A Call for Senior Officer Reform in the Air Force: An Insider’s Perspective
Editor’s Note: This article is written by an Air Force officer using a pseudonym. Regular readers of War on the Rocks know that we authorize this in the rarest of cases. In this case, our editor-in-chief authorized this because the author’s career — even beyond the author’s time in the Air Force — would be at serious risk even though this article does not involve any violations of regulation or law as far as we have been able to discern.
How does an aspiring officer attain the rank of general? Some think it is a combination of hard work, luck, and timing. This is partially true but there is much more to it, and some of that “more” is cause for concern. Few officers understand how a career in the Air Force really works unless they have a relative who is a general officer. That doesn’t describe me, yet somehow, I ended up as one of the select few promoted early (commonly referred to as “below the zone”) and am in the running for promotion to general officer. I have decided against pursuing that promotion and continuing my career in the military. I’d rather run out of career than run out of family. But, before I make those intentions known and my superiors “vote me off the island,” I want to use my remaining time and influence to make things better for those who remain in service. The insights I offer are different from those you may have read in the past because I offer the perspective of a beneficiary of the system. The Air Force has not mistreated me or slighted me in any way. I have a deep love for our Air Force and a concern about its future and that is exactly why I am writing this. While no system is perfect, the current Air Force promotion system for ranks lieutenant colonel and up is broken. The Air Force’s four-star generals could fix the system, and there is cause for optimism, but before I get to that, we have to start with how the system functions and why it is failing.
An Air Force officer begins to be evaluated for their potential to one day promote to general officer at the rank of captain (O-3). The results of these evaluations are all but cemented by the time those captains promote to major (O-4). This means officers’ early and tactical successes can put them on a track for promotion below the zone. By contrast, officers who earn promotions on the normal timeline are commonly referred to as “on time.” Senior officers informally refer to early-promoted officers as “high-potential officers” because they have the potential to compete for general officer. Major command personnel offices, wing commanders, and functional leadership at the Air Force headquarters-level then track and guide the careers of these high-potential officers. They do this because an officer needs to stay ahead of normal promotion timelines to have a realistic chance at wing command and if they do not become a wing commander, they will not be competitive for brigadier general.
General officers perpetuate this promotion timeline based on the notion that anyone in consideration for brigadier general (O-7) must have enough time left in their careers to compete for general (O-10) before they reach mandatory retirement age. Even if we accept that idea, putting people on the fast track so early in their careers comes with many negative consequences. First and foremost is the lack of strategic mindedness in many senior Air Force leaders. A great tactical operator does not a strategist or leader make. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but the system forces general officer potential determinations to be made long before those high-potential officers are placed in positions where their strategic thinking or leadership abilities are tested. General officers are designating junior officers as high-potential when they are in charge of less than 30 people and addressing tactical problems. Consequently, the Air Force is promoting people who think in terms of one-on-one aircraft engagements. Generals need to be able to think in terms of thousands of people, political-military affairs on a national level, and grand strategy. Yet the current system requires senior officers to guess about future senior leader performance with little information over a decade before officers will assume those positions. The evidence suggests the generals are not guessing well.
To make matters worse, the system does not allow for correcting any mistakes after putting an officer on the fast track. Once an officer is designated a high-potential officer, incidents that should end a career become “teachable moments.” Most general officers reject the notion the system is flawed because it promoted them and they have a difficult time believing they can err in judging character. Additionally, if one general officer fires a high-potential officer, others may see it as a challenge to the judgment and reputation of the “sponsoring” general officer. Consequently, generals resurrect the careers of high-potential officer protégés following unfavorable investigations and firings.
For example, there was a group commander who had the worst command climate assessment in his Numbered Air Force’s history. This officer’s squadron commanders came together — at significant career risk — to highlight his toxic leadership while they still worked for him. That should have been the end of the offending officer’s career, but he is a high-potential officer who was promoted years early to colonel. So, instead of doing the right thing, the general officers in his chain of command sent him to a staff job for a couple of years after command as punishment. But he still got the strongest promotion and wing command recommendation a group commander can receive. When his name came up for wing command consideration, one general officer stated he believed the colonel “had learned his lesson.” Shortly thereafter, the colonel became a wing commander, solidifying his shot at brigadier general. Lessons were learned, but not by the colonel in question (who is just as bad if not worse as a wing commander): The watching colonels, squadron commanders, and senior noncommissioned officers learned there is no real accountability for high-potential officers. The Air Force considers “on time” officers and airmen expendable if the results make the supervisors look good. Interestingly, the Air Force places significant emphasis building up the resilience of its airmen. My personal experience suggests our airmen require these skills primarily to cope with unaccountable and toxic leadership.
