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The Air Force fumbles: A post-mortem on the recent promotion board for lt. colonels

The Air Force fumbles: A post-mortem on the recent promotion board for lt. colonels

By Capt. Michael W. Byrnes, USAF
Best Defense guest respondent

The public discussion that’s recently emerged about the U.S. Air Force’s (USAF) personnel crisis is well overdue. Many thanks to Lt. Jack McCain for offering his first-hand observations as a Naval officer, and to Capt. Nicholas Reinhold and Maj. Mike Benitez for their contrasting views. Maj. Benitez in particular said some very important things, among them:

“Pilots and rated aviators are leading every day, but unfortunately it’s largely out of sight — behind a vault door, in the cockpit, or in the air.”

There’s an enormous amount to discuss on pilot retention, but in this article I explore his thought by analyzing a recent promotion board outcome that, even with fairly standard-looking summary statistics, left several wing commanders and even a few generals on the Joint Staff curious.

Promotion rates for pilots leading missions at the wing/base level seemed surprisingly low, particularly in the midst of growing shortages. This article provides initial forensics and argues two factors are at work: 1) USAF’s words said it valued combat leadership, but its actions incentivized staff and managerial roles; and 2) USAF failed to procedurally differentiate line officers while simultaneously redirecting pilots out of the incentivized staff roles. The combined effects diffused promotions away from combat leaders it is desperately trying to retain toward specialists on staff for which it had no shortages. The other services mitigate this problem by specifying more detailed competitive categories for officer promotions, whereas USAF opted for an amalgamated “Line of the Air Force” category. I argue a “new tactical career track” would counterintuitively aggravate the situation, while corrected handling of existing operations tracks can ameliorate the challenge.

Promotion System Background

For those joining the discussion from outside USAF, evaluations for promotion to lieutenant colonel generally occur three times: two years below the promotion zone (2BPZ), “one below” (1BPZ), and “in promotion zone” (IPZ). If you don’t make it IPZ, USAF may offer you continuation, and your commander can recommend promotion “above the zone” (APZ), but you are “passed over” and historically have a four percent chance of recovering. Additionally, unless promoted early (three-four percent chance), you are effectively eliminated from competing for group or wing command, or general officer rank. This reality is a combined consequence of the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA), and USAF’s decision to select generals earlier in the career path than any other branch.

What Happened

The most recent board stretched the system into the realm of a many-splendored dysfunction. First, the Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC), working for the Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower, Personnel, and Services, has a strict policy against sharing its analysis of results. An Oct. 27, 2014 memo stated:

“As the law mandates promotion boards recommend the ‘best qualified’ officers for promotion, the Air Force has an interest in avoiding the misperception that any one characteristic such as duty location, [Air Force career specialty], or organizational level is the basis for promotion. Accordingly, requests for statistical analysis based on factors other than [reports required by public law] require AFPC [commander] approval.”

The memo shows a matrix of what to hide and from whom, and how AFPC’s two-star general alone will decide what to release to even four-star generals or Congress. If concern for misperception is legitimate, the solution is nonsensical: people forming perceptions cling to them more tightly in an information vacuum rather than abandon them. Working around their refusal to share (using a multilayered approach) is possible, however results must be interpreted as estimates. AFPC public demographics showed 9,875 majors in the “Line of the Air Force” competitive category, and my method accounted for 9,620 (2.65 percent underestimate). I assessed 1,518 “IPZ,” and 3,556 “BPZ” majors, 72.5 percent and 3.43 percent of whom were selected, respectively.

I manually coded 2,432 USAF workplaces, though differently from categories AFPC uses, to better model officer career experiences. AFPC does not delineate PME schools, Joint Staff, Field Operating Agencies (FOAs), or Air Force “Centers” like Lifecycle Management, from objective wings. This approach calculated 51 percent of “in the zone” Majors at the wing/base level selected on-time, while rates were 100 percent at schools and 94-98 percent at staffs. BPZ selection rates were 4.1 percent on staff, 11.9 percent at school, and 1.7 percent from the wing/base level. The board selected non-flying officers at a 3 percent higher on-time promotion rate than their flying counterparts. Meanwhile, Air Command and Staff College (ACSC)’s latest class gave more seats to intelligence officers than fighter pilots. Initial outreach to fighter and special operations communities found:

— Two of three F-16 pilots from Holloman passed over for on-time promotion.

