Promoting What We Value: Weapons School and Talent Management in the Air Force
What do the Russian Navy and the U.S. Air Force have in common? Beyond the obvious — they are both military organizations with heavy bureaucracies and they both have very expensive equipment — there is the perception that they both choose their future senior leaders from candidates who are still junior officers. Russian naval officers are put on the fast track to command early in their careers. Likewise, the U.S. Air Force identifies potential future generals early, sometimes as early as O-3. If true, what does this mean for current and future Air Force officers? Do Air Force officers have the ability to improve their odds of command and promotion if they are not one of the “chosen?” If so, how? The answers to these questions have broad implications for current senior Air Force leadership, particularly with the growing discussion in the public domain regarding Air Force talent management.
The pseudonymous Col. “Ned Stark,” who has written in this outlet recently, has spurred productive conversations within the Air Force regarding how we think about identifying and promoting talented officers. The timing of this conversation falls against a backdrop of scandals relating to toxic leadership and rumors about the chosen few for whom early promotions beget future early promotions, putting such officers on the fast track to general officer. One early indicator of future potential is graduation from the U.S. Air Force’s vaunted Weapons School, headquartered at Nellis Air Force Base outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. Indeed, graduates of this rigorous training proudly wear their Weapons School patches throughout their career, regardless of its relevance to their current position.
The desired traits of a Weapons School graduate are commonly summarized as “humble, approachable, and credible.” The patch, which is proudly worn on a graduate’s duty uniform, carries a level of respect within their career field for leadership and tactical expertise. This respect is justified as the road to becoming a “patch-wearer” is not easy. First, not all career fields are eligible to attend. Those eligible include pilots and combat systems officers across fighter, bomber, and mobility platforms as well as intelligence, cyber, and space officers, and air battle managers. Second, even submitting an application requires a wing commander’s endorsement, signaling a level of tactical proficiency and potential worthy of further investment. Third, if selected, students receive around 400 hours of “graduate-level academics and participate in demanding combat training missions” over the course of six months. Ask a graduate about his or her experience, and one receives stories of long hours, little sleep, high stress, and pressure from peers to perform at a high level.
While the personal sacrifice is high, so is the expected return on investment. Successful graduation from the Weapons School offers immediate rewards in the form of professional opportunities to demonstrate further leadership potential. These opportunities provide ever-growing professional momentum to separate oneself from the herd and become a “high potential officer” groomed for future leadership positions. Even a cursory review of Air Force leadership affirms the career-boosting potential of graduating from the Weapons School. The Weapons School patch adorns the uniforms of the current chief of staff of the Air Force and the commander of Air Combat Command, among others.
Looking deeper, what do the data show regarding the return on investment? Does it improve the odds of promoting “below the zone?” What about future command opportunities? A graduate may become humble, approachable, and credible, but will he or she become more promotable? Commanders at all levels can tell an airman that Weapons School will be good for one’s career with sincerity and authenticity, but can we know that this is true?
In an effort to answer these questions, we turned to anonymized Air Force personnel records dating back to 2004, amounting to nearly 4 million observations. While we are not permitted to release the data, we can share the results. Armed with data, we are able to discern what any active duty officer was doing in any given year, including their particular duty, their rater information, and whether that individual had graduated from Weapons School. This information allowed us to compare the effect of graduating from Weapons School on promoting below the zone to lieutenant colonel and colonel. The data also capture whether the officer assumed command of a detachment, support squadron, or operational squadron. As such, we are also able to tell how graduation impacts the opportunity to command, and then how this command experience impacts promoting early to colonel.
What Do the Data Say?
With one notable exception, Weapons School graduates seldom advance through the ranks quicker than their peers. That exception is fighter pilots: Graduating from Weapons School appears to increase the odds of promoting below the zone in the fighter pilot community and only in one specific level of promotion. They are about ten percent more likely to promote below the zone to lieutenant colonel compared to their non-graduate counterparts. Fighter pilots, of course, occupy many positions of senior leadership in the modern Air Force, and it is worth noting that fighter pilots comprise a significant proportion of the Weapons School graduate population. In 2010, roughly 20 percent of all weapons officers that received a promotion were fighter pilots. And though the Weapons School continues to add new squadrons, fighter pilots still comprised roughly 15 percent of all weapons officers that promoted in 2017.
However, the other 29 career fields eligible to attend Weapons School do not appear to promote any faster than non-graduates, with the possible exceptions of air battle managers and intelligence officers. For these two career fields, results indicate that they might promote faster than non-graduates, but the results are so weak that it is impossible to say with confidence that there exists any correlation.
The results weaken for promoting below the zone to colonel — even for fighter pilots — with there being no discernible difference between those who did and those who did not graduate from Weapons School, including within the fighter pilot community. There is even evidence that bomber pilots who graduate from Weapons School actually promote slower than their non-graduate counterparts. Fewer people promote to colonel than to lieutenant colonel, of course, which makes the sample size smaller and statistical findings more elusive.
