The Air Force on Friday detailed plans to break out most of its officer career fields into six newly created promotion categories, which could take effect early next year.
The current Line of the Air Force category, which encompasses about 87 percent of the service’s officers, would be replaced by six more finely tuned promotion categories: air operations and special warfare, space operations, nuclear and missile operations, information warfare, combat support and force modernization.
The proposed changes are intended to not only make the process fairer, but also to reflect changes in the modern Air Force, where space, cyber, information systems and many more occupations have become increasingly important to preparations for possible conflicts with near-peer adversaries.
In a May 29 call with reporters, Air Force personnel chief Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly said that having more categories, each encompassing jobs with common traits, will allow the Air Force to fine-tune its officer developmental process. That way, the Air Force won’t have to use a “one-size-fits-all” strategy that might not work well for some career fields.
“Having a single large category for development, which has really served us well in the past, is not necessarily optimized for the future joint war fight, and what we’re going to need in this new era" of a return to great power competition, Kelly said.
That “great power competition” shift in the National Defense Strategy is designed to have the military focus more on preparing for potential fights against peer or near-peer nations such as China, Russia or North Korea, instead of smaller, militant groups such as those in the Middle East.
Shon Manasco, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, told reporters on that same call that the Air Force planned to first tell wing, numbered Air Force and major command commanders about the category plan, and then discuss it further at the Corona meeting of top Air Force leaders the first week of June.
The Air Force will also get airmen’s input from the field by the end of July to see if their plans need to be tweaked. Potential tweaks could include changing the number of new promotion categories, Kelly said, or moving certain Air Force specialty codes from one proposed category to another if it makes sense.
The secretary and chief of staff of the Air Force are expected to decide whether or not to move forward with the plan on Sept. 1, Manasco said. If the service does adopt the plan, Kelly said the lieutenant colonel board scheduled to meet in March 2020 would most likely be the first to use the new categories.
The Air Force said in a release Friday that Kelly and Manasco will send briefing teams to installations across major commands and other functional communities in June and July to brief airmen in depth on the proposed changes, answer their questions and get their feedback. The Air Force will also set up online sites and other “virtual venues” to collect feedback.
“For this foundational change to succeed, commanders at every echelon must take ownership, understand and explain why we are proposing this significant change, listen to the officers entrusted to your care, and pass your thoughts up the chain,” the memo to Air Force commanders said. “Our future depends on getting this right. Help us make it better.”
Kelly told reporters that the Air Force has been studying how it promotes and develops officers for the past 18 months.
By placing nearly nine out of every 10 officers into the broad LAF category, Kelly told reporters in April, some officers are placed at a disadvantage when the time comes for career advancement. More specialized categories would also give different career fields the opportunity to grow officers in their own unique ways.
Kelly said in April that some officers in the LAF now have to develop in ways that are not best-suited for their jobs so they can stay competitive with officers in other career fields when promotion time comes. Kelly suggested, for example, that if acquisition officers had their own category, they could stay longer at a base to provide more continuity with their program. And because acquisition officers typically have fewer command opportunities than some other career fields, having their own promotion category that takes that into account would be less likely to hurt their promotion chances.
Kelly also said during the Wednesday call that the Air Force is working with Air Education and Training Command as these new categories take shape.
“What you might value in a training opportunity in one category might not be the same things that are needed to develop properly or hone skills in another category,” Kelly said.
Kelly said that the new categories would probably not use the LAF prefix, the way the lawyer category is now titled Line of the Air Force-Judge Advocate, though that’s not settled. The Air Force is also considering dropping the LAF prefix for lawyers.
The list of career fields in each category is as follows:
♦ Air Operations and Special Warfare: pilot (11X), combat systems (12X), remotely piloted aircraft pilot (18X), air battle manager (13B), special tactics (13C), combat rescue (13D), tactical air control party (13L)
♦ Space Operations: space operations (13S), astronaut (13A)
♦ Nuclear and Missile Operations: nuclear and missile operations (13N)
♦ Information Warfare: cyber operations (17X), intelligence (14N), operations research analyst (61A), weather (15W), special investigations (71S), information operations (14F), public affairs (35X)
♦ Combat Support: airfield operations (13M), aircraft maintenance (21A), munitions and missile maintenance (21M), logistics readiness (21R), security forces (31P), civil engineering (32E), force support (38F), contracting (64P), financial management (65X)
♦ Force Modernization: chemist (61C), physicist/nuclear engineer (61D), developmental engineer (62E), acquisition management (63A)
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.