Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, Air Mobility Command commander, and Chief Master Sgt. Brian Kruzelnick, AMC Command Chief, share a laugh with Staff Sgt. Christopher Lynch, left, at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Van Ovost is one of only two currently serving female four-star generals in DOD. Senior Airman Kiaundra Miller
Photo Caption & Credits

Glass Ceilings

Feb. 17, 2022

America may be on the verge of promoting its first woman to lead a military service. The Air Force has the inside track.

Women have long played an active role in the U.S. military, but it’s only in recent times that they have approached its top ranks. Army Gen. Ann E. Dunwoody was the first Army four-star general in 2008; Air Force Gen. Janet C. Wolfenbarger was the first Air Force 4-star in 2012; and Adm. Michelle Howard became the first Navy 4-star in 2016. Three women have led one of the Defense Department’s 11 combatant commands. And none has ever led a military service—yet.

Within the next year to 18 months, however, that could change. The  Air Force and the Space Force each have senior female leaders with the combination of operational and senior-level Washington experience that will make them competitive in the high-stakes selection process and political conditions are also favorable, as the Biden administration has prized diversity in making appointments to high-ranking positions in defense and across government.  

DOD could benefit from expanding the opportunities for non-pilots. It’s better for national security.

David Norquist, former undersecretary of defense

Making it to the top ranks in any military service is challenging. To be successful, officers must stand apart from their peers early on and continue to excel at every level. Where you start is also critical. The Air Force has never had a Chief of Staff who was not a pilot, and all but one were bomber or fighter pilots. Over the past 60 years, the lone exception was Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, a special operator who flew C-130s and helicopters, who became Chief in 2008 as a surprise choice following the firing of then-Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley. All but two of the Air Force’s 40 vice chiefs also have been pilots.

Women make up 19.2 percent of Air Force officers, but only 6.5 percent of its pilots. What’s more, most women pilots fly mobility aircraft, not fighters. 

The numbers dwindle as Airmen move up the ranks. Among the 61 three- and four-star officers in the Air Force and Space Force, just three are women—4.9 percent. Only one—U.S. Transportation Command boss Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost—has four stars. Among all the armed forces, she and Army Gen. Laura J. Richardson, commander of U.S. Southern Command, are the only two who are women. 

“It’s not simply the pool you start with,” said former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense David L. Norquist. “What are the career fields within that tend to be the ones selected to be combatant commanders or other senior positions?” 

Norquist, who left the Pentagon in February 2021 and is now a defense consultant, said the factors that determine who rises highest could change as priorities change. “We know that the character of war is changing. We know that technology is changing,” he said. “So how does that change the skill mix that we need to reflect in our leadership? If there’s increased demand for cyber and space [and] long-range strike, that puts a premium on people with those backgrounds.” 

The growing importance of logistics, communications, and intelligence are all fields that have high representation among women. 

“Those are often not the positions that are elevated to the most senior levels. But they include a different mix of personnel, and … there are more women in some of those fields,” he added.

He suggested DOD could benefit from broadening its talent pool by expanding the opportunity for non pilots. 

“It’s better for national security and it makes the nation more able to adapt to the change in warfare,” he said. “The secondary effect is you get a more diverse workforce in the leadership because you’re drawing from areas that are not the traditional ones that tend to bring in a broader set of candidates. So, I think that’s one of the driving changes going forward.”

But there’s a reason the Air Force has long looked to pilots to be its leaders, noted former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, who served as a staff officer after graduating from the Air Force Academy. The Chief of Staff requires a deep understanding of the Air Force mission, she said. An instrument-rated private pilot, Wilson did not fly for the Air Force, but went on to have a distinguished civilian career, including serving in Congress and is now president of the University of Texas, El Paso. But she acknowledged the Air Force’s mission is evolving, and so too will the characteristics needed to be Chief.

“The service’s leadership needs to be at the center of a mission, and that mission has evolved over time,” Wilson told Air Force Magazine. “At some point we’re going to have a remotely piloted aircraft pilot become a four-star. We have had, of course, mobility pilots as four stars, and Jackie Van Ovost is the most senior one now. … It’s very, very hard for me to imagine a Chief of Staff whose background has been in logistics or maintenance, [because] this is the combat arms. … Those experiences that you get on the way to a job do matter.”

Former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson says that it’s “very, very hard” to imagine a Chief of Staff coming from logistics or maintenance, but she expects to see an RPA operator to become a four-star at some point, due to the changing nature of warfare. Here, Wilson speaks to a group of Chiefs and their spouses at JB Andrews, Md., Jan. 15, 2019. Adrian Cadiz/USAF

Breaking Barriers

When President Joe Biden chose Vice President Kamala Harris as his running mate in 2020, it set the stage for her to become the first woman and first person of color to be Vice President of the United States. His appointment of Lloyd J. Austin III as Defense Secretary was also historic, making the retired Army four-star the first Black Secretary of Defense. 

