No officers? No enlisted? No kidding: This Air Force officer says it’s time to classify service members by how they can help win the modern fight – or risk losing it.

Editor’s note: The following is an opinion piece. The writer is not employed by Military Times and the views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Military Times or its editorial staff. 

The military rank structure that has served our nation well for centuries is not suited for our modern conflicts. Our forces could suffer heavy losses, both on the battlefield and in the cyber arena, if changes aren’t made — changes that would eliminate the officer-enlisted divide, among other long-held military personnel constructs.

The development of a position-centric force that allows for rapid advancement based on job performance will better preserve lives in combat through more effective and streamlined command and control, ensure that rank does not supersede competence, and build a military that ensures all service members can reach their full potential.

Such a system would vastly outperform the current military system, in part by allowing and encouraging those with the greatest potential and initiative to rise to the highest levels of this evolved hierarchy. Commissioned officers, warrant officers and enlisted personnel would not exist in a position-centric model. Within the Defense Department, there would simply be Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines.

Over the course of my service in the Air Force in both combat rescue and cyberspace, I observed many missed opportunities where our military structure failed when a position-centric model would have been successful:

  • At the tactical level, I personally witnessed conflicts in which a team commander would not listen to his team leader because he was only in charge due to his officer status. In the combat environment, it nearly cost members their lives.
  • At the operational level, I witnessed senior enlisted airmen far exceed the abilities of junior officers in cyber operations, displaying the technical proficiency necessary to understand how to reach a desired end state in the cyber domain.
  • At the strategic level, while serving as a general’s aide I saw overlapping command chains that waste billions of dollars, mixing military and civilian leadership at all levels in a process that can strangle most any innovation with red tape.

The above examples are not isolated, and their underlying problem was the focus of my doctoral dissertation. The solution: Realign current ranks in a single hierarchy, and instead of separating service members as officers, warrants and enlisted, group them by function in tactical, operational and strategic groups.

Doing so would streamline the entire military system. Hundreds of duplicated programs and staff positions across the three hierarchies would unify as one program for one structure.

Service members would be put into jobs that fit their skills and experience, and the rank structure would reflect it. Many senior noncommissioned officer posts are arguably functional equivalents to company-grade officer positions. A chief master sergeant indisputably outranks a second lieutenant from a functional perspective, so why shouldn’t the E-9 actually outrank the O-1?

Such a change wouldn’t be easy, but would come with immediate benefits:

  • Regrouping service members into the new structure could take decades, but it would reveal the many, many functional redundancies in our current system and allow for their elimination.
  • Reshaping the recruiting and training process could take just as long, although the new, one-size-for-all-troops system would save money and personnel.
  • Redefining career paths based on mission sets would be challenging as those sets change, but once positions more accurately reflect a service member’s skill set, it becomes easier to map the right force to the right mission.

The current military structure was sufficient when the American military possessed unparalleled combat power with adversaries willing to fight under the same rules. However, warfare has evolved where asymmetric tactics are deliberately designed to undermine conventional military structures and render our strategy ineffective.

No system is perfect, but if we wish to remain a great superpower, then we must evolve structurally, just as we have technologically to counter the current threat environment.

Maj. Kevin A. Deibler, Ph.D, is the commander of the 689th Network Operations Squadron at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. He has deployed in support of Operations Enduring Freedom and Unified Protector and has more than 120 combat flying hours in HH-60, C-130, and CV-22 aircraft. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the Defense Department or Air Force.

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