The Air Force is closing in on a new report on whether it should reinstate warrant officers for the first time in six decades.
And while nothing has been settled about whether warrant officers will return or what they will look like, the Air Force’s personnel chief is already thinking ahead, contemplating whether they could include aviators — and if they could help solve the service’s long-standing pilot retention problem.
Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, the Air Force’s personnel chief, said in a March 22 interview at the Pentagon that a long-awaited report on the feasibility of re-establishing warrant officers is expected to be finished in April and provided to Congress.
The RAND Corporation was brought in to provide the Air Force with needed “analytical bandwidth” to help inform the service’s study, and the group has been researching the issue for months. Rand’s findings were due to the Air Force at the end of March.
It remains to be seen whether creating another category of uniformed airmen will help solve the problems plaguing the Air Force — or, if warrant officers are revived, what form they will take.
“This idea of warrant officers is not new,” Grosso said. “The Air Force ... deliberately chose not to have warrant officers. When we talk to the Hill, they believe some sort of warrant officer program might help us with the pilot shortage. And then there’s other career fields that also are interested in having a technical track.”
When the Air Force was split off from the Army as its own service in 1947, it brought along about 1,200 warrant officers — representing a special class of expert airmen — from the former Army Air Corps.
In 1958, Congress created the grades of E-8 and E-9 for all the services, and the Air Force started phasing out warrant officers. The last active-duty warrant officer retired in 1980.
Since then, the idea of reviving warrant officers was occasionally suggested, but it never went far.
Former Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody simply responded, “No,” when he was asked at a May 2016 all-call meeting if the service was considering warrants. He then went on to say that the Air Force already maintained technical competencies at its highest enlisted ranks without a warrant officer program, and that the only thing that would change is an increase to those airmen’s pay.
And when the Air Force decided in late 2015 to allow enlisted airmen to fly unarmed remotely-piloted aircraft, it decided to not bring back warrant officers.
“The reason for that was the belief that our current enlisted system produces fantastic enlisted airmen for us,” former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in an August 2016 interview.
But the man who succeeded Cody as the top enlisted airman, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright, is more open to the idea. Wright said in a September interview that although he was “agnostic” on the idea, he asked the Air Force’s manpower and readiness department to study whether having warrants would make the service more lethal and efficient.
“If so, I’d be OK with implementing that program,” Wright said. “If the research proves that, in today’s Air Force, if we had warrant officers in cyber, if our enlisted pilots someday become warrant officers, in space, in contracting? I can see a couple of areas where it might be beneficial to us.”
Grosso likewise expressed no opinion on whether warrants would be beneficial to the service. But, she said, questions remain about how the Air Force would structure a warrant program, if that’s the way it goes.
For example, where would they come from? Because warrant officers would be considered officers, Grosso said, their billets would come from the Air Force’s officer end strength.
Would the Air Force get the funding to buy additional billets for warrant officers? Or would a cadre of warrant officers be carved from the existing ranks of Air Force officers?
And if warrant officers are re-established, who would be chosen to convert into those billets?
Grosso said the Air Force hasn’t yet figured that out.
Grosso said that the Air Force could conceivably allow both current enlisted airmen and officers to become warrants. But, she said, the pay scales for warrant officers would likely make that switch more appealing to enlisted than officers.
The pay scale for the W-4 pay grade — where most warrant officers max out — is closest to the pay scale for O-3 captains. A captain’s basic pay maxes out at 14 years, at $6,741 per month, and a W-4 at the same point in his career makes $6,172, though the warrant officer will continue to get raises.
But when compared to enlisted airman, even the W-3 pay scales are higher than what an E-9 chief master sergeant makes. A W-3 at 20 years of service makes $6,346 per month in basic pay, and a W-4 makes $6,909 per month, but a chief master sergeant at that point in his career makes $6,068 per month.
Bringing back warrants, Grosso said, also would require yet another performance management and promotion system for supervisors to learn and navigate.
“Do the benefits outweigh the [added] complexity?” Grosso said. “We are, out of respect for Congress, doing a very thorough, intellectual look. ... If you do it, how do you do it — and then who would do it?”
Grosso also said that warrant officers could provide a technical track for officers to focus on their specialized skills, adding that the Air Force could look at how the Navy set up its Limited Duty Officer program.
Hypothetically, that could be how a warrant officer program helps solve the pilot retention crisis, she said — by allowing aviators to concentrate primarily on flying without having to deal with other issues such as leadership responsibilities.
Air Force officials “hear feedback from pilots that they just want to fly, which is what I would call a technical track,” Grosso said. “Those that favor warrant officers say, ‘hey, you’ve already got this technical track in law that you can use, and because they are doing what they want to do, you’ll keep them.’”
The Army has warrant officer aviators who fly helicopters and remotely-piloted aircraft, and Grosso said the Army’s retention of them is strong.
It remains to be seen how the Air Force would determine what warrant officers would and would not be required to do, Grosso said, but she thinks the Air Force would have plenty of leeway to set that policy.
“There’s a lot to think about in the details,” Grosso said.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.