Biden has emphasized diversity in his administration, saying he is “committed to ensuring that women are represented equally at all levels of the federal government.” He established the White House Gender Policy Council within weeks of taking office, to “advance gender equity and equality in both domestic and foreign policy development and implementation,” according to a White House fact sheet. In March 2021, Biden said his commitment, “starts with Vice President Harris, who broke through a barrier that stood for more than two centuries. And it includes a record number of diverse women whom I’ve nominated to serve in Cabinet-level roles and appointed to senior-level positions.”

4-Star Trailblazers

Biden chose Kathleen H. Hicks to be deputy secretary of defense, the first woman to hold the job, and Christine Wormuth to be Secretary of the Army, making her the first to lead a military department other than the Air Force. Until then, only four other women served as Secretary, all of them led the Air Force: Sheila E. Widnall (1993-1997), Deborah Lee James (2013-2017), Wilson (2017-2019), and Barbara M. Barrett (2019-2021).

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. is the first Black service Chief, and the only African American member of the Joint Chiefs besides Colin Powell, who was Chairman from 1989-1993. Gina Ortiz Jones, the Undersecretary of the Air Force, is the first openly gay person and first woman of color to fill the role.

In the next one to two years, both Brown and Space Force Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond will either retire or move to new positions. Each could possibly be succeeded by a woman. 

Looking Ahead

When Army Gen. Mark A. Milley retires next year after four years as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he will set in motion a daisy chain of events that could lead to a series of historic nominations.

The fact that Adm. Christopher W. Grady was named Vice Chairman last year (replacing retiring Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten Jr.) says a lot about who might succeed Milley as Chairman, according to Mackenzie Eaglen, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown Jr., salutes the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard during the 102nd Annual Veteran’s Day Parade, Nov. 11, 2021, in New York City. Brown began his tenure emphasizing the need for speedy change, and hasn’t let up. He may also become the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Tech. Sgt. Ryan Conroy

“What it signals is that the top job is not going to go to someone in the Navy,” she said. 

Milley is the 20th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the fifth since an Air Force officer last held the job, when Gen. Richard B.Myers retired after four years as Chairman in 2005. That’s an indication that an Airman might be in line to relieve Milley in 2023.

Two Marines, two Soldiers, and one Navy admiral have been Chairman since Myers retired, a span of 22 years by the end of his tenure. That’s even longer than the 19 years that elapsed between the retirement of Air Force Gen. David C. Jones as Chairman and Myers being sworn into the job just weeks after 9/11. Such long stretches are an aberration rather than the norm for a position that is supposed to rotate roughly equally among the services.  

In Norquist’s view, the most important characteristic for a senior military leader is “the ability to drive change.” With the speed that the threat environment is changing, he said, what worked even five years ago, won’t necessarily work in the future.

“So, one of the things I look for in leaders is whether they’ve been able to drive change in the system in order to make it function differently,” Norquist said. “There’s a lot of resistance, rightfully, in any bureaucracy to change, because change creates complications, and things may go wrong. A leader who knows how to drive change in an organization without breaking it is incredibly valuable.”

Brown’s mantra, since Day One as Chief of Staff of the Air Force, is to “accelerate change.”

This, too, seems to work in Brown’s favor as a candidate to succeed Milley. 

“It does seem that the decks are being cleared for General Brown,” Eaglen said.

Within months of assuming the Air Force’s top uniformed job, Brown challenged the service with a white paper titled “Accelerate Change or Lose.” Even now, nearly two years later, he continues to hammer at that same point in nearly every public speech. The Air Force must move now or face dire consequences in the next conflict. Change won’t only come from the top, but must be initiated in the field, without waiting for extra resources to pay for new gear. Airmen of all ranks should understand their role in combating threats, and more importantly, they shouldn’t wait for the bureaucracy to catch up.

“I hate bureaucracy,” Brown has said. “I like cutting to the chase and getting things done.” 

Brown acknowledges bureaucracy is sometimes necessary, but it can also be an impediment, slowing things down. 

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, also sees Brown as a frontrunner for Chairman. 

“I can’t think of who would be a female Chairman just now, but I could be wrong,” he told Air Force Magazine. “More likely is that we’d see the second Black Chairman (after Powell) and then, if Biden wins re-election, perhaps the first female SECDEF.” 

O’Hanlon said  Michele Flournoy, the former undersecretary of defense for policy, who was edged out for Secretary of Defense by Austin in the first term, is a good bet to get the job if Democrats remain in control of the White House. 

