The Air Force should reinstate its warrant officer program.
Every other service branch has warrant officers. They provide technical skill, institutional memory and continuity.
Ever since the Air Force eliminated warrant officers in 1959, we’ve been lacking a special kind of technical expertise that warrant officers can provide without being distracted by leadership issues.
Chief Master Sgt. Michael Esser, an Air National Guardsman assigned to the Washington area, wrote a Feb. 27 paper recommending the reinstatement of warrant officers that he sent up through channels.
“Airmen tend to lose technical expertise when they transition to leadership roles around the rank of master sergeant,” Esser told me in a March 20 telephone interview. “We need people who make that shift from technical to supervisory roles so they can become focused leaders, but not every person in every career field needs to become a leader.”
In a December 2011 paper for the Naval Postgraduate School, Air Force officers Capt. Brian Williams, Capt. John Dix and 1st Lt. John Muir argued that integrating warrant officers into the Air Force’s contract-management career field could save $9.7 million over five years. The trio of military writers also pointed to benefits in terms of low turnover, high job satisfaction and productivity.
It’s not easy to find anyone strongly opposed to restoring warrant officer ranks. The historical reason for having warrant officers — once upon a time, a noncommissioned officer wasn’t literate enough to grasp a technical manual — is no longer valid. The Army’s reason for having most of its warrant officers — to use them as pilots — won’t fit into Air Force culture, which demands pilots be commissioned officers who grow into command positions.
But the Air Force is the most technically oriented service branch and has plenty of career fields — information technology is an example — where a warrant officer would be a perfect fit.
Another not-very-strong objection, a retired Air Force officer told me, is today’s era of uncertainty in the budget process may be the wrong time, as the officer put it, “to reinvent the wheel.” This is the wrong time for a new initiative, the officer suggested, “while we’re living with continuing resolutions, a debt-ceiling debate and big deficits.”
That argument won’t work. Let’s face it: Budget uncertainty is the new normal.
But reintroducing warrant officers — and thereby achieving savings over the extended, long-term future — wouldn’t cost much upfront. New Air Force warrant officers could wear the insignia of rank worn by those in other service branches until their own distinctive insignia can be produced. The Air Force already has the statutory authority to reinstate warrant officers, so no legislation is needed.
Technology has replaced muscle as the key to military operations. By reinstating warrant officers, the Air Force can keep itself ahead of the technology curve.
Robert F. Dorr, an Air Force veteran, is the author of “Mission to Tokyo.” Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org.