Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James has a sweeping plan to increase opportunities for women, minorities and enlisted airmen.
In a March 4 address in Washington, James outlined nine proposals for increasing diversity in the Air Force — everything from making it easier to waive height restrictions for pilots to increasing the representation of women in pilot candidate pools to setting diversity and inclusion requirements for career field development teams.
"Diversity and inclusion will help us to become more strategically agile in our Air Force," James told the Center for a New American Security's forum on Women and Leadership in National Security.
"Diversity, to me, is having the raw material, meaning the different types of people, the different perspectives, and the different backgrounds, the different opinions," she said. "Inclusion is, how do we put all that together and make it work for us? How do we capitalize on those strengths of the different opinions and approaches?"
In her remarks, James spelled out examples of how the Air Force is falling short on diversity. The junior enlisted force is diverse, she said, but the percentage of women and minorities in senior noncommissioned officer ranks has declined. Officers and civilians likewise see declining representation of women and minorities in the upper ranks, she said, and women leave the service at twice the rate of men during the middle of their careers.
James listed problems specifically with representation in the Air Force's pilot ranks. Black airmen make up 6 percent of the officer corps, but only 2.3 percent of pilots, she said, and women make up 6.7 percent of pilots while accounting for 20 percent of officers.
"A fundamental question I ask is: Are we spending as much time and resources and energy thinking about the next generation of our people, the next generation of our airmen, as we are thinking about the next generation of aircraft?" she said.
But her proposals were met with suspicion from some current and former troops, who think the emphasis on diversity will inevitably lead to less-qualified airmen being selected for promotions or other jobs.
"Are we trying to look good, or are we trying to win wars?" said retired Col. Terry Stevens, who served 35 years and worked at the Air Force Personnel Center for eight years.
"So now it's more important to fill a certain quota with less qualified women and minorities than it is to fill that same quota with the best qualified personnel?" said Airman First Class Ned Johnston on Air Force Times' Facebook page. "If the best happens to be women and minorities, go ahead and give them the job. Don't lower standards for anyone."
But others fought back on the Air Force Times Facebook page.
"I just had to note that not one person (until now) that has commented on this thread has a) been female or b) had anything really useful or credible to add," Air Force Times reader Julie Souza wrote. "If you think you have a better idea then step up and provide a useful solution to women's equality, because right now you honestly sound like a bunch of quibbling men who are sad that the AF is attempting to take a step to encourage women to take a leading role."
James emphasized that the diversity push isn't just about appearances.
"This is not just about how we look," James said. "It's about our readiness and capability to perform in an increasingly uncertain geopolitical environment. To perform, we need top talent. Today we claim the title 'World's Greatest Air Force,' but to remain so, we must learn to be comprehensively inclusive, throughout our ranks, and throughout our specialties. If we get this right, we will glean significant benefit from the many perspectives of the population we serve."
The Air Force did not provide a requested timeline on when these sweeping changes would be put into place. But some may take a while. Some plans, such as emphasizing diversity and inclusion for development team boards and expanding access to height waivers for Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets who wish to be pilots, are already being done by the Air Force. Others — such as expanding the Career Intermission Program's three-year sabbaticals beyond its current maximum of 40 airmen to an unspecified number of additional airmen — would require congressional approval over the next few years. And James' desire to open to women the last seven career fields that are now male-only would also require Congress' OK, which will not happen any earlier than January.
Career, promotion opportunities
In her speech, James pledged to establish diversity and inclusion requirements for career field development teams. Those teams meet twice a year to review particular year groups and identify the most talented airmen who can fill critical positions and offer them opportunities for command and developmental education.
"Development teams are big deals in the United States Air Force," James said.
James said she and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh will be providing those requirements to the heads of each development team, telling them to conduct an analysis to find barriers that prevent any airmen from reaching their highest levels of performance. After meeting this summer, those teams' chairmen will provide those lessons learned and best practices to Air Force leaders, who will then share those lessons to the rest of the Air Force.
James has also sent a memorandum of instruction to promotion boards, instructing members "to find officers who have demonstrated they will nurture and lead in a diverse and inclusive Air Force culture."
"I always provide specific instructions to military promotion board members for every officer promotion and federal recognition board to ensure that we have the best qualified officers selected for promotion or recognition," James said. "I also have the authority to highlight special areas of concern or focus. By focusing on career development and quality officer promotions, it is my hope that we will help shape the Air Force of the future to be more diverse and inclusive than it is today."
And James spelled out specific goals for increasing the pool of female officer applicants.
"Despite this deep talent pool, our female officer applicants currently comprise only about 25 percent of our applicant pool," James said. "I'm one who thinks we ought to be able to do better. Let's go for it. Let's try. So we are setting an applicant pool goal of 30 percent. We want our officer accession sources to go after a 30 percent female applicant pool in the future."
James said this will encourage the Air Force to more aggressively compete for top female talent in the nation. The Air Force will adjust its recruiting strategies to attract talented women, she said, and will establish partnerships with organizations that mentor and advocate for young women."
In a follow-up email, Air Force spokeswoman Rose Richeson said that the effort to recruit more women began in fiscal 2014, and that the Air Force is already adjusting its recruiting strategies to partner with organizations that mentor and advocate for young women.
'It's quotas,' critic says
But to Stevens and some other airmen, the proposals amount to one thing.
"It's quotas," Stevens said. "They won't say that, but … in another world, that's quotas. If you're going to do that instead of picking the best qualified of any applicant, then you're actually downgrading the quality of the force. A lot of people are not going to agree with that, but it's true."
Stevens fears that setting a 30 percent goal for female officer applicants will place pressure on recruiters to pass over more qualified candidates to hit that target.
"That is the nature of a quota system, or a goal system," Stevens said.
And the promotion board guidance also could lead to quotas, Stevens said.
But Stevens applauded several of James' other proposals, such as the Career Intermission Program, or CIP, which allows up to 40 airmen a year to take up to three years off to go back to school, start a family, or pursue other life goals.
"I think it's great," Stevens said of CIP. "When you get those individuals back, they're going to be better qualified, more motivated and a better resource than what you let go for three years."
James also said she plans to change the Air Force's rules so new mothers will have a full 12 months at home before being deployed. The Post-Pregnancy Deployment Deferment is now six months. Commanders now have the ability to increase the six-month deferment on a case-by-case basis, James said, but that is not good enough, and 12 months should be the standard.
The goal is to alleviate the strain on "some of our talented airmen [who choose] to leave the Air Force as they struggle to balance deployments and family issues, and this is especially true soon after childbirth," James said.
Stevens said he agreed with that proposal, and said he saw many talented female airmen leave the Air Force because they didn't want to deploy so early in their children's lives.
"I've seen them quit because of that very reason," Stevens said. "My gosh, at six months, that child is still a baby. I never liked the six month [deferment]. Twelve months should be the base."
Focus on enlisted
James also wants to encourage more enlisted airmen to apply for Officer Training School. She cited Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Spencer — who is black and started out as an enlisted airmen in the 1970s before graduating from Officer Training School in 1980 — as an example of the "extraordinary talent resident within our enlisted corps.
"We're looking for enlisted members who have demonstrated the ability, specifically, to nurture and lead in a diverse and inclusive Air Force culture, and of course, those who are eligible to attend," James said. "We will encourage this diverse talent pool to apply for the more than 500 OTS slots and provide the tools and opportunities to do so."
Stevens, who was an enlisted airman for 13 years before becoming an officer, agreed it is a good idea to increase the number of officers who have spent time turning wrenches and chasing down parts on a flight line, or doing other enlisted jobs.
"I think it gives the officer corps a better balance," Stevens said. "You actually understand what the enlisted people have to face, and how hard their jobs are. [Enlisted airmen] have limited authority and maximum responsibility, and as an officer, you understand that and can deal with them a lot better. I couldn't be more pleased that [James is] starting to push that aspect."
And the Air Force plans to make it easier for short-of-stature Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets who want to become pilots to get height waivers, James said.
Currently, pilot candidates must have a standing height of between 64 and 77 inches, and a sitting height of 34 to 40 inches. But that is based on the most restrictive cockpits in the Air Force, James said, and ensures an individual can be qualified in every one of the service's aircraft.
Cadets at the Air Force Academy who don't meet height requirements have consistent access to a waiver process that allows for additional measurements to see if they can safely operate specific aircraft.
But James said the Air Force found many of its ROTC cadets don't have access to that waiver system. The service has 145 ROTC detachments across the country, she said, and many aren't near medical teams that are authorized to take those measurements. This eliminated nearly 37 percent of female ROTC cadets, and several male cadets as well.
James said the ROTC Rated Height Screening Initiative will establish additional opportunities for those cadets to get the height waivers.
"We estimate that approximately 900 women will now have the opportunity to more easily compete to be a pilot and to be able to get access to that waiver process over the next five years," James said.
Effect on recruiting, retention
Stevens thinks these proposals will affect recruiting, retention and promotions in a variety of ways.
Some of the diversity initiatives may change who recruiters go after, he said, but he doesn't expect the proposals will have an overwhelming effect on recruiting.
He said James' plans to establish the CIP sabbatical program and the deployment deferment for new mothers will help retain some talented airmen.
But Stevens fears the diversity initiatives will lead to other airmen leaving.
"I think you're going to have a lot of really high-quality people who are disappointed enough to leave the service, because people who are less qualified are promoted over them," Stevens said. "We're getting back into the era where politicians and Congress, which pushes everything, are beginning to say, 'Well, you need to help us with our social programs.'"
He thinks airmen will conclude the diversity initiatives are a form of social engineering, which troops often complain about.
"Diversity don't win wars," Stevens said. "Warriors win wars."
Stephen Losey covers leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times. He comes from an Air Force family, and his investigative reports have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover Air Force operations against the Islamic State.