T. Kearny Vertner, III
Warrant Officers: Unwarranted?
The Air Force is the one service branch without Warrant Officers, and some are calling for them; here's why that's a mistake.
The 1st Lieutenant (O-2), Chief Warrant Officer 3 (CW3), and the Command Sergeant Major (E-9) walk into the room; who takes charge?
The Warrant Officer ranks occupy a strange and unique position in the modern military. In the United States armed forces, one can find Warrants in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard; none are in the Air Force (or Space Force). While some (particularly enlisted) in the Air Force are calling for the introduction of Warrant Officers into our ranks, I firmly believe that not only would this be a step backward for the Air Force, it's an anachronistic complication for other services as well. To understand why we must look at our rank structure in the context of history and evaluate ranks based on expected duties and class.
Officers and Enlisted
Reaching back into military history, there has long existed a clear line between the officer ranks and enlisted ranks. Officers rose from the nobility, often from the second (and third, fourth, etc.) sons who would only hold their name and titles without their father's estate. Lacking their oldest brother's assets, commissioning was often seen as an honorable way to earn income without dishonoring the family name. On the other hand, enlisted were long drawn from relatively unskilled peasantry that lacked land or titles. The Warrant Officer began in the 13th century in the British Navy, where they realized that sailing a ship was incredibly technical work needing more expertise in their leadership than a noble-blooded officer could provide. Consequently, highly-skilled enlisted sailors who could be trusted by their commissioned officers received Royal Warrants and the title of Boat Mate or Bosun's Mate. While the ship's lead officer had command of the ship's men and mission, Mister Bosun had command of the ship's functions.
The modern U.S. military inherited many of these approaches to organizing its own formations. In the modern-day, commissioned officers don't necessarily come from noble families; instead, they must have completed an undergraduate degree. To one extent or another, this does create an economic barrier to the officer corps*, though it's not nearly as stark as having a particular family name. Likewise, the modern U.S. military still draws its enlisted corps from the unskilled masses, where the promise of converting your high school diploma into a marketable technical skill and access to money for school is alluring. In the services that use them, Warrant Officers may be drawn from the enlisted ranks or (in specific circumstances, such as pilots), hired from the civilian population.
What a Warrant Officer Is... and Isn't.
The most obvious differences between an enlisted member and a Warrant Officer are that they appear to be technical specialists, have more legal authority and prestige, and make more money. What many Airmen don't fully understand is what these things mean and what they don't.
While the specifics depend on service and career field, the vast majority of Warrant Officers are merely officers that have traded breadth for depth. A commissioned officer is expected to lead a wide range of personnel into a number of scenarios; thus, there is a heavy value placed in building a career with broad exposure to different organizations, echelons, and missions. Warrant Officers are still expected to lead (and even take command), but they will only do so over a narrow set of missions closely-linked to their career field. As with any other officer (or senior enlisted for that matter), they still need to perform administrative tasks related to supervision, training, and discipline of junior enlisted. Additionally, they still need to attend professional military education and seek opportunities for professional growth. Despite what many may believe, a Warrant is not merely a technician that gets paid more. As an officer, Warrants carry powerful legal authorities on par with commissioned officers that are largely unnecessary for a mere technician.
Additionally, while there is a widespread perception among enlisted personnel that becoming a Warrant Officer will magically give them more respect and prestige among their commissioned sisters and brothers, the reality is far harsher. Even among commissioned officers, there are unspoken pecking orders. In the U.S. Air Force, being a commissioned intelligence officer would seem to be enough, until they walk into a room full of flying officers. Likewise, among those flying officers who quickly brushed off the intelligence officer's perspective, the pilots will disregard the opinions of the non-pilots. The fighter pilots will close ranks against the bomber, tanker, transport, and reconnaissance pilots, forming another tier. Going a step further, you'll even see where fighter pilots of the latest and greatest aircraft will be on an even higher plateau than an older model fighter aircraft.**
No matter what your rank is, you're always going to be in a position where your opinion matters less than your field, and you'll have to fetch someone else's coffee.
Warrant Officers versus Senior Non-commissioned Officers
As the social gap between commissioned officers and enlisted non-commissioned officers has closed, so has the need for Warrant Officers. The number of enlisted personnel that satisfies the increasingly arbitrary requirements for a commission (or a Warrant) is higher than ever, yet many never choose to do so, preferring to pursue their trade. Like the U.S., many modern militaries place an unprecedented amount of authority and faith in the hands of even junior enlisted personnel, no doubt in part thanks to the humbler middle-class backgrounds of their commissioned leaders. Additionally, we've seen the rise of senior non-commissioned officers (SNCOs) to take Warrant Officers' place in most units as a trusted advisor and skilled technician. This begs the question: why do any services have Warrant Officers?
