Editorial: Developing Better Airmen

Sept. 1, 2019

The most critical role of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, working on behalf of the Secretary, is to build the force of the future. The Chief’s leadership sets the tone for today, of course, but it’s the decisions he makes to shape the future of the force that have the most lasting consequences. This is as true of developing future weapons as it is with selecting and developing future leaders.

For as long as it has existed, the Air Force has chosen future leaders the same way: With the exception of chaplains, doctors, and lawyers, it has lumped all its officers into a single category known as the “Line of the Air Force,” and selected a percentage of them for promotion. “This system has served us very well,” says Lt. Gen. Brian T. Kelly, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for personnel. “It is one of the most thorough, fair, and equitable processes we have.”

But an effective officer development system must be more than fair and equitable. It must also generate the correct mix of leaders, appropriately skilled and experienced, to lead and operate in an increasingly complex, joint, and specialized world. This is not about promoting individual airmen. It’s about managing talent for a better Air Force.

This is where the current system falls short. Asking promotion board members to pit combat heroes against technical experts in a Darwinian competition that starts at major and continues at each successive level puts technical experts at a disadvantage and shortchanges the Air Force of specialized skills at its upper ranks. Instead of valuing diverse career paths and skill sets, it drives everyone to follow essentially the same career path, one conceived to ensure a highly competitive process for selecting general officers and, ultimately, a Chief of Staff.

What it does not ensure, however, is a comparably healthy selection of technical experts to become the leaders of their various technical specialties. Fields such as cyber, intelligence, logistics, maintenance, missiles, public affairs, space, and weather are ill served by this approach.

Today’s system does not promote officers to fill specific jobs and requirements, but instead promotes officers as if they are entirely interchangeable. They’re not. Inevitably, some newly promoted officers end up as square pegs in round holes—skilled enough to get the job done, perhaps, but not the best fit for the job at hand. If there aren’t enough space-trained colonels, for example, then officers lacking that expertise must fill those billets.

Kelly has engineered a plan to break the Line of the Air Force into multiple competitive categories, a deliberate and scientific approach to help the Air Force better manage its talent and ensure it promotes and retains not only the best and brightest, but also that it promotes and retains officers in the right numbers and with the right skills and expertise to meet the service’s needs. Assuming no surprises emerge, Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein will recommend to the Secretary in late September that these changes be adopted.

Instead of promoting by volume and then trying to match skills to jobs afterward, the new system will tailor promotions to the changing needs of the force. More competitive categories provide leaders the precision controls needed to manage highly specialized career fields, just as it does today with medical specialties, where competitive categories are already very narrowly defined. This way, instead of having one promotion rate of 80 or 85 percent for all aspiring lieutenant colonels, rates can be adjusted up or down for each individual category to match the needs of the force.

To be sure, this means the Air Force will also be able to set floors to ensure a minimum number of a given category of officer will be promoted. In a meritocracy like the Air Force, this will raise concerns about lowering standards. It shouldn’t. In reality, the difference between the 80th percentile and the 81st in a group numbering in the thousands is infinitesimal and arguably arbitrary. It stands to reason, then, that the needs of the service are at least as valuable a discriminator as the relative merits of any given individual.

Kelly spent the summer visiting bases and briefing officers about the proposed changes. After presentations at Hurlburt Field and Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, officers who spoke with Air Force Magazine were largely positive about the proposed changes. Some expressed concern about unintended consequences, while others worried that the effects would be slow to become apparent. Most seemed to accept the logic that finer controls would allow for more and different kinds of career paths and for different specialties to develop their own ideal career paths over time.

Kelly acknowledged some missteps. His initial roll out ran into turbulence because its focus on “promotions” set off defensive responses before the proposed changes could be explained. “It’s really more about development than promotion,” Kelly said in an interview. “It’s about how we organize and who we compete with for promotion, and about how we unlock the ability to develop talent differently.”

The existing system’s “one-size-fits-all model,” Kelly says, has driven everyone to check the same boxes at the same points in time, and in some fields, caused leaders to redesign organizational structures to better position officers for promotion.

“Look, if you ask me to choose between great leaders and great technical experts, I’m going to choose great leaders,” Kelly says. “But ideally, what we really want in our Air Force is to be able to develop people who are both a leader and a technical expert. We think going to this system gives us the ability to maximize both, so we’re not forced to choose between those two scenarios.”

Changing the competitive categories is ultimately just a part of a larger set of changes Kelly and the Chief envision. Others include a new system for officer performance reports that will eliminate grade inflation by using data analytics to normalize scores based on the rating history of each reviewing officer. Like advanced baseball statistics that make it possible to more accurately compare pitcher and hitter performance based on how players perform in different ballparks, this approach will provide a more accurate means for comparing OPR ratings from different raters and eliminate the perception that anything less than a “5” will damn an officer’s career potential.

Just as significant is a proposal to eliminate officer promotion zones, along with below-the-zone and above-the-zone promotions. Officers are human, Kelly argues, so it’s unrealistic to think everyone will develop at the same rate. He’d like to give some officers more time to develop at a given rank, while letting others advance more quickly, breaking the direct tie to year groups. This, too, is complicated, but Kelly argues it could be better for many individuals and help the Air Force better manage its talent pool.

There’s a pattern here. The Air Force is only as good as its airmen. Those airmen are not machines, but people. Care for them, and they will grow and perform—often beyond expectations—but only if their talents are successfully managed.