Maj. Gen. Robert P. "Bob" Otto is the head of the ISR Agency. (Air Force)
Intelligence officers looking for role models in senior leadership will have to wait until the promotion system catches up for years of neglect.
The Air Force announced Feb. 22 that Maj. Gen. John N.T. Shanahan would become the next commander of the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency in June. While he has experience commanding an intelligence group and a wing that provides intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, he comes to the job from outside the intelligence career field.
The current head of the ISR agency, Maj. Gen. Robert P. “Bob” Otto, also is an aviator who has flown more than 2,800 hours, including time with surveillance aircraft such as the U-2 spy plane and the RQ-4 Global Hawk.
And while no one has questioned their ability to oversee the agency, intel officers rising through the ranks might wonder when their leaders will have career paths similar to theirs.
One reason intelligence officers are not filling these billets is there simply are not that many two-star generals who come from the intelligence career field, said a senior Air Force official.
“I’m positive that will change in the next couple of years,” said the official, who did not want to be identified. “I just saw the recent promotion list, and there are intel officers who are moving up.”
There was a time when the Air Force was not promoting many intelligence officers to brigadier general and higher, said Lt. Gen. Larry James, deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
“The Air Force was promoting other career fields,” James said. “I can’t tell you why.”
In recent years, the Air Force has recognized that intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance is a key mission by creating the Air Staff position James holds and ensuring that performance reports and promotion recommendations clearly communicate what intelligence officers’ responsibilities are, he said.
“We’ve also been successful in terms of growing, if you will, the senior leadership from the intelligence community at the one-star level,” James said.
It will take time for those brigadier generals to advance to major and lieutenant general, he said.
“The only career intel general officer at the two-star level right now is Maj. Gen. Jim Keffer, who is in a very critical position as the deputy A2 here on the Air Staff,” James said. “We just haven’t had the two-stars available to place at the Air Force ISR Agency, but as we grow those one-stars into two-stars, then they will compete for that position — and, I would imagine, compete very well.”
The reason few intelligence officers were being promoted to brigadier general until a few years ago is that the Air Force had a problem conveying the nature and importance of intelligence work to promotion boards, said retired Gen. Michael Hayden, who served as the director of the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency.
Too often, intelligence officers tended to speak in their own obscure language, one those outside the intelligence community did not understand, Hayden said.
“When you come up for colonel and your evaluations read ‘squadron commander’ or your evaluations read, ‘the head of N23R or some other obscure acronym inside NSA,’ guess which one is more visible to the promotion board?” he said.
Now that the Air Force has promoted more intelligence officers to brigadier general, hopefully the service will be more represented in the wider intelligence community, Hayden said.
“The Air Force has not been doing well in joint jobs,” Hayden said. “You’ve got an Army officer at Fort Meade [NSA], you’ve got an Army officer at [the Defense Intelligence Agency]. The Air Force needs to nurture its senior intel folks because it’s to the Air Force’s advantage to have an airman’s view in a good portion of these joint jobs.”
It helps matters that Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh served at the CIA from August 2008 until December 2010, Hayden said.
“It’s hard to imagine a chief of staff of the Air Force who has a better idea of and appreciation for intelligence,” Hayden said.
Retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula worked hard to get intelligence officers promoted when he served as the first deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance from July 2006 until August 2010.
“That effort needs to continue,” Deptula said in an email. “As we move further into the information age, we need senior officers that have an integrated understanding and application mastery of both intelligence and operations vice the segregation of expertise that was the model of the last century.”
Senior intelligence positions don’t always require an intelligence officer, said a retired senior Air Force official. You need someone with the right instinct, experience and moxie. In fact, it can be beneficial to have someone other than an intelligence officer in senior billets.
“There’s times a non-intelligence operator can do things that sometimes it’s harder for an intel to do,” said the official, who did not want to be identified. “He can advocate things without appearing to be parochial.”
Non-pilots taking command
The Air Force has come a long way since the time when the general officer corps was made up almost exclusively of pilots, said retired Gen. Roger Brady.
“When I first came into the Air Force, if you weren’t wearing pilot wings, you probably wouldn’t command anything,” said Brady, former commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe. “The supply squadron was usually a pilot. The base commander was a pilot. Almost anything that had ‘command’ attached to it was a pilot.”
Since then, the Air Force has broadened its definition of who an operator is to include space, cyber and — to an increasing degree — intelligence, he said.
“Intel is so intertwined with ops, particularly when you get into the surveillance and reconnaissance business,” Brady said. “It’s hard to tell what’s [in] operations and what’s in intel. So the distinction sometimes becomes not very relevant, and because of that intel folks are viewed as more operational, certainly than they have been in the past.”
Still, there will always be complaints from airmen who feel their career field is not adequately represented at the two- and three-star level, said Brady, who was deputy chief of staff for personnel from June 2004 until January 2008.
One reason for that is the Air Force promotes officers on the “best-athlete” model, he said.
“Sometimes you’ll hear an NFL team say, ‘Well, we’re just gonna take the best athlete available.’” Brady said. “That’s kind of the philosophy of the Air Force promotions system.
“What happens is sometimes that doesn’t exactly yield you the best technical skill mix, but over time we’ve decided that it still gets us the best overall leadership core.”
In Brady’s personal opinion, what has hurt intelligence officers in the past is that they have not had the same breadth of experience as officers who command flying wings, support wings or airbase groups.
“But that changes over time, particularly as you get to ‘inside the wire’ and ‘outside the wire.’ The distinction is not as clear as it used to be,” he said.