There is only one remaining role that requires multiple years of technical skills, and the legal authority of an officer is the pilot. In 1942, the passage of Public Law 658 (the Flight Officer Act) ended the practice of allowing enlisted to pilot aircraft and instead made it a requirement to be a commissioned officer. Once passed, most current "flying sergeants" accepted a commission as Warrant Officers, thus establishing the Warrant as a clever workaround.
As each service prefers to select its top ranks from its officers that have seen the most direct roles in combat, it's not surprising that the Air Force quickly rejected Warrant Officers' use as pilots and discarded the idea altogether. It only made sense to ensure that as many pilots as possible could grow into the next generation of generals. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army's approach to its officers meant that the aviator officers that would have soared in an Air Force career are left to stagnate at the same ranks that non-flying Airmen often find themselves stuck in, while watching their peers in infantry and special operations units climb into the senior echelons.
Understanding the historical rationale for Warrant Officers and the narrow modern uses, I'm left asking, why? It's not just that I believe that Warrant Officers would make the Air Force worse, but that getting rid of them across the entire Department of Defense is the right move. Other than compliance with the Flight Officer Act, they have been replaced by a diverse range of humble commissioned officers and well-heeled enlisted representing a broad cross-section of middle-class America. I would even argue that the Flight Officer Act was a law born in a time where undereducated enlisted were already proving themselves to be competent pilots and is probably due for reconsideration.
Above, we've discussed why many of the common beliefs over what a Warrant Officer is are flawed, but how do we create the desired end state that so many think a Warrant Officer provides?
I propose looking to government civil service for inspiration. The government civil service has well-defined pay grades that offer legal authority and responsibility commensurate with each increase, but additionally, there are steps at each grade. A GG-11 step 7 does not outrank or carry greater legal authority than a GG-11 step 4, but they will earn several thousand dollars more per year in their salary. Likewise, for the technical enlisted grades of E-4, E-5, and E-6, why not consider pay steps? We don't need programmers, pilots, or lawyers to have full commissioned officers' legal authority, though we need to pay them commensurate with the value of their skills (and somewhat competitive with the private market). Why not have a pilot that's an E-6 step 8?
While some mentorship is still necessary to help folks understand that they'll never truly have the prestige and respect they think that the funny striped bar will earn them, a step construct allows us to avoid the opening conundrum where the O-2, CW3, and E-9 arm-wrestle for authority. We don't need more ranks to solve the issue of adequately compensating those that seek and sustain a technical track; we need fewer ranks organized better.
Skilled Warrant Officers have a long and important role in militaries across history, bridging the gap between high-born noble-class officers and unskilled enlisted; however, the middle class's rise has squeezed out any significant rationale they once had. Our officer ranks are packed with women and men of humble backgrounds and gratitude faith in their enlisted personnel, while the enlisted ranks swell with highly-skilled and well-educated professionals. Enlisted personnel that seek opportunities to promote into the Warrant Officer ranks would do well to consider what they're seeking. From my experience, many seek more technical depth with less focus on management, more respect and prestige, and more money. The first two represent a common misunderstanding of modern Warrant Officer roles, and the last one can be addressed by looking for inspiration from the civil service pay scale. Doing so allows us to provide personnel opportunities to specialize as technicians, eschew adding unnecessary legal authority, and continue to enable opportunities to promote and earn pay commensurate with their advanced technical skills.
What do you think? Have I completely misunderstood the Warrant Officer's role in the modern military? Is there still a wide gap between commissioned officers and enlisted personnel desperate for the Warrant Officer to bridge? Let me know what you think!
*Note: There are three primary paths to commissioning as an officer: a service military academy, the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), and a direct appointment to Officer Training School (OTS) or Officer Candidate School (OCS). Of these three, the academy and ROTC options effectively offer some form of scholarship that would appear to level the opportunities; however, that ignores the competitive nature of applying to these programs and the social advantages inherent to coming from communities where knowledge of these options is pursued. High school students may not even think college is a possibility in poor communities, let alone a commission. In wealthier communities, schools will actively encourage a wide range of options for post-high school education, and many successful multi-generation military families will educate their children on these relatively low-barrier commissioning opportunities.
**Exceptions are everywhere, but these observations hold true both in practice and systemic design.