Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Roy speaks Jan. 15 during an interview at the Pentagon. (Thomas Brown / Staff)
As the war in Afghanistan winds down, the Air Force will need fewer battlefield airmen and more cyber specialists and unmanned aircraft operators, said Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Roy.
Roy, who is retiring Jan. 31, talked to Air Force Times about a wide range of issues, including which Air Force Specialty Codes will be in high demand going forward.
Looking to the future, the Air Force needs to make sure it has the right number of airmen assigned to cyber career fields, he said in the Jan. 16 interview.
"Within that entire domain of cyber, there's been a lot of emphasis over the last few years — the last few months specifically — to define what it is that the United States Air Force will do in cyber, and that will help drive what the requirement will be," Roy said.
The Air Force's other growing need will be for airmen to help operate unmanned surveillance aircraft, he said.
"That demand is so high right now," Roy said. "I have to give it to our leadership — Secretary [Michael] Donley, [retired] Gen. [Norton] Schwartz and certainly many others — that have had to put caps on it, saying: ‘This is as high as we can go right now. If you want us to continue to grow this area, you can't keep digging into the schoolhouse.' You can't tap the source if you want to continue to build, and I think we're pretty well topped out right now."
The Air Force is going to have to pay special attention to the unmanned aircraft career field "to make sure that it doesn't grow out of control," he said.
Defense spending is expected to shrink for the foreseeable future, so the Air Force's strategy is to trade size for quality: It will get smaller but retain the most capable airmen.
If you're an enlisted airman, that means you have to worry about being forced out through high-year tenure limits, physical training standards and other ways the Air Force can pare down end strength.
The key to avoiding being cut from the team is to "be the absolutely best airman you can be," Roy said.
"You always hear the old adage, ‘Hey, don't volunteer for anything;' I say contrary to that, you need to volunteer to take on those leadership roles and those other roles that nobody else wants to do, because that's going to step you beyond the norm," he said.
As the Air Force gets smaller, it becomes even more important for supervisors to provide honest feedback to airmen, he said. That means raters cannot be afraid of hurting an airman's career.
"We're hurting everybody by doing that," Roy said. "It doesn't help that person who needs to grow if you tell him everything's fine, and it doesn't help that person who is your absolute best performer when they are getting the absolute same rating as somebody who needs some improvement."
It's no secret that outstanding and mediocre airmen alike are almost guaranteed to score a perfect 5 on their enlisted performance reports, but Roy said the Air Force is addressing the issue by giving supervisors a new form to evaluate airmen.
The "Comprehensive Airmen Assessment" will be much more detailed than the feedback form that supervisors have been using for the past 20 years, said Roy, who has heard from many airmen that they don't get feedback, or they get very generic feedback from their raters.
In another change, the form will be reviewed by each supervisor's rater, he said.
"I've got to able to rate you on being a supervisor," Roy said. "How do I do that if I can't even look at your product?"
Roy did not elaborate on what the new feedback form would entail. A spokeswoman for the Air Force Personnel Center could not comment because the Air Staff is still considering the proposal.
As Roy gets ready to depart, he sees suicides as one of the biggest challenges still facing enlisted airmen. Although the Air Force has taken steps to try to curb suicides, the service has a long way to go.
"The fact is we've had an extremely high suicide rate over the past few years," Roy said.
To combat this trend, the Air Force has been stressing the notion of "resiliency" as a way for airmen and their families to grow during difficult times.
"We don't need another program, per se," Roy said. "I look at resiliency as a change in culture: Kind of enhancing what we've always known as the ‘wingman' — you're my wingman, I'm your wingman — enhancing that."
Today's noncommissioned officers are well-experienced and much more educated than when Roy joined the Air Force more than 30 years ago, he said. Many NCOs have Ph.D.s or graduate degrees.
It is important for the Air Force to retain the high caliber of senior enlisted leaders by giving them the development opportunities they need, Roy said.
"You can't buy them off the street, you gotta grow them," Roy said. "You grow them through those means of all the professional military education, all the off-duty education, all the training opportunities and all those experiences that they've been given throughout the years. That's how you continue to keep the cadre of senior NCOs we have today."
For Roy, being deployed from 2004 to 2005 as command chief master sergeant for the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing was an invaluable learning experience.
"It wasn't that deployment that made me a better leader; it made me a more experienced leader — a much more experienced leader — because it gave me a dimension I had never seen before," Roy said.
As of Feb. 1, Chief Master Sergeant James Cody will become the service's new senior enlisted leader. His wife, Athena, is a retired chief master sergeant.
Cody's background as chief master sergeant of Air Education and Training Command means he is well-prepared to meet enlisted airmen's future needs, Roy said.
"This position as the chief master sergeant of the Air Force — what I've learned over the last 3½ years — has been not one for handling today's environment, but you've got to look into the future," he said.