Air Force may revive warrant officer corps this year after 65-year hiatus

The Air Force may begin training warrant officers this year, reviving a corps of skilled technical experts more than 60 years after the service eliminated the program.

A planning order obtained by Stars and Stripes spells out how Air University and Air Force headquarters would develop a training pipeline for a non-aviation warrant officer program no later than October.

“To fully leverage the technical depth and breadth of our Airmen and cultivate the strategic advantage” the service’s technicians have historically provided, “we will make the necessary preparations to reestablish” a warrant officer corps and train designated candidates, the document says.

If the plan is approved, up to 30 junior warrant officers would begin training, says the Air University document, which is dated Jan. 26. The stated long-term goal would be for the service to train up to 200 junior and 50 senior warrant officers per year.

When asked to confirm the plan to revive the warrant officer program, an Air Force official at the Pentagon said Wednesday anything related to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall’s “Reoptimizing for Great Power Competition” plan will be announced next week.

Kendall is working on a plan to better position the force to keep pace with China’s military buildup. He is speaking at the Air and Space Forces Association Warfare Symposium in Colorado next week.

The Air Force and Space Force are the only military services not to employ warrant officers, who wear separate ranks from commissioned officers and enlisted personnel.

The Air Force ended its warrant officer program in 1959, the same year that it promoted its first senior noncommissioned officers to E-9. The 4,500 warrant officers at the time were gradually phased out, according to the Warrant Officer Historical Foundation.

The last one on active duty, Chief Warrant Officer 4 James H. Long, retired in 1980, and the last reservist, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Bob Barrow, retired in 1992.

The Air Force in recent years has warmed to the idea of reviving the warrant officer program, particularly to ease a pilot shortage. But efforts to do so have stalled.

A Rand Corp. study in 2018 concluded that warrant officers wouldn’t completely make up for the pilot shortage.

A year later, an Air University research paper suggested that warrant officers could be used to fill instructor pilot slots, which would place less burden on commissioned officers.

“Though it is impractical to generate an entirely new rank structure solely” for pilot instruction, “it is likely that numerous occupations across the force would benefit from the specialization provided by warrant officers,” the 2019 paper stated.

“If warrant officers can provide widespread value to the force, senior Air Force leaders should work toward gaining congressional approval to reinstate the rank.”

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