Instructors Wanted, Apply Within: Why the Air Force Is Failing to Change Its Culture and What to Do About It
Thirteen. Just 13 out of 726 officers participating in the 2020 officer instructor and recruiting special duty selection process listed Air University’s Squadron Officer School at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, as their top assignment preferences. The disinterest in the academic instructor position comes despite the priority that former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein placed on the assignment. These leaders even put in place incentives — the instructor assignment was highlighted on the officer’s promotion package, officers could be deferred from deployment during the assignment, and those who took this assignment could receive preference in selecting their next assignment — to encourage this career path.
The lack of academic instructors at the Squadron Officer School is a problem for the Air Force. The Squadron Officer School, which dates back to 1946, is the building block for command. Every Air Force captain is required to attend in order to understand “institutional competencies, leadership actions, and key elements of reasoning required to fly, fight, and win in the 21st century.” The school not only offers the Air Force a one-stop shop to assess every single captain, but its instructors also prepare these young officers in the practical art of flight command. More abstractly and perhaps more importantly, these instructors also educate these officers in the art and science of future wars, which will likely be high-technology fights with China and Russia. The academic instructor’s job is vital — Secretary of Defense Mark Esper put the onus on the Air Force (and Space Force) to take the lead in preparing officers for future wars. These academic instructors, especially at a basic level officer school, hold a unique responsibility that is different from what operational Air Force instructors provide.
However, a Squadron Officer School assignment at Maxwell Air Force Base is considered so undesirable in terms of career advancement and quality of life that Air Force officers are choosing other assignments or even leaving the service rather than accepting it. This is having a profound negative effect on the Air Force, as its exiting officers are also in fields with a shortage (e.g., pilots). But there is a way to help address the problem. Squadron Officer School should offer geographically distributed campuses, which are co-located and in partnership with universities. This would not fill the shortage overnight, but giving officers the option of carrying out their assignments at locations other than Maxwell Air Force Base would be an important first step.
Officers Are Not Selecting Squadron Officer School
Officers thinking about a Squadron Officer School assignment are typically in years seven to 13 of their careers and are having to make a number of significant decisions. By this point, many of them are married, including dual military couples, and have children. They are having to make decisions about location as it affects home purchases and school availability. They are also having to make decisions on how to be competitive for promotions, including earning advanced academic degrees. If the officers are rated, they are navigating these decisions, while also managing their gate months.
Out of this pool, Squadron Officer School needs roughly 24 officers to apply to fill its instructor positions each year. This year, only 13 officers selected Squadron Officer School as their number one choice. Notably, not a single pilot, navigator, air battle manager, or maintainer from the Air Force’s two largest operational wings, the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska and the 552nd Air Control Wing at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, applied. The shortfall means potentially nine officers will be non-voluntarily selected to instruct at Squadron Officer School. This shortfall begs the questions: “Did they not apply?” or “Were they not allowed to apply?”
Answering these questions was the goal of the Project Mercury research team that we participated in. At the beginning of the study, Air University lacked empirical data on officer explanations for dissatisfaction with instructor assignments at Maxwell Air Force Base. So, the team used the instructor selection list and a list of current and former Squadron Officer School instructors to solicit feedback.
A survey we conducted revealed that the officers want to be instructors — 86 percent of respondents expressed positive feelings about potential instructor duty. However, these potential instructors have poor views of teaching at Squadron Officer School. Only 24 percent view teaching at the Squadron Officer School at Maxwell Air Force Base as a positive outcome, and roughly the same amount view teaching at the school as harmful to their careers. But this perception does not match the reality of the Squadron Officer School experience. Only 21 percent of current and past instructors would not recommend a Squadron Officer School assignment. Notably though, only 46 percent of this group viewed a Squadron Officer School instructor assignment as beneficial to their careers.
So, Air Force officers want to be academic instructors, and they have the potential to want to teach in a Squadron Officer School. However, the school’s location at Maxwell Air Force Base is a key problem. Over a third of respondents were dissatisfied living in the Montgomery area. Survey respondents stated concerns over schooling options for their children, job opportunities for their spouses (both dual military and civilian), housing and childcare options, and overall quality of life factors. In short, candidates overwhelmingly were not interested in Montgomery as an assignment choice.
To solidify the point, 70 percent of candidates said they would be interested in teaching in a Squadron Officer School at a location different from Montgomery. Testing an anecdotal hypothesis, we asked the candidates if they would teach in Squadron Officer School at Maxwell if it provided the opportunity to earn an advanced academic degree from a non-Air University institution. Three-quarters of respondents viewed this as a positive motivator to choose Squadron Officer School and Montgomery as an assignment.
Move Squadron Officer School to Officers
The Air Force should establish satellite Squadron Officer School campuses co-located at or near major Air Force installations and major universities. By distributing some of the Squadron Officer School campuses away from Maxwell Air Force Base, the service will make instructor assignments more attractive, allow officers more flexibility in getting flying unit assignments while they teach, and potentially save money.