To actually remove high-potential officers and acknowledge an “on time” commander is better could shake the foundation of the senior officer system. After all, to question or change the current system would also call into question their promotions. This is something most people prefer to avoid. Consequently, senior leaders tend to look for people like them to place on the high-potential officer track. The most successful high-potential officers are those who make their seniors look good in shallow pursuit of the latest fad, thereby avoiding potential mistakes that could result from taking actual risks to advance the mission. For example, if an officer today is “innovatively” using “spark tanks” to “enable multi-domain command and control,” chances are they are on the track to early promotion.
Most superiors have no interest in looking beneath the surface so long as the surface makes them look good. Absent criminal misconduct, the only way officers on the high-potential officers’ track can go wrong is if they are actually innovative and take risks. Many senior officers sit on truly innovative proposals for no better reason than fear of making a mistake. It is much more difficult for senior leaders to hold individuals accountable for not pursuing an initiative than to point out an initiative that did not work out. As a result, most senior officers interested in promotion pursue a strategy of risk-avoidance. If pushed, those senior officers may direct a study to provide the illusion of taking action until they can shift the responsibility to the officer taking over from them. High-potential officers, in turn, look to the example of their seniors and correctly identify risk avoidance as the surest path to group and then wing command. It naturally follows that risk avoidance and innovation are mutually exclusive which helps to explain why the Air Force has so many innovation fora and so little actual innovation. If they were truly interested in innovation, senior officers would actively remove the barriers to innovation currently restricting airmen. Instead, many senior officers support the barriers as a means of reducing their personal risk. The irony is in avoiding personal career risk, such officers place U.S. national security at greater risk.
Consequently, how well an officer leads or advances the mission relative to the size of the unit and mission scope is meaningless. With rare exception, the officer with the largest unit and highest visibility mission will advance over the officer with a smaller unit or less visible mission regardless of how they perform in command. General officers personally manage commander assignments and hold the most prestigious command positions in reserve for the high-potential officers with the best records and highest-ranking general officer sponsorship. This serves two purposes: It helps to mitigate fratricide between high-potential officers in the stratification process, and it strengthens the already strong records of these officers.
In every echelon of command, there is an “heir,” a “spare,” and the rest “should be happy to be there.” The heir is the high-potential officer in the most prestigious command position. The spare is typically a high-performing officer as well, but one who lacks general officer sponsorship or has a weaker record. Regardless, only retirement, a crime, or a major mistake by the heir can change the order of merit, in which case the spare might become the heir. Major mistakes short of crimes include challenging the status quo too often or taking risks resulting in embarrassment to the supervising wing commander or general. Absent those types of events, there is nothing the others can do to change their fate. Non-heir commanders are understandably frustrated when they successfully pursue bold strategies or fix units left to them by inferior commanders only to receive no or poor order of merit rankings behind high-potential officers who are lackluster or toxic leaders. Different standards apply to different classes of colonels and all but the heirs chafe at it.
In addition to differing standards, a different set of rules apply to heirs. As an example, a general removed an heir from wing command and launched an investigation for alleged misconduct. One can only image how serious the allegations were and how strong the evidence had to be for such a thing to happen to a multiple “below-the-zone” colonel. Nevertheless, that same officer is now one of the top candidates for brigadier general. Heirs also get special consideration in assignments to include the ability to turn down assignments without consequences. The senior leader management office has a well-documented policy that colonels can either accept their assignments or retire. This rule does not seem to apply to heirs. Senior officers think “non-heir” colonels should be happy to have made O-6 and should take what they get without complaint. To be fair, every officer who makes colonel should feel fortunate but more than a few high-potential officers feel and act entitled, which adds salt to the wounds of the non-high-potential colonels.
