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A cadre of airmen and retirees is pushing the Air Force to bring back the warrant officer.
The loosely organized movement is the latest of a handful in the 30 years since the service's last warrant officer retired.
As of April 1, more than 750 have signed an online petition calling on the secretary of the Air Force to create a special class of expert airmen.
There is no date on the petition, and an e-mail sent to its author, Douglas A. Kuntz, inquiring about the drive could not be delivered.
At only four paragraphs long, the petition builds its case for warrant officers on two points: fairness, and recruiting and retention. The other services all have warrant officers.
"We feel that this is unfair to the members of the Air Force, who work just as hard as members of the other branches," the document states.
"In the other branches, an enlisted member can obtain an associate's degree in an approved field, and have experience in that field, and request training as a warrant officer," the petition says. "In the Air Force, the only step up for enlisted members is to get a full bachelor's degree and apply for [Officer Training School], which has a very long waiting period due to that being the only option. Because of this, the Air Force is losing out on very skilled personnel to be helicopter pilots, bomber air crews, etc."
A retired master sergeant, Robert Fowlkes, brought the petition to the attention of Air Force Times.
Fowlkes wrote that he has written several letters over the years to the Air Force's secretary and chief of staff lobbying for the warrant officer and the limited duty officer, a rank that the Navy and Marine Corps have.
"Common processes and systems across all uniformed services necessitate the need for a growth path for enlisted personnel as well as creating a pool of specialized skills beyond those typically used by enlisted personnel," Fowlkes told Air Force Times, quoting one of the petition signers.
"Officers are intended to be leaders, not lifetime specialists in their chosen career. A typical ops squadron should be manned primarily with WOs and only a small cadre of officers to be flight commanders, shop chiefs, ops officer and [squadron] commander, but the USAF is currently training their officers to be technical in the communication arena," he wrote. "This is a perfect time for the warrant officer to be brought back."
A dissenter is Walter Boyne, a retired colonel and Air Force historian.
"Unless there's some specialized need, maybe in some particular field, I don't see a glaring need for warrant officers," Boyne said. "Most officers stand in awe of the efficiency of the noncommissioned officer corps. This is certainly true of our own NCO corps. They cannot believe we have the talent we have there. I don't have any prejudices against warrant officers. It just seems, to me, to be superfluous [for the Air Force]."
At this time, the Air Force has no plans to bring back the warrant officer program, spokeswoman Lt. Col. Ann Stefanek said.
Then and now
When it was established in 1947, the Air Force inherited about 1,200 warrant officers from the Army Air Corps. Eleven years later, though, the service decided to phase out the warrant ranks when Congress created senior master sergeant and chief master sergeant ranks, figuring the new senior noncommissioned officers would simply replace the warrant officers.
The Air Force was, in some respects, relieved to see the warrant ranks go by the wayside because the ranks caused confusion, historian Mark R. Grandstaff wrote in his book "Foundation of the Force: Air Force Enlisted Personnel Policy 1907-1956."
"They were neither fish nor fowl," according to a senior NCO whom Grandstaff quotes.
The warrants often worked in "an ambiguous environment where the highest-grade warrant officer often fulfilled the duties of a commissioned major, but he was subject to the orders of the youngest second lieutenant," Grandstaff wrote.
The Air Force stopped appointing warrant officers in 1959; the last active-duty Air Force warrant officer retired in 1980.
Today, the Air Force has about 65,500 officers and 264,640 enlisted members.
Only the Air Force does not have warrant officers.
The Marine Corps has about 2,110 warrant officers, or about 1 percent of its force, spokeswoman Maj. Shawn Haney said. The warrant officers, all former enlisted Marines, serve in areas such as aviation maintenance and gunnery, she said.
Warrant officers "are the knowledge they're the experience that we have to have for certain fields," she said. "What they do requires extensive knowledge, years of training and experience. I don't know what we'd do without them."
Army warrant officers about 15,170 represent about 3 percent of the active-duty force. About 40 percent are aviators, said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Richard Ayers, chief of aviation warrant officers at the service's aviation proponency, at Fort Rucker, Ala.
Warrant officers have the luxury of specializing in their field and spending years sharpening their expertise, said Ayers, who flies UH-60 Black Hawks.
"We're not charged with formal leadership and command, just technical leadership," he said.
