The Air Force is on the verge of breaking the Line of the Air Force category, which now encompasses about 87 percent of its officers, into six new, more finely tuned competitive categories — including one dedicated to space operations.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson previewed the changes for reporters Thursday. She stressed that the proposal is still in draft form and not yet settled, but the service is now leaning toward splitting the Line of the Air Force into these six categories:
♦ Air operations and special warfare, which will include pilots and navigators;
♦ Nuclear and missile operations;
♦ Space operations;
♦ Information warfare;
♦ Combat support; and
♦ Force modernization, which will include acquisition, research and development and testing and evaluation.
The Air Force could make an announcement about the proposed changes next week, she said, and the service could make a final decision on them in October.
The Air Force already has small, specialized categories for lawyers, doctors, nurses and chaplains, but has thrown the vast majority of its officers — everyone from pilots to acquisition officials to public affairs officers — into the broader category.
This places some officers at a disadvantage in terms of advancement, Air Force personnel chief Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly told reporters last month, when he discussed plans to break up the LAF category.
Sometimes, officers have to develop in ways that are better suited to other jobs so they can stay competitive when promotion time comes, he said. But if, for example, acquisition officers had their own competitive category, they could stay longer at a base to provide more continuity within their program. Moreover, the lack of command opportunities that acquisition officers typically face would be less likely to hurt their promotion chances.
But more categories would give different career fields the opportunity to grow officers in their own unique ways, providing the best fit for them, Kelly said in April.
Wilson said Thursday that the catch-all approach to categorizing officers has sometimes led to imbalances in certain career fields and experience levels.
“Very often, at the lieutenant colonel [and] colonel level, we just kind of trust the law of large numbers to give us the expertise we need," Wilson said. "And we may not have enough colonels in cyber, or lieutenant colonels in logistics, or somebody that’s coming along who eventually is being groomed to be the leader of one of our laboratories. ... Not everybody’s career is going to look like everybody else’s — and it doesn’t have to.”
Wilson also suggested that the fracturing of the LAF category might be limited to the middle officer ranks.
“We think we’ve got this right,” Wilson said. “We’ve got a lot of input from the major command commanders and others. But we also think that it’s a really big change. So we’re going to take it out to the force, get a lot of input, hope people post on it, blog on it, comment on it, have town hall meetings on it. And then probably make a final decision on where we go in October.”
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.