Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Hey, Geaney and ‘Nimble’: The era of the ‘fighter mafia’ is over, and the Air Force actually is doing better with non-pilots

Capt. David Geaney and Maj. “Nimble” both offered some useful insights about leadership in the Air Force on the Best Defense blog, but both miss the mark.

St Elmo's Fire


By Captain Nicholas Reinhold, U.S. Air Force Reserve

Best Defense guest respondent


By Captain Nicholas Reinhold, U.S. Air Force Reserve
Best Defense guest respondent

Capt. David Geaney and Maj. “Nimble” both offered some useful insights about leadership in the Air Force on the Best Defense blog, but both miss the mark. Many of Capt. Geaney’s concerns have already been recognized and implemented while Maj. Nimble’s dismissiveness of the leadership and contributions of non-pilots represent an attitude and culture the service must avoid. These comments reflect my own views and not any official stance of the Air Force.

Capt. Geaney’s assertion that the Air Force asks too much of its pilots would have been more correct 10-15 years ago, but is inaccurate today. Since 9/11, and perhaps starting before, the Air Force has implemented policies in line with Capt. Geaney’s recommendations to assign pilots to duties that align with their specific operational skills. The impression that pilots fill most command positions of other career fields was more accurate during the Cold War. Now, career support officers, like Capt. Geaney, command nearly all the Air Force’s logistics squadrons and mission support groups.

In particular, the Air Force has also expanded opportunities for intelligence officers to command at all levels within their own career field. Now the service has five intelligence wings or wing-equivalent commands, more than some individual pilot communities.

When I joined the Air Force in 2007 the service was recovering from an exodus of intelligence officer colonels facing a “glass ceiling” to general officer-level leadership of their own career field. Until 2015 the two most senior intelligence officer positions in the Air Force rotated between several career aviators. However, during that time the Air Force promoted 10-15 intelligence colonels to general so that now both the A2 (Air Force Director of Intelligence) and 25th Air Force Commander are career intelligence officers for the first time. That the 25th Air Force commander is a career intelligence officer is particularly relevant in being a rare example of a non-aviator commanding the Air Force’s fleet of spy planes in Air Combat Command. Moreover, the previous 25th AF commander, also an intelligence officer, has been selected to replace a pilot to become the Air Force’s A6, its Chief Information Officer.

The Air Force has taken several other steps to provide Wing Command opportunities, a stepping-stone to general officer, to non-aviation career fields. Support officers command not only some of the largest bases in the Air Force, but in the Department of Defense at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, and Joint Base San Antonio. In doing so the Air Force has already implemented Capt. Geaney’s recommendation to separate operational command duties from running an installation while showing that support officers are just as adept at running installations supporting flying operations as their pilot counterparts.

The Air Force is also alleviating the burden on aviators to perform non-flying duties by creating the Air Liaison Officer career field in 2008. With the policies and programs highlighted above, the Air Force is well on its way to expanding career opportunities for non-aviators and alleviating the burden on its aircrew. To take the next step, the Air Force should consider the recommendation of Capt. Geaney, and others, to create non-command career tracks in all officer career fields, not only within the pilot community.

While Captain Geaney highlighted a problem that the Air Force has attempted to fix, Maj. Nimble’s dismissive attitude towards his peers in other career fields represents an example of the mentality the service must escape.

This is most prominently evident in Maj. Nimble’s blunt dismissal of Capt. Geaney’s suggestion that the Air Force separate support and operational commands, also not realizing that the service has already implemented this recommendation. For example, the installation commander of Joint Base Langley-Eustis and the 633rd Air Base Wing is a career personnelist, and not the F-22 pilot commanding the 1st Fighter Wing down the road.

Maj. Nimble is also wrong in asserting that an individual’s selection to be a pilot as a 20-year old cadet is useful as a signal of future leadership potential. The stated mission of the Air Force Academy is to “educate, train, and inspire men and women to become officers of character motivated to lead the United States Air Force in service to our nation,” not to simply produce the fighter pilots who will take command 15-20 years later. Indeed, as an intelligence officer, I have found that nearly every single one of my peers selected intelligence as their first career choice while opting not to compete to become pilots. Basing service-wide promotion and command decisions on whether or not a person is a member of a group, such as fighter pilot or weapons officer, is simply bad management and statistically biased. This fact is evident in the number of officers separating to attend the nation’s top law, business, and public policy schools. If the Air Force is unwilling to recognize and develop talent, its officers will leave to find those opportunities.

Maj. Nimble seems unaware of the leadership and warfighting experiences of other career fields. Within months of completing training in 2008 my intelligence officer peers were running intelligence operations and overseeing dozens of junior airmen supporting live combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan before our classmates who became pilots were qualified to fly their primary aircraft. U-2 pilots relied on us to keep them safe from enemy threats near hostile airspace and soldiers relied on our analysis of drone footage to identify IEDs and ambushes.   More than simply assess risk, we intuitively learned what it meant to accept risk and succeed or fail on combat missions.

Maj. Nimble’s comments are particularly useful for demonstrating the problems highlighted in my previous post that the Air Force relies too heavily on discrete signals, such as selection to attend Weapons School, to promote its officers. It makes sense that the Air Force would have trouble promoting and retaining drone pilots, cargo pilots, and intelligence officers if the service was using one’s selection as pilot, fighter pilot, or graduation of Weapons School as proxies for promotion and leadership potential. While fighter pilots and Weapons School graduates represent some of the finest and most experienced officers in the service today, it is simply wrong to dismiss the experience of officers who serve in other important capacities. The Air Force has acknowledged this and his increasingly opened up more senior command and leadership opportunities to men and women of all career fields.

Recommendations for future personnel policies should build on these changes.

Ultimately, the Air Force’s retention problem is not tied to a leadership crisis, but simply to poor management, as I highlighted in my previous post. The Air Force must give officers of all career fields more flexibility in balancing personal and professional goals throughout their career. For some officers this may mean opting out of command-track opportunities and pursuing staff jobs of increasing responsibility. For others this may be remaining at a base where a spouse can pursue a fulfilling career.

Maj. Nimble’s post reminds us that the Air Force’s cultural inclination to use signals of promotion and command potential, is deeply entrenched. By using a pseudonym Nimble seems to signal his awareness that his comments do not reflect Air Force practices. He probably thought his commentary reflected how the “real” Air Force works, but instead it betrays the fact that his insights are almost certainly likely to be disputed by all but a few pilots clinging to the “fighter-mafia” era that is becoming less relevant in the age of modern warfare.

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 School of International and Public Affairs. This article represents his own views, which are not necessarily those of the Air Force Reserve or Columbia University in the City of New York.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense 

Thomas 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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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