little bit more control over their careers. All these things combined­—I think—have helped.

The pilot bonus take rate had been declining for almost five straight years. Last year, it stabilized. It didn’t get to the level we wanted to get to, but that was a good sign that perhaps we’re seeing some easing of the problem.

Q. How has the enlisted pilot program on the remotely piloted aircraft worked out? Will that continue, or are you reassessing that

A. The first thing we learned is what we already assumed, but verified: that our enlisted force is incredibly capable and sharp. The enlisted pilots we put through the RPA program have all done remarkably well and are performing great.

We’re going through the process of rethinking, now: How does that go forward? The first point—because I don’t want to tie these together—is that enlisted pilots do not solve a pilot shortage, right? When you have a production problem, it doesn’t matter what flavor of person you put through a schoolhouse there’s still only a limited number of seats. So we don’t view that as a way of fixing the pilot retention issue.

That said, we’re reviewing the CONOPS and saying, ‘Okay, as we start to expand, especially in the RPA world, how does our enlisted force fit in’ That’s what we’ll be looking at to try and get a long-term plan.

Q. General Goldfein is working on a new expeditionary force plan. When will that roll out

A. Our A3 team is leading that, and it’s about how we present our forces. The National Defense Strategy and the Chief have called out the need to return to our expeditionary roots, and how we may have to put forces forward in a different way than we have in the past. I would look to the fall for that.