It might also be the case that, at this point, different career characteristics outweigh the benefits of Weapons School graduation when it comes to promotion decisions. For example, the experience of successfully commanding a squadron might be more important than graduating Weapons School. As such, it might be that graduates promote to colonel faster because their odds of command are greater than non-graduates. In other words, Weapons School might indirectly improve the odds of promotion by making graduates more competitive for command opportunities.
The data generally support this idea. While graduating from Weapons School appears to have a generally positive effect on the likelihood of receiving command, there are some clear standouts and exceptions. When it comes to improving the odds of command, the community that gains the most from Weapons School graduation is the reconnaissance remotely piloted aircraft community. Members of this community who graduate from Weapons School are at least 50 percent more likely to receive command than those who do not on average. So, while fighter pilots stand to gain the most in terms of promoting early to lieutenant colonel, they do not gain the most in terms of later command opportunities. Unfortunately, we do not have data on what unit each officer commanded, so we cannot definitely examine why this difference exists.
Surprisingly, there is at least one career field whose members appear to have a more difficult time receiving the opportunity to command after they graduate from Weapons School than when they do not: the network operations career field. It is unclear what explains this correlation, but it could be due to the fact that it is a relatively new career field or that the sample size is too small to meaningfully estimate the impact of graduating from Weapons School.
Finally, we estimated a series of regressions to determine for which communities graduating command is correlated with promoting below the zone to colonel. Interestingly, across communities eligible to attend Weapons School, a graduated commander is not necessarily more likely to promote early to colonel. In only a few instances is there strong evidence of a positive correlation between command and early promotion. These are the fighter pilot, mobility pilot, special operations pilot, air battle manager, and space communities. In no other community (there are 30 total) is there compelling evidence that command improves the odds of promoting below the zone.
What does this all mean? Does Weapons School provide a graduate a return on investment through a higher probability of promotion and command opportunities? The short answer is yes, but the data clearly suggest that Weapons School graduation does not impact all eligible career fields equally, and certain career fields appear to benefit more. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fighter pilot community stands to benefit the most, at least when it comes to promoting early to lieutenant colonel. Second, these effects appear to dissipate when graduates become eligible for promotion to colonel demonstrating that the initial boost of being a “patch-wearer” is often not sustained throughout one’s career. Third, graduates tend to be more competitive for command opportunities than their non-graduate counterparts. In fact, graduates across a wide range of career fields tend to benefit in terms of their odds of receiving command. This boost may be entirely justified as graduates are known for being tactical experts even outside of their core career field, potentially making them better suited for command positions. Fourth, graduating command increases the odds of promoting early to colonel for some —not all — career fields, potentially providing an additional boost to promotion potential.
Like most career decisions, the answer to whether Weapons School is “good for one’s career” is not a simple “yes.” Potential applicants must consider the unbalanced results across career communities and understand that the Weapons School experience as it relates to promotion and command appears to atrophy over time. Graduates also have different definitions of what they consider to be good for their career. Regardless, the data presented in this paper could be used to offer potential applicants more insight to accompany the experience and observations of Air Force leaders guiding such officers through the decision to apply to Weapons School.
Moving forward, we hope to continue to bring data-driven insights into the conversation regarding talent management in the Air Force. This analysis should serve as a complement to the conversation already happening in the public sphere. This article, and the larger data project more generally, should also be viewed as a caution against painting the Air Force talent management system with too broad of a brush. What is good for one career field is not necessarily true for another. What is good for one platform is not necessarily true for another. And most importantly, what is good for one airman is not necessarily true for another. In the case of this essay, it is important to remember that many talented and dedicated airmen attend the Weapons School because they are passionate about the mission. They graduate as widely-respected experts across the Air Force mission set. And it turns out that it is not the case that they are always rewarded with early promotions for their efforts.
We will measure the success of this project through our ability to help inform airmen regarding career decisions in the Air Force. There are many such decisions to make, some of which airmen have control over and some they do not. For example, should officers take another year away from their operational communities to continue their education at any one of the prestigious “advanced studies groups?” What aircraft maximizes an officer’s potential to command? Should pilots pursue training across multiple platforms, or should they specialize in one? What about taking time to be an executive officer or work in the Pentagon? We plan to shed light on these decisions and more. Stay tuned.
William “LAMB” Wagstaff, PhD and Maj Ryan “Merlin” Middleton are faculty members for the selective Blue Horizons program at the Center for Strategy and Technology. Wagstaff leverages statistical methods and formal modeling techniques to examine a range of phenomena, including the efficacy of counter-terrorism methods, combat effectiveness in conventional warfare, and talent management in large organizations. Middleton has more than 17 years of experience in the U.S. Air Force as both an enlisted airman and an officer. He is an experienced aviator with over 3000 hours aboard the JSTARS and C-130 platforms. He also supported security cooperation initiatives in West Africa as a mobility air advisor. Middleton holds an MA in Organizational Leadership from the University of Oklahoma.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Image: Senior Airman Shannon Hall