The question comes up every few years of whether USAF would recreate a warrant officer (WO) program, similar to the other US services. I present some simplified background on WO, why they exist, and why and how USAF could implement them. USAF had warrant officers from its creation in 1947, as holdovers from the Army Air Forces. USAF started phasing them out 1959, with the last WO retiring from active duty in 1980 and from the USAF Reserve in 1992. [edit: The Navy started phasing out WO in 1959 as well, but changed their minds in 1963 and kept them.]
First, some definitions. In the US military, WO are specialist officers in grades between the top enlisted and the entry-level officer grades, mostly drawn from the enlisted ranks, mostly serving as technical specialists and/or managers of specialized technical activities. WO in pay grades W-2 and higher are commissioned like officers O-1 and higher, while entry-level W-1 are appointed by warrant (hence the name). Other nations, particularly in the British Commonwealth, use the term warrant officer to mean something completely different: senior enlisted personnel serving in positions such as sergeant major.
When the subject comes up, people have a variety of reasons why the Air Force should be like other US armed services and have its own WO: top airmen would have new opportunities to get higher pay, more responsibility, and more prestige; people could become experts in a field without the distractions of career broadening; retention would improve, etc. All of these may be true; none of them will convince the Air Force.
Those are not reasons the Air Force would benefit, but why some airmen would benefit. The needs of the Air Force come first, as USAF veterans have all heard during our careers. What’s good for you only matters if it’s also good for USAF. To convince the Air Force to recreate a new personnel program (selecting, training, assigning, promoting, etc.), one has to show the benefit to USAF from adding WO grades that USAF cannot get another (simpler, cheaper) way.
From the point of view of service leadership (in any US service), WO provide the following benefits. They combine the legal authority of commissioned officers with the technical expertise in specific fields of NCOs. They can take repetitive jobs in the same narrow specialty without hurting their chance at promotion. They can have a full careers as officers without ever competing for field grade, let alone general officer, promotions. Why does the Army have warrant officer aviators? So they can have a lot of aviator officers without those aviators filling up the field grades and general officer grades, and ‘taking over’ Army leadership. The Navy and Marines have both chosen not to follow the Army’s model. Both have had few or no warrant officer aviators and flight officers over the last few decades, and (by design) have a lot of aviators in the admiral/general grades.
In discussions of a USAF WO program, airmen often stated that ‘WO just focus on their jobs, and don’t have to do management stuff’, but that is only true for some WO, particularly junior ones. Many WO serve as platoon leaders or Navy division officers within their fields. Some are company commanders or Navy department heads, in positions related to their fields. Also, ‘this job should not have any management responsibilities’ is an an argument that invites the question ‘then why is an officer needed?’.
If USAF started appointing WO, the people would come from the enlisted ranks, but positions would be converted from officer positions. Thus, adding one WO position would reduce one officer position somewhere, probably (but not necessarily) in the career field that gains the WO position. That is a significant limit on how many WO positions would be created. A career field can’t afford to replace all its lieutenants with WO. There still have to be enough young lieutenants to grow up into the captains and majors of the future.
A USAF WO personnel program would be similar to the other service programs. Each service runs its WO programs differently and each has multiple programs, so there are many models for USAF to consider if it is to design WO career paths. US Army has very different programs for technical and aviation WO. Technical WO are selected in mid-career, 4 to 12 years, given extra training, and appointed in jobs related to their former enlisted specialties. Aviation warrant officers are selected from people with fewer years of service, regardless of enlisted specialty, including those who enter the Army directly into warrant officer candidate status. Over 13% of Army officers are WO. Marine technical WO are similar to their Army counterparts, selected after 8-16 years of service (sometimes as few as 5 years). Marines also have two other small WO programs. Marine Gunners (Infantry Weapons Officers) are selected late in their careers, after 12-24 years in infantry. They are experts in infantry weapons who supervise training of infantry units. Marine recruiting operations officers are selected from experienced recruiters with 8-20 years enlisted service. About 10% of Marine officers are WO. The Navy selects all WO late in their careers, after 12-24 years. Most are technical experts. The Navy has a parallel program for Limited Duty Officers, who are much like WO but are selected earlier and serve in grades O-1 (Ensign) and higher. About 11% of Navy officers are either WO or LDO, with more of them being LDO. Marines also have an LDO program; I mention it last because it’s not parallel to a WO program, but sequential to it. Some Marine WO are promoted into LDO grades (O-3 Captain to O-5 Lieutenant Colonel).