Before then, though, more glass could be broken: A female Chief of Staff could be named in 2023 or, perhaps, a woman could be appointed to lead a “warfighting combatant command,” Eaglen said. Either “would be very exciting.”

If Brown is nominated for Chairman, Eaglen and O’Hanlon agreed, Van Ovost is well positioned to become Air Force Chief of Staff, making her the first woman to gain a seat at the table in the Joint Chiefs’ fabled “tank.” 

“Jackie’s interesting. I have a lot of respect for her,” said Wilson. Van Ovost was the Air Force’s Director of Staff when Wilson was Secretary, so they were in frequent contact. “She has a black belt in Pentagon, and she also has deep operational experience in mobility, which is a huge part of the United States Air Force,” Wilson said. “She’s an exceptional leader.” 

The Space Force, now just over two years old, will also get a new Chief in 2023. Aside from Raymond, who has led the new service since it stood up in December 2019, the only other Space Force four-star is Gen. David T. Thompson, the current Vice Chief of Space Operations. That means that unlike the other services, where seasoned four-star officers compete for the top job, the race for the next CSO will likely be a competition among three-star generals. 

The U.S. Space Force has a unique opportunity to build a service designed with women in mind, and could be the first to make a woman Chief. Lt. Gen. Nina Armagno, director of staff, USSF (left), is a three-star that may be in the running. Here, she speaks with Brig. Gen. Virginia Gaglio, Chief of Staff and Air Component Commander of the Massachusetts National Guard. Timothy Sandland/USSF

The Space Force has six three-star generals today, with Lt. Gen. Nina M. Armagno, the services director of staff, the most senior of the six. The others are Lt. Gen. William J. Liquori; Lt. Gen. B. Chance Saltzman, Lt. Gen. Stephen N. Whiting, Lt. Gen. John E. Shaw, and Lt. Gen. Michael A.  Guetlein. All things being equal, there’s a roughly 50 percent chance that Armagno could become either CSO, Vice CSO, or perhaps commander of U.S. Space Command when the current occupants of those jobs move on. 

More Work to Do

O’Hanlon authored a paper in May 2020 with retired USAF Gen. Lori J. Robinson, titled “Women Warriors: The ongoing story of integrating and diversifying the American armed forces.” 

Robinson, the former commander of U.S. Northern Command and now a Brookings fellow, was the first woman to lead a combatant command. Robinson, Van Ovost, and Richardson are the only women to lead combatant commands.

In the paper, Robinson tells her story of being the child of an Air Force pilot who earned her commission in the 1980s through Air Force ROTC and never expected to make the military a career.

“Life has a way of figuring things out for you,” she writes. “I had no idea that I would stay in for 37 years. No idea that I would be promoted beyond major. … No idea that all of my mentors would be men and fighter pilots.” 

This proved a critical advantage, and Wilson said it’s not surprising. Those who study leadership, both in the military and private sectors, say mentors make a huge difference. And one of the biggest differences between men and women is that about “two-thirds of men say they had a mentor or sponsor who was really important to them, and two-thirds of women leaders say they’ve never had a meaningful mentor,” Wilson said.

A mentor opens eyes as well as doors, Wilson suggested: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Van Ovost said the exact same thing in a 2020 interview with Air Force Magazine. 

Because the Air Force was faster to open more jobs to women, with most barriers removed in the early 1990s, it may now be ahead of its sister services in promoting women. 

Wilson said that may be more cultural than policy-driven. The nature of the Air Force, which is more technical and doesn’t require as much physical strength as some jobs in the ground services, also plays a role. 

The Long View

Robinson and O’Hanlon acknowledged in their paper that the Defense Department is more integrated than at any other time in its history, but the lack of women in senior leadership roles demonstrates that the Pentagon has yet to remove all the barriers women face, beginning with the challenges of balancing careers and families. It’s “still hard to leave the service for five to 10 years, then return,” O’Hanlon said. 

Eaglen said the first step to ensuring women are equally represented in senior leadership roles is to “admit there’s a challenge here.” 

“Step two is to ensure consistently high recruiting and retention of women, particularly during prime earning years, which are also childbearing years for most women, which is also, you know, the time of promotion,” said Eaglen, herself a mom of multiple children. “Third is to change the personnel system to accommodate exactly that point in time for women. … You’ve got to make sure the system can support promoting more women up through the ranks, and then secondly, actively search out those women and give them the opportunity.”

Several recent reports from the Air Force Inspector General, which looked at promotions, discipline, and ascensions based on race, ethnicity, and gender, showed the service still has far to go in this regard. 

“We need talent as diverse as the opportunities and challenges we face as a country,” Jones said during AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference. “The threat, our ability to address that, is certainly based on the talent we have within our Space Force and our Air Force.”