Jack McCain is right that the Air Force has big problems — but he’s wrong about why officers are bailing out so much
- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Capt. Nicholas Reinhold, U.S. Air Force Reserve
Best Defense guest respondent
Navy Lt. Jack McCain’s commentary on the pilot crisis is insightful and should catch the attention of Air Force leadership. If a disinterested outside observer can remind the Air Force of its problems, why have the service’s senior leaders fallen short of solving them?
While I largely agree with McCain’s views, I disagree with the notion that pilot’s not being “provided the opportunity for meaningful leader development” is the primary explanation for the Air Force’s leadership problems. The Air Force’s leadership and retention problems extend well beyond the pilot community to intercontinental ballistic missile officers, intelligence officers, and remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) pilots, among other career fields, many of which have the opportunity to exercise leadership at junior ranks.
As a junior intelligence officer I served as a flight commander for 50 airmen, civilians, and contractors and relied on my non-commissioned officers and contractor leadership — including a Naval Reserve chief petty officer — to guide me through the leadership challenges and keep me out of trouble in the same way that McCain describes. Despite this opportunity, many of my peers and I decided to separate at a high enough rate for the Air Force to offer us retention bonuses in 2014 with the Air Force’s senior intelligence officer stating that, “we simply can’t afford to lose the experience and skills of these intelligence officers who are critical to our national security.”
The Air Force’s problem retaining officers is seen in the expanding scope of the Voluntary Limited Period of Active Duty program. Until recently Reserve or National Guard officers in the six career fields of fighter pilot, combat rescue officer, intelligence officer, network operations officer, remotely piloted aircraft pilot, and chaplain, could return to active duty to fill critical manpower shortages. This year the Air Force added 51 additional career fields to the list, representing over one-third of Air Force officer specialties. That the Air Force cannot retain officers in dozens of career fields, including those critical to operational readiness, shows that the service’s leadership and retention problems have less to do with providing pilots the opportunity to exercise leadership as lieutenants and captains and is more likely due to poor organizational management and mismatched incentives to remain on active duty once one’s service commitment is complete.
Rather than leadership development, one of the main problems with leadership in the Air Force is that the current leadership culture encourages commanders to look for simple ways to stratify subordinates. The essence of the Air Force’s leadership problem can be seen in the recent scandal within the ICBM officer community. Until 2013, ICBM officers faced intense pressure to score as high as possible on regular proficiency checks to distinguish themselves. The pressure was so great and the margins by which officers were stratified were so slim that dozens of officers felt compelled to cheat to avoid being ranked low relative to their colleagues and losing out on important development opportunities. Rather than spend time getting to know their subordinates, leaders in the ICBM community used test scores as a proxy for future potential and created a toxic environment where officers felt compelled to cheat not only to get ahead, but to avoid falling behind.
In 2014, the Air Force implemented new education rules for attending professional military education (PME) schools. Before, many — if not a large majority of — officers were often required by supervisors to complete programs such as Squadron Officer School (SOS), a course for junior captains, by correspondence before being nominated to attend in-residence, despite the requirement being redundant. This redundant requirement extended to Air Command, Staff College, and Air War College. One can simply scan the biographies of Air Force senior leaders and see that many completed duplicative PME courses multiple times in their career. As more and more officers completed SOS by correspondence, many supervisors began requiring their officers to have a master’s degree before being nominated to attend. Eventually the chief of staff of the Air Force issued guidance requiring 100 percent attendance to in-residence SOS to prevent the Air Force’s squadron commanders from continuing to waste their officers’ time completing a redundant requirement.
For years PME and a master’s degree were used as proxies by leaders to judge whether or not an officer took their career seriously, and thus deserved to be promoted. Rather than provide feedback on an officer’s performance relative to their peers and consider their professional growth, commanders could simply give their subordinates these simple goals and use their progress towards them as a substitute for leadership potential. If somebody could not be bothered to complete a master’s degree within their first seven years on active duty and complete one correspondence course when they were advised to do so, why should the Air Force promote them? Ultimately, the Air Force forced itself to stop using the completion of a master’s degree as a proxy for promotion potential by masking officers’ education status when they are considered for a promotion to major.
While the problems described above have been addressed, the solutions are not sufficient to change the Air Force’s structural problems with performance feedback and professional development. Many officers have long become accustomed to writing their own inflated performance reports and “checking the boxes,” creating incentives for officers to seek out duty titles and responsibilities valued by promotion boards rather than those that they find most fulfilling. Now, instead of completing PME and a master’s degree there is a higher premium on earning quarterly and annual recognition awards that can reflect completion of education accomplishment. While some promotion boards now no longer see who has earned a master’s degree, they do see the periodic awards an officer has won that required completion of education courses and/or community service. In this way leaders in the Air Force can still judge their subordinates by whether or not they are “checking the boxes.”
Another significant problem with performance reports is that they are primarily used as a signal for leadership potential, and not individual professional growth. Performance reports take months to draft and review to ensure that the right signals are sent to future promotion and command boards, rather than providing an officer with honest feedback about their professional abilities and performance relative to their peers. As a result, an officer’s career can become derailed by a supervisor who cannot write well or who is not up-to-date with the signal promotion boards are looking for.
The Air Force’s leadership culture and inability to create incentives for retention is most evident in the remotely pilot aircrafts (RPA) community. Between 2006 and 2013 RPA pilots were promoted at rates below the Air Force average in 20 of 24 promotion boards even as they accumulated more operational experience than any other career field. An explanation for low promotion rates was that RPA pilots had fewer opportunities relative to their peers to “check the boxes” by completing education and training requirements valued by promotion boards, highlighting the Air Force’s rigid path for leadership development and promotion. Recognizing the problem, then-Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley advised promotion boards that “drone pilots have unique skills that are critical to national security.” This reminder should have been unnecessary for officers examining the records of their most experienced peers. The inability of the Air Force to develop and retain RPA pilots attracted the attention of the Government Accountability Office, who released a series of reports in 2014, 2016, and 2017 regarding the service’s continued poor management of the career field.
Solving the leadership problem in the Air Force will require the service’s most senior leaders to examine the model that promoted them and conclude that it is not sufficient to retain enough pilots, ICBM officers, intelligence officers, and RPA pilots needed to fill the service’s operational requirements. The Air Force’s retention problems will only be fully resolved when the service’s senior leadership creates a performance feedback program that recognizes and promotes talented individuals who may not desire to serve as commanders yet have the technical skills to continue serving. The service should stop using a performance feedback model designed to identify the top 20 percent of officers at their board for promotion to major and switch to one that accommodates an adaptable force that allows officers to achieve their professional and personal goals at their own pace, while still fulfilling specific “needs of the Air Force.”
Captain Nicholas Reinhold, U.S. Air Force Reserve, is an intelligence officer who served on active duty for eight years in several different commands and locations. He is currently a student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
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