If the Air Force starts a WO program, when in an airman’s career would selection occur? Would USAF choose mid-career NCOs like Army & Marine technical WO or Navy LDO? Would the service choose late-career NCOs for WO as Navy does, or as USMC does for gunners? There could be multiple USAF programs with different answers to this question.
If USAF resurrected WO, there would not be mass promotions of NCOs across the service. USAF could identify some percentage of officer billets (maybe 10% like the other services, probably much less) as able to be replaced with WO. Different career fields would come to different conclusions as to which duties and positions could be converted. AF might consider using WO in place of lieutenants in positions where enlisted experience and/or technical depth is vital to properly leading and managing the organization’s efforts. Also, jobs that are not necessary to the development of lieutenants and captains into effective field grade officers. USAF is now using some enlisted pilots for unarmed reconnaissance drones, a role that seems a reasonable fit for WO. A return to enlisted pilots was a bold step for a service that got rid of them several decades ago. Why were WO pilots not considered? I think USAF is afraid Congress will turn many of its pilot positions into WO if given the chance, to save a few dollars, using the Army aviation community (rightly or wrongly) as a model. Somehow this question of ‘why no WO aviators’ comes up for Air Force, but not for Navy and Marines.
Because experience in a specific field would be a requirement for most WO positions, some career fields would have a clear path to WO and others would have very little opportunity. It all depends on the specialties and number of officer positions converted to warrants.
Where might USAF consider replacing O billets with WO? Where would a squadron work better with a WO equivalent to a company-grade officer (CGO) in authority, but with years of depth in the field? What follows is a partial list of officer career fields. A quick scan through the list leaves me thinking that the Air Force would end up with very few WO. The following fields will have little to no call for WO, from the Air Force’s point of view: Fields from which the senior leadership of USAF is developed (aircrew). Fields in which officers lead troops in combat. Fields requiring extensive academic education at the bachelors level or higher. Fields involved with the release of nuclear weapons.
1 Operations career fields
11/12 Pilot/Navigator – no; this is where USAF leadership comes from
13B Air Battle Manager – maybe convert enlisted WD positions in CRC to WO
13C/D/L Special Tactics/Combat Rescue/Air Liaison – no, these are combat leaders
13M Airfield Management – need CGOs as a source for FGOs
13N Nuclear and Missiles – no; they control the release of nuclear weapons
13S Space Operations – probably not, maybe a few specialized leader positions
14N Intelligence – maybe a few specialized leader positions
15W Weather – no; requires graduate education
17D Cyberspace Ops – are some flight commander positions very technical?
17S Cyber Warfare – maybe an entry level WO program, to bring in civilian expertise
18R RPA (drone) pilot – promote all enlisted pilots to WO; get positions from … ?
2 Logistics career fields
21A Aircraft Maintenance – maybe add some WO flight commanders* in the Maintenance Squadron?
21L Logistics Readiness – no; very managerial
21M Munitions and Missile Maintenance – maybe add some WO flight commanders* in the Maintenance Squadron?
* take positions from 62E development engineering and 63A acquisition program management; 21A/M do not have many positions, while 62E/63A are huge fields
3 Support career fields
31PX Security Forces – no; managerial and combat leadership
32EX Civil Engineer – no; specific academic education required
35PX Public Affairs – no
38FX Force Support – are there specialized functions that need a WO leader?
4 Medical career fields – no; specific academic education required
5 Professional career fields – no; specific academic education required
6 Acquisition career fields
61/62 Scientist/Development Engineer – no; specific academic education required
63A Aquisition Program Manager – no; too managerial, need to feed field grades
64P Contracting – maybe; do some positions need deep expertise?
65F Finance – maybe; do some positions need deep expertise?
7 Special Investigations career field
71S AFOSI – maybe; is there a need for more-expert agents with officer authority?
8 Special Duty – none
9 ‘Reporting Identifiers’ (special status) – none
To sum up, it looks as though some smaller officer fields might have a need for a small number of WO. If the Air Force studied each career field, it would probably come up with 1% or 2% of the total officer force that would be replaced by WO. But will the Air Force do it? Probably not.