WASHINGTON — The Air Force is considering changing how it evaluates officers who are up for promotion. According to a draft proposal that will be debated in the coming months, mid-grade officers in fields like space, nuclear missiles and cybersecurity will have a better chance of getting promoted than under the current system.
“We are revising promotion guidance to try to align with what we really value,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said May 16 during a breakfast meeting with reporters.
Wilson is scheduled to step down May 31 to take a job as president of the University of Texas El Paso. Undersecretary of the Air Force Matt Donovan will serve as acting secretary until a replacement for Wilson is selected.
In her final two weeks in office, Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein are expected to roll out a plan to introduce a new promotion system that breaks up the pool of eligible officers into six “competitive categories” — air operations and special warfare; nuclear and missile operations; space operations; information warfare; combat support; and force modernization.
Currently only Air Force lawyers, chaplains and medical professional compete for promotions within their own categories. Members of the JAG corps only compete with each other, and doctors in the medical corps only compete with other doctors for promotions. Everyone else — more than 80 percent of officers — falls within the more generic “line of the Air Force” category.
One of the criticisms of the current system is that pilots are promoted at higher rates than other professionals such as space operators. It is one of the reasons the Trump administration and members of Congress have argued that space should have its own military branch. A proposal to create a separate Space Force is now being considered by Congress.
Having a competitive category for space would effectively create an Air Force space corps, and officers would only compete against space officers for promotions. In the current line of the Air Force system, pilots generally get higher ratings because promotion boards tend to reward officers who commanded units in the field and had multiple combat deployments.
This would be first major change to the Air Force’s personnel system since the service was created in 1947. The Army and the Navy already use competitive categories.
Wilson said Air Force has been studying this for 18 months. Once the proposal is rolled out, it will be debated across the service, she said. “This is a really big change. We’re going to take it out to the force, get a lot of input, post on it, blog on it, comment on it,” said Wilson. The plan is to make a final decision in October.
The thinking is that having competitive categories will give the Air Force more latitude to promote officers in areas of expertise where there are growing needs.
“What we’re seeing is that often, at the lieutenant colonel and colonel level, we kind of trust the law of large numbers to give us the expertise we need,” Wilson said. “We are looking at how do we develop people in different areas. And not everybody’s careers will look like everybody else’s.”
One of the issues raised by mid-grade officers is that some fields require advanced degrees but taking time off to go to school could derail someone’s promotion track. “If you need a Ph.D., how do we build that into your career without saying you’re now off cycle for your promotion?” Wilson asked. “People with all kinds of backgrounds can be successful.”
An Air Force active-duty officer who spoke with SpaceNews about this issue, said that within the line of the Air Force, space operators tend to be promoted at rates below average for majors and lieutenant colonels, while pilots are promoted at higher than average rates. Last year, officers in the nuclear missile field and in the acquisition field also received lower than average promotion rates. “The challenge is that every specialty is different,” he said. But promotion boards might not make someone a colonel if he or she has not been a squadron commander. When all officers get blended into a single pool, the promotion boards give higher scores to officers who graduated from a service school or a weapons school, or held command positions.
“The challenge is that we try to make everyone look like everybody else,” the officer said. “Then you end up with outliers like space people.” One of the issues for space operators is that their work is based in Colorado Springs, where most of the Air Force’s space operations are located. Because they don’t deploy very much, that can hurt their chances of being promoted, he said. “In certain parts of the Air Force that’s a bad thing.” He insisted that this not an intentional bias against space officers. “But there’s unintentional bias that gets weighed in.”