Air Education and Training Command (AETC), home of USAF’s aircrew production pipelines, reported 10 percent lower selection than force-wide pilot averages.

— Zero early promotions of flying officers in Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) combat wings.

I checked the estimates against reports from the field’s allegedly recovering MQ-9 Reaper community. Despite an advertised 85 percent promotion opportunity, Creech Air Force Base had 6/15 Majors (40 percent) promoted on-time, Holloman had 3/7 (43 percent). All three Reaper pilots at PME school were selected, but at Air Force staff, selection was 2/4, and surprisingly, the one Reaper pilot that made it to a Joint staff assignment was passed over. His two-star general boss said, “I’m not sure why you didn’t get selected.” His records consistently indicated between top third and top 10% performance for a decade and a half, yet somehow ranked in the bottom 15 percent at the board. The overall on-time MQ-9 rate was 46.6 percent at the wings and just as poor at staff. One person was selected for early promotion, but no others were selected for school.

Retention Impacts

Analysis showed the Reaper’s problems are an extreme case, but symptomatic of broader effects impacting USAF tactical aviation. Two months before the board, the services briefed the House Armed Services Committee on pilot shortages. The Army, Navy, and Marines had crisp answers about internal causes and corrective actions, while USAF offered an ambiguous explanation of “cultural issues.” Nothing in the Air Force Statement clarified the claim. USAF also seemed confused about how many pilots it was short, reporting:

More troubling than the math error is the response of reducing the number of fighter pilots on staff by 13 percent and sending them to the flying units instead. The approach is not new. In 2008, there were about 890 fighter pilots outside of flying wings (staff/school) worldwide, but by 2016 the count was 550. The newest cut brings fighter staff reductions to 46 percent in nine years. Overall, USAF lost 20 percent of its fighter force in that period and bled the staff to fill a shrinking number of squadrons. If pilots are pushed to wings, where promotions are lower, career opportunities evaporate and the importance of preserving occasions for excellence in the air increases. Unfortunately, despite similar spending in 2015 as 1995 (nine billion in 2016-constant dollars) on fighter training, flight hours fell 45 percent. Young pilots measure their prospects by outcomes more senior cohorts experience, so as both career and flying options look bleak, effects will ripple beyond this board’s outcomes.

What’s Going On?

Bureaucratic processes like promotion boards naturally seek “apples-to-apples” comparisons when evaluating records. High managerial headcount always impresses, while leading combat engagements becomes mere job description, because the latter is peculiar to a subset of the records (operators). This problem is one of failure to identify asset specificity. The Departments of the Army and Navy both separated competitive categories for combat arms from supporting roles precisely because the specific expectations for milestone achievement along career paths were so incomparable.

Reaper is a test case of what happens to combat specialties in an amalgamated “Line of the Air Force” category when the relief valves of robust organizational structure (creating non-flying jobs internally) and access to managerial staff roles, which allow combatants to work around the system, are closed. USAF was forced, by default, to evaluate records filled with combat leadership (i.e.: 3000+ airstrikes in a year) rather than managerial accomplishments. Even when sent to staff, these officers’ records were combat-heavy (from being permitted to do little else for so long) and they had not commanded a squadron as a major (which occurs almost exclusively in non-flying career paths). This board’s outcomes suggest “workarounds” the combat specialties used are breaking down, aggravated by force composition changes and USAF’s transferring pilots from staff in response to shortages. The natural question is: Why use workarounds instead of fixing the problem?