Thus, the differing standards and rules underpinned by the predestination-esque elements of the high-potential officer system demonstrates that Air Force meritocracy is corrupted. Does anyone think an “on-time” commander would still have a bright future in the Air Force after receiving the worst command climate assessment ever seen or have a chance at being a general officer after early removal from command? The Air Force justifiably makes high-demands of its colonels but when those colonels see high-potential officers moving ahead no matter what, just for being deemed “high potential,” they get frustrated.
Frustration eventually culminates and drives “on time” colonels from the service, which is now happening in record numbers. The numbers of departures are getting higher because the problem seems to be getting worse, with more toxic leaders than ever before climbing the ranks. General officers on the Air Staff are exercising an unprecedented degree of involvement in manipulating leadership placements. Wing commanders aren’t hiring subordinate commanders, they are providing inputs to general officers on the Air Staff. The Air Staff generals disregard those inputs more often than not. This type of meddling stamps out all hope in the eyes of the colonels who might otherwise continue to serve. These disenfranchised colonels leave quietly believing general officer retribution may adversely affect their post-retirement career plans, hence my use of a pseudonym. The quiet nature of the colonel exodus leaves Air Force general officers concerned but uncertain about the causes. Wonder no more. If senior leaders accept the argument I offer here and believe reform is necessary, there are some relatively simple solutions they should embrace.
First and foremost, the high-potential officer system, to include its tracking and career management, should end. There is no valid reason to make general officer potential determinations so early in an officer’s career. It undervalues late bloomers and overvalues people who peak as a company grade officer. Second, every promotion should come with a blank slate. Promotion boards should only consider the accomplishments of officers in their current grade. Third, promotion consideration and command should include 360-degree evaluations that become a permanent part of the officer’s record that a board can consider before placing them on a list of command candidates. It is possible to fool a supervisor, but peers and subordinates usually know the truth of the matter. The Air Force has 360-degree evaluations of military training instructors, so why not commanders? Fourth, commanders should be hired off a list prepared by a central board with a disinterested third party resolving conflicts. This is the way it works on paper, but reality is a different matter. Air Force headquarters staff directorates tend to meddle in command hiring decisions and put “tribe” first. This, of course, only reinforces the current high-potential officer system. Fifth, commanders need a specific performance evaluation form to improve accountability and improve assessments of leadership skills. Additionally, the system needs to incentivize commanders to lead boldly and put their airmen first. The Air Force cannot achieve Gen. David Goldfein’s directive to “bring the future faster” by rewarding risk-avoidance and empire-building. And finally, colonels and chief master sergeants cannot afford to remain silent any longer. Everyone has an obligation to report misconduct and abuse of power. Colonels and chiefs discuss these problems in hushed tones behind closed doors when they should go to the inspectors general office.
While far from comprehensive, these suggestions are feasible. For any real changes to take place, the Air Force Chief of Staff and other Air Force four-star generals have to acknowledge the system needs fixing. As retired Maj. Gen. Mike Worden identified in his book, Rise of the Fighter Generals, the only way the system can change is if those at the very top who benefited from the current system decide it needs to change. This is where my optimism comes into play. In my two decades of service, I have never been prouder of an Air Force chief of staff than I am of the one we have now — he is an exceptional leader. There are other strong three and four-star generals, but they are the minority.
If you are a senior officer and do not think there is an issue, I regret to inform you that you are a part of the problem. If you want to know why colonels are leaving the Air Force in unprecedented numbers, look no further than the colonels you usually select for wing command and promote into the general officer ranks. To the officers discouraged by this article, I offer that even if nothing changes, you can still have a rewarding and fulfilling career. Put your airmen and their mission first. Do what is right and do not do things just for appearance’s sake. Ask the challenging questions and make the tough calls. Be the leader you would want to follow. Take time to reflect and hold yourself accountable. Toxic leaders typically do not stop to question whether or not they are toxic. I hold out hope the system can change to enable the Air Force to promote the best leadership as the rule instead of the exception.
“Ned Stark” is the pseudonym for an active duty Air Force high-potential officer with multiple combat tours, several distinguished graduate honors, and both command and staff experience at multiple levels from the flight line to the corridors of the Pentagon.