The typical career track for officers puts them at the company level where the aircraft are maybe twice in their careers, first as platoon leaders and later as company commanders, Ayers said.
"Whereas a warrant officer, an aviator, will stay where the aircraft are for probably 10 to 12 years straight," he said. "He won't have [Uniform Code of Military Justice] authority; he won't command units. He will just hone his skills in his Black Hawk. They'll get more time and missions, and they'll just get better and better."
About 60 percent of the aviation warrant officers in the Army are former enlisted soldiers, while about 40 percent are applicants with no military experience. Warrant officers in the other branches, such as ordnance, quartermaster, signal and military intelligence, all have been enlisted soldiers, Ayers said.
"Aviation is unique because aviation doesn't have a feeder [military occupational specialty]," he said. "[The other branches] have a long list of prerequisites they have to meet in that field already, prior to becoming a warrant."
In his career field, Ayers said, technical expertise is critical.
"In order to do it well, you have to do it often, so you have to leave the warrant officers to be pilots and let them do their pilot thing for a long amount of years," he said. "As a Black Hawk guy, you can look right over your shoulder and there are all those guys looking back at you, and it reminds you you've got to be good. Because when a Black Hawk or a Chinook goes down, it's not just the crew, it's all those [passengers], too."
The Navy's technical experts can be warrant officers or limited duty officers. Of the Navy's 51,696 officers, 1,905 are warrant officers and 4,491 are limited duty officers.
Limited duty officers can't command at sea but share the same ranks as regular officers, can be promoted to captain and outrank warrant officers.
Enlisted seamen can apply to be limited duty officers when they have attained the rank of petty officer first class, or E-6. Seamen must be chief petty officers, E-7s, before they can apply to be warrant officers.
Warrant and limited duty officers work in areas such as intelligence and administration, but the Navy has been conducting an experimental program to convert sailors into warrant officer aviators. The future of the program whether it is expanded or cut has not been determined.
Air Force Times asked its Web readers for their thoughts on the return of the warrant officer. Nearly 100 airmen and retirees responded; most of them favored the idea.
"I've worked with many U.S. Army warrant officers in my career, and they are truly experts in their specialty," wrote Lt. Col. Tony "LB" Scelsi, who is serving at Hurlburt Field, Fla. "The beauty of the warrant is that they specialize in one task and are very good at it. A [U.S. Air Force] warrant officer would fill the void of expertise in intelligence, air battle management and navigation. Not only would this provide long-term expertise in a unique specialty but also increased promotion opportunities for NCOs. Good idea that should have never ended."
A few of the respondents, however, clearly don't see the need for a new rank.
"This is an ‘issue' that bubbles up about every five years and dies a well-deserved death each time," retired Lt. Col. Ross Lampert wrote in an e-mail. "The advocates of a warrant officer corps never seem to consider what it would take to create one: a complete new set of AFSCs, a complete new set of career paths, a complete new promotion system, a complete new set of performance evaluations, new additions to the supply chain for rank insignia (and uniforms?), initiation of another pay and benefits system (special pays for special duties?), and so on and so on. All of this costs money, time and attention the service doesn't have to waste. For what?"
Visitors to the forums at air forcetimes.com also debated the Air Force and its lack of warrant officers, posting more than 200 comments. They were more evenly divided on the subject.
A reader with the user name ladyviola spoke for many of the supporters.
"What an effective corps of senior, technically qualified, effective, and motivated individuals the other four services efficiently employ. Leadership, longevity, and high-quality individuals tightly focused in fields such as [chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear defense], fuels, medical, pay and admin, food service, commissaries and exchanges, ammunition, security, nuclear munitions, etc., etc. These are options for motivated enlisted individuals to strive for that do not include command but certainly include leadership. An opportunity that the Air Force seems to avoid like the plague. What say you?"
A user named smarg had nothing nice to say about warrant officers.
"Even in the Army, they're known as ‘walking mustaches with problems.' They want the bennies of being an officer, but they don't want any responsibility. The AF was good and right to have eliminated these pills and substituted E-8s and E-9s for them over 40 years ago. … You wanna be a WO? Go hook up with another service then."
Finally, several users showed themselves to be supporters - but realists, too.
"I think the Air Force could definitely benefit from warrant officers, but I don't see it happening," wrote sigecaps. "We are a cash-strapped military. Creating a WO paygrade means less money to buy new aircraft."