The Line of the Air Force is no more.
The Air Force on Monday announced it has broken the massive category — which represented about 87 percent of its active duty officers in more than 40 Air Force specialty codes — into six officer development groupings for managing their careers and promoting them. The new categories were established Oct. 7, according to the Air Force.
“It will be the largest change that we’ve made in the way officer personnel management is working since the birth” of the Air Force, said Shon Manasco, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for manpower and reserve affairs, in an Oct. 11 briefing with reporters at the Pentagon.
The six categories will be:
- Air Operations and Special Warfare, including pilots
- Space Operations
- Nuclear and Missile Operations
- Information Warfare, including cyber and intelligence officers
- Combat Support, including maintenance, logistics and security forces officers
- Force Modernization, including engineers and acquisition officers.
Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Carrie Volpe said in an email that the six new categories will keep the LAF prefix.
The first promotion board to use the new categories will be the lieutenant colonel board scheduled to meet next March, Air Force personnel chief Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly said at the briefing.
“This is an important step forward in the way Air Force leaders are developed,” Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said in the release. “The team has done exceptional work to get us to this point and I look forward to implementing this together.”
Previously, the Air Force only had unique categories for smaller, specialized groups of officers, including lawyers, doctors, nurses and chaplains.
But that meant some officers in the broad LAF category, which had remained virtually unchanged since the Air Force’s creation as its own service in 1947, were disadvantaged, Kelly said in April. Some officers were forced to develop in ways that were better suited to other jobs in order to stay competitive for promotions, he said.
Earlier this year, Kelly used the example of acquisition officers, who faced a lack of command opportunities that, under the broader LAF system, would have helped them at promotion time.
Establishing a more refined category that includes acquisition officers would make a lack of command less punitive in terms of promotion, Kelly said at the time. It could also allow acquisition officers to stay longer at a base and provide more continuity with their programs, he said.
“This change is about ensuring we maintain a winning team,” Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein said in the release. “The existing Line of the Air Force category has served our Air Force well and molded the excellent leaders we have today. As we look to the future of warfighting, we must have an agile system that allows for a wider range of development paths to ensure officers have the needed skills and expertise to fight and win. This sets us on that path.”
On Oct. 11, Kelly said that the overall promotion board process for officers will remain the same.
“We don’t want to change that at all, and we’re not changing it,” Kelly said.
But instead of competing against airmen from some 40 other Air Force specialty codes, Kelly said, officers will be competing against a much smaller cohort of officers that are in jobs closer to their own.
Manasco said they will also benefit from “more tailored development experiences,” which should make them even more competitive for promotion.
“Changing the promotion system was the key to unlock the ability to create these unique development paths,” Manasco said. “That, to us, is where the real power is. And that’s where, over the course of time, we are convinced that we will see an even more talented group of officers [who] will populate our ranks.”
Over the summer, Air Force officials held 42 town hall sessions at more than a dozen bases, talking to more than 3,700 airmen about the changes and gathering their suggestions. Ultimately, the six categories remained unchanged from when they were announced in May — though some airmen did offer suggestions on how the categories might be different.
But Kelly said talking to airmen helped the service hone its message and more effectively communicate why the changes are necessary and how they will work. For example, the Air Force stopped referring to them as promotion categories and instead began referring to them as developmental categories to emphasize the career development aspect of it.
The Air Force wants to make this process more transparent, Kelly said. So it will publish the Air Force secretary’s annual promotion board guidance, called the memorandum of instruction, which explains what is expected of all officers, regardless of career field, in terms of competency and character.
And in the beginning of each year, the Air Force will publish the career field brief, or specific instructions on what the service values in education, training and experience in each career field. For the first time, Kelly said, promotion boards will receive these briefs to tell them what they need to look for in an officer’s developmental path.
The promotion boards for officers in each developmental category will not be stacked entirely with officers from that same category, Kelly said, though some will be from that category. Instead, there will be a mix of officers, depending on the size of the board, to make sure the board gets an “institutional perspective.”
This is how boards for the current, smaller categories such as chaplains, JAGs or medical personnel already are structured, Kelly said.
Kelly acknowledged he’s sure the Air Force didn’t get it 100 percent right, and some tweaks might be needed in the future.
“Until we flesh this out and actually go through it a couple times, we won’t know exactly” what adjustments might be needed, Kelly said.
The complete list of career fields in each category is as follows:
♦ Air Operations and Special Warfare, or LAF-A: 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, or LAF-S: space operations (13S), astronaut (13A);
♦ Nuclear and Missile Operations, or LAF-N: nuclear and missile operations (13N);
♦ Information Warfare, or LAF-I: cyber operations (17X), intelligence (14N), operations research analyst (61A), weather (15W), special investigations (71S), information operations (14F), public affairs (35X);
♦ Combat Support, or LAF-C: 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, or LAF-F: 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.