Establishing satellite campuses will make instructor assignments more attractive by giving officers greater say in where they live and work. Moreover, such a change would mean that Maxwell Air Force Base would not have to absorb all the dual military situations. Many dual military couples are not on the same exact professional development timeline (e.g., they are at different years of service, one has not been selected for in-residence professional military education, etc.). Civilian spouses will have longer tour lengths in cities more desirable than Montgomery, with more school, housing, childcare, and career opportunities. By allowing those instructors the opportunity to retain their flying statuses, instructor duty will no longer be seen as an “off ramp” for one’s career. As additional benefits, distributed operations will provide more pandemic response options, and, if enacted in locations such as Ramstein Air Base in Germany and Kadena Air Base in Japan, reduce travel costs for students already posted overseas.
This latter point highlights one of the strongest benefits of distributing Squadron Officer School campuses: a potential for cost savings. While there will be some initial start-up costs to facilitate a start to Squadron Officer School operations on these bases, the Air Force will likely save money in the long term. As it stands now, the Air Force flies students in from around the world, paying their lodging and travels costs — all for a five-week course, seven times a year. By co-locating Squadron Officer School on operational bases in more densely populated areas, more students can be commuters, saving the Air Force tens of thousands of dollars a year. There will also be lower permanent change of station costs, as instructors are staying in the same area for back-to-back assignments. Most importantly, the Air Force will realize substantial indirect savings, as more officers decide to stay in the Air Force. This savings can be especially poignant, given the long-term sunk cost of training a pilot ranges from $1.1 million for a C-17 pilot to $10.9 million for an F-22 pilot.
In addition to establishing a distributed Squadron Officer School campus model, Air University should partner with major universities in these new areas. Notably, these partnerships should be at universities with pre-existing agreements with the Air Force. For example, the Peterson Air Force Base Squadron Officer School campus partners with the University of Colorado – Colorado Springs and the Joint Base San Antonio Squadron Officer School campus partners with the University of Texas San Antonio and/or Texas A&M University.
These partnerships offer more than the current practice of master’s degree “box-checking.” With their curricula, these schools not only prepare academic instructors for their Squadron Officer School assignments, but they offer these officers opportunities to develop as future operational leaders, who understand the pertinent topics relevant to future wars: great-power competition, artificial intelligence, nuclear deterrence, and cyber warfare. For example, the Albritton Center for Grand Strategy at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service is a logical choice for an Air Force partnership.
By co-locating Squadron Officer School campuses with Air Force bases or universities, young officers will no longer have to choose between instructor time and higher-valued career enhancing opportunities (e.g., staff assignments). Dual-hatted instructor-pilots can provide a great resource to flying units, who need instructors to help mature new accessions. If the Air Force is going to follow up on all the momentum it has made in the last two years toward “valuing” both education and instructors, then it should stop making officers choose between instructor time at Air University and career progression. By making this shift, the Air Force and Air University will be helping to ease the constant strain on Air Force operations. In turn, the Air Force will be easing the strain that requirements place on an officer’s family (e.g., short duty assignments, multiple moves over short periods of time, and quality of life), which all too often results in an officer leaving the Air Force (especially for women in a dual military relationship). Moreover, these efforts in retaining officers could help relieve the strain on training pipelines, and reduce, if not eliminate, the need for retention bonuses.
Finally, given that individuals are looking for status and prestige, a general officer, or even the Squadron Officer School commandant, writing a letter or calling a potential instructor recruit is worthwhile. First, it likely will persuade an officer that a high-ranking individual has taken an interest in his or her career and values him or her. Second, it raises the prestige of Squadron Officer School in the mind of the candidate and his or her peers, who will likely hear about the interaction. A simple statement — “As a general officer, I view Squadron Officer School as instrumental to the success of the Air Force, and I only want motivated, service-driven officers to serve there” — would go a long way in raising perceptions of Squadron Officer School.
Squadron Officer School has an instructor recruitment problem that is not going away, in spite of the attempted cultural change. The survey data we conducted confirms and explains why officers do not want to work there — for many officers, working at the Maxwell Air Force Base is not an attractive option. But it does not need to be this way. If the Air Force offers geographically distributed Squadron Officer School campuses, co-located with university partners, as well as career opportunities and Air University leadership recruitment, then Squadron Officer School can become a desirable instructor assignment choice. It is a choice that not only allows Squadron Officer School leaders to select the best and brightest as the next cadre class, but also puts the Air Force on target to fight its next fight.
Bradley Podliska is an assistant professor of military and security studies at Air University’s Air Command and Staff College. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Texas A&M University. He is the author of Acting Alone: A Scientific Study of American Hegemony and Unilateral Use-of-Force Decision Making (Lexington Books). Follow Bradley on Twitter: @BradleyPodliska.
Donnie Hodges is an instructor in the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Department of Military and Strategic Studies.
The views expressed are the authors’ own, not those of Air University, the U.S. Air Force Academy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.