Air Force eyes picking first cyber warrant officer cohort this summer

by Tommy Grant

The Air Force will likely pick its first cohort of enlisted troops to start the process of becoming warrant officers this summer, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass said Tuesday.

Selecting that group will mark the next key step toward reinstatement of the Air Force’s first active duty warrant officers in more than 40 years, as it looks to build technical expertise in digitally focused career fields.

“We’ll roll out, I think, in the next several weeks, probably the first message that goes out on warrant officers,” Bass said during a livestreamed question-and-answer session with Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall. “We will probably select this summer, and then warrant officers will probably start school later on this year.”

That timeline dovetails with an Air University memo circulated on social media earlier this year that outlined plans to develop a training pipeline for junior warrant officers no later than October.

The memo claimed the Air Force will launch an initial class of 30 personnel at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. That program could eventually graduate as many as 200 junior warrant officers and up to 50 senior warrant officers between the grades of WO-2 and WO-5 each year, the document said.

Prospective candidates need to hold the enlisted rank of staff sergeant (E-5) or higher, and may come from the active duty Air Force, Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve, the memo added. Those plans are subject to change, an Air Force official told Military Times in February.

The service on Feb. 13 formally announced its plan to bring back warrant officers in a bid to improve knowledge and retention in cyber operations and information technology units. It’s part of a sweeping set of initiatives designed to ready the Air Force for future conflicts, particularly as it vies with China for military supremacy and influence around the world.

Used across the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, warrant officers are a highly trained class of technical experts who specialize in a single field, like intelligence or maintenance, and rank between the commissioned officers who lead units and the enlisted corps that forms the majority of the military’s workforce.

The Air Force began phasing out its warrant officers in 1959 because their jobs were deemed too inflexible to meet the Air Force’s personnel needs, according to the Warrant Officer Historical Association. Congress had also created two new top enlisted ranks, senior master sergeant and chief master sergeant (E-8 and E-9), to offer higher-level expertise and leadership.

The service has periodically considered reviving warrant officers to fix other workforce shortfalls, like its longstanding pilot shortage. It opted against that idea amid warnings that the idea would hurt retention and prove costly.

It’s unclear whether those concerns still stand for the cyber and IT workforces, which have struggled to recruit and retain highly qualified staffers who can find higher pay and more flexibility in the private sector. Warrant officers could bridge the knowledge gaps between niche specialties like expeditionary communications and defensive cyber operations.

The Air Force may eventually consider expanding warrant officers to include maintainers — another short-staffed field — but don’t hold your breath, Kendall said.

Recalling his work with warrant officer maintainers while serving as an Army officer in the 1970s and 1980s, Kendall indicated the Air Force may want to emulate their example.

“I thought they made a major contribution to the force,” Kendall said of the Army maintainers. “I think that’s one we’d want to consider at some point. I’m sure there are others.”

In the Army, the maintenance community’s warrant officers oversee sustainment needs for broad swaths of the weapon and vehicle inventories. They are experts in the field as a whole, compared to enlisted soldiers who specialize in a particular skill set, like small arms repair, or on a platform, like the M1 Abrams tank.

In the Air Force, that could translate to warrant officers who manage maintenance for aircraft, ground vehicles, electronic systems and weapons, instead of asking enlisted airmen with narrower skills to pitch in on platforms they aren’t trained to handle.

That kind of broad expertise could bolster the Air Force’s ability to deploy small, multi-skilled teams to outposts around the world in a crisis.

For now, though, the Air Force wants to see how the first group of cyber-focused warrant officers fare before reintroducing the rank elsewhere.

“We are going to be cautious before we broaden this beyond this one particular career field,” Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin told airmen Feb. 13 at the Air and Space Forces Association’s Air Warfare Symposium. “We want to make sure what we’re doing is fit for purpose and specific to the need that we have.”

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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