Fighter pilots are slowly drifting toward the same trap as the Reaper: too important to let out of the cockpit, accumulating résumés filled with combat leadership amidst a managerially-incentivized promotion economy. Major Benitez’s argument echoes in the data and captures the words/actions mismatch originating from the specificity problem. The last Chief of Staff refocused institutional narratives on job performance, the current chief made revitalizing squadrons his top priority, and USAF evoked the phrase “national aircrew crisis” in March. Then in May, it favored non-flying over flying officers for promotion. Chief of Staff of the Air Force responded to Senator Cotton’s “tactical career track” discussion as though dedicated tacticians would top out at lieutenant colonel, and pilots suggesting such a track to Congress likely imagined the same: One could meet the nominal rank of a full officer career by doing well in aviation. The current system’s dynamics suggest we would instead generate more separated or retired majors.

Some see a shift toward favoring non-flying roles as evidence of better equity sharing, but there are three problems with that thinking. First, aviators and support officers come with drastically different price tags to develop. Second, USAF is an instrument of national policy — a living weapon — not a career machine to feed individual ambitions or balance equities among “tribes” of specialists. Third, it ignores clear findings of management research that in large organizations, civil or military, core competencies universally drive power structures, which is what mechanically makes each one uniquely competitive. For example, across 120 years every CEO of Procter & Gamble originated from product and brand development, because those are P&G’s core functions.

One anonymous argument that pilots (and particularly fighter pilots) were best qualified to lead because of the job’s competitive selection processes and intrinsic characteristics is oversimplified. The argument cannot explain why senior leader demographics shifted after 9/11 but before appreciable reductions in fighter flight hours could have affected the senior officer cohort. The article to which the anonymous author responded likewise overgeneralized complex organizational dynamics. Capt. Reinhold’s follow-up to both articles unfortunately turned toward arguing equities rather than performance: A nearly all-time readiness low hardly qualifies the claim that a “post-fighter mafia” Air Force is “doing better” on dimensions relevant to the taxpayer’s interests.

The uncomfortable reality is that pilots have led the air service neither because of fighter vetting mechanisms, nor alleged elitism, but by directly leading irreducible primary institutional functions. USAF is navigating adjustments to core competencies, particularly in space and cyber, but the combination of deep technical knowledge and experience employing military force (in whatever form) first-hand drives executive selection across the services. That is not an injustice to overcome, but nominal system behavior. Officers must keep their personal sense of worth separate from careers or risk becoming too absorbed to remember the strategic logic of why America has an air service. The “ISR Revolution,” for example, created excitement, but also a widespread, errant belief that organizing intelligence as an integrated enterprise could transform it from a supporting to a supported function of military power. Prestige and primacy must be divorced in our minds and our policies — the former is a social illusion, the latter, the dispassionate logic of warfare and of effective fighting forces.

Decision Point

USAF needs to develop and retain a variety of leaders, but lacks competitive categories that match distinct groups of career pathways, limiting senior leader flexibility to organize, train, and equip whatever the nation needs when it needs it. Resultant evaluation processes seeking universal comparability in officer records turn core missions into collateral duties and drive out talent. The Secretary of the Air Force has the authority to break “Line of the Air Force” into competitive categories such as: air operations, space operations, cyber operations, operations support, and combat sustainment, for example. Expanded competitive categories provide flexibility to shape segments of the force through accessions, cross-flow, and tailored instructions to specific promotion boards.

The direct benefit to airmen and commanders is that performance reports no longer have to speak in managerially-focused abstractions, but to a board of senior officers from their home competitive category. Air operations boards, for example, can reward formations led in combat, extraordinary episodes of mission command, lives saved in rescue operations, and enemies killed in action, because each board can compare like with like. Too many competitive categories can ossify the service, but too few force it to regress to an artificial mean, as we experience today. USAF leaders will have to balance carefully to facilitate valid comparisons among logically similar cohorts.

Whatever the Secretary decides, it is definitely time for increased transparency, and as CSAF suggested, relaxing aggressive career timelines to align with Joint partners.

Capt. Mike Byrnes is a PhD student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.  The author’s research and write-up were cleared for release by the Secretary of the Air Force’s Office of Public Affairs, however, the views and opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily state or reflect those of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the United States Air Force.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons