After years of resistance, the Air Force might be warming to the concept of warrant officers.
In February, the service’s manpower and readiness department is expected to finish a study on whether having some specialized enlisted airmen serve as warrant officers would make the Air Force more lethal and efficient.
In September, Wright said he’s “agnostic” about whether having warrant officers would help. But if the study says it will, the senior enlisted leader said he’d be open to creating a cadre of warrants.
“If the research proves that, in today’s Air Force, if we had warrant officers in cyber, if our enlisted [remotely piloted aircraft] pilots someday become warrant officers, in space, in contracting … I can see a couple of areas where it might be beneficial to us,” he said.
The Army, Navy and Marine Corps have had warrant officers for years. In the Army, for example, many of its helicopter pilots are warrant officers.
But the Air Force hasn’t had them for decades. When it was established as an independent service in 1947, there were about 1,200 warrant officers from the former Army Air Corps, representing a special class of expert airmen.
But in 1958, Congress added the ranks of E-8 and E-9 for all the services. With the addition of senior master sergeants and chief master sergeants, the Air Force began phasing out warrant officers. The last active-duty warrant retired in 1980.
From time to time, some observers have suggested reviving the warrant officer program — particularly with the rise of enlisted RPA pilots. Some argued that making enlisted pilots warrant officers would allow them to earn more for their increased responsibilities, and shrink the pay gap between them and officers doing the same job.
In a 2016 letter to Air Force Times, retired NCO and former 1st Air Force historian Paul Connors said the case for warrant officers is about more than pay. In other services, he said, warrants fill vital managerial roles, freeing up commissioned officers for command jobs. And they provide another path for enlisted airmen to advance in their careers.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.