This question is partially for Steve Rogers, but also for anyone who’s already in the USAF. Coming from the Army, I understand that junior officers in the Air Force typically don’t have as much direct leadership responsibility/opportunity as Army officers do (e.g., just about every lieutenant will be a platoon leader at some point — if I’m not mistaken, that’s very different from the Air Force model.)
It seems to me that certain AFSCs, like space, intel, and logistics, would lend themselves more easily to leadership opportunities I’m used to and that I seek. Space and intel platoons (flights?) must still need lieutenants, even if most of the AF is geared towards the flying side. Does anyone know if this is the case?
31P Security Forces
In my opinion the closest the Air Force gets to the Army model is the Security Forces career field (3P0X1/31PX). In this career field newly commissioned officers are placed on flight almost immediately, so if you were to show up on Day 1 you may find yourself as the Flight Commander for one of the operational flights. This will of course depend on your base or your mission, but the operational flights are the Airmen who are actually doing the job of securing the base. At one of my last bases we had one flight which did law enforcement (patrols and gates) and other flights which did security. Flight sizes vary from 20-100 people so your scope/impact as a leader can vary greatly. The rank structure is also more traditional; we had 4-6 Airmen assigned to each SSgt (E-5), 4-5 SSgt’s assigned to each TSgt (E-6), and 2-3 TSgt’s supporting the MSgt (E-7). The MSgt is the “Flight Chief” and he is the top dog for all flight operations. A wise Lieutenant provides the Flight Chief with general direction and larger picture objectives and lets the Flight Chief run the flight as he sees fit.
In SF typically after you push a flight for about a year you will progress to other “back office” jobs. When I was SF our back office was also similar to the Army in that we maintained the “S” functions of 1-5 (Admin, Intel, Ops, Logistics, and Plans & Programs, respectively). A CGO would typically rotate to or through 2-3 of these jobs and the culmination of a CGO’s career would be the S-3, Ops Officer. We actually called these “Sections” so for example the S-1 would be the “Section Commander” but I suspect the names vary greatly from base-to-base. Sections 1, 2, 4 and 5 were a little different than S-3 in that they were much smaller than a flight. Typically these sections had a “Superintendent,” which at my last base was filled by a MSgt (E-7). Below the MSgt would be maybe one TSgt a few SSgt’s, and a few Airmen, again depending on the section. The S-3 was different in that our “Operations Superintendent” was a SMSgt (E-8) and all of the flights worked for the Ops Officer.
13S Space Operations
The farthest I have seen from the Army model would probably be my career field, and this has pros and cons. In my career field (13S) the enlisted to officer ratio is about 50/50 so there are many officers and enlisted sitting side by side on a computer/satellite console doing almost (if not exactly) the same job. A 13S officer’s career path would start by being “on console” which is a more which requires more technical knowledge. After an officer masters that they are given other opportunities such as mission planning, stan/eval, training, etc. Instead of a specific or more defined path, an officer will work through and master different positions until they are ready for higher leadership opportunities.
The operators which are doing the job work on “crews” instead of flights. As an officer you will start on console then may bounce around from one flight to another. The flights have similar functions as the “S” function system but they are designed by a letter while all sharing the prefix “DO.” For example our flights are aligned as follows: Operations (DOO) for all the operational crews, Training (DOT) for the flight which oversees training, and Evaluations (DOV) which oversees checklists. The Flight Commanders for these flights are typically filled by Captains, which means you will spend your first four years doing what I consider “mission” related positions before you may become a Flight Commander which oversee the completion of more support related functions (DOO, DOT, DOV). The other position which is generally filled by Captains is what many SOPS consider “Mission Commanders.” This person is ultimately in charge of all mission ops which can be super cool but may also be more technical or administrative. Sometimes “high speed” lieutenants can be Flight or Mission Commanders, but as a general rule they are typically Captains.
Other Non-Rated Career Fields
I would say the other career fields such as Intel or Logistics fall somewhere in between. In general I would classify the more administrative positions one way, and the more hands on jobs the other way. Intel or Personnel would be more administrative. A newly commissioned 2d Lt may be a Flight Commander but that flight may be in charge of producing administrative products or processing information. Leadership in these jobs would still involve inspiring, knowing, and guiding, but your office or Flight may only include a handful of NCOs or Airmen. Other hands on jobs like Maintenance or logistics are going to have a closer model to the Security Forces model I described above. Again you may be a Flight Commander right away but you probably won’t be “doing” things like your people will be. The structure may be more traditional though with more Airmen than NCOs and SNCOs.
In summary, it depends on what type of leadership you are looking for. It also depends on what type of promotion opportunities you are thinking about. As a prior cop NCO I really miss working with the diverse flight of Airmen. I also miss running exercises and having the on the ground combat mindset. The AF frames all of this stuff around the context of exercises, but SF exercises every day so it becomes a part of life. On any given day as a SSgt I would be responsible for creating an exercise scenario where bad guys were trying to steal nuclear weapons and I would watch my guys execute their combat duties, kill bad guys, and recapture the weapon. If my Flight Chief made the scenario that day I would be leading my fire-team across the field toward our objective, or directing my teams to tactically recapture the objective. I freaking miss this. It was all fake but I loved every second of it. Don’t get me wrong there is lots of bad to go with the good, but this is what I miss. The heart of true leadership is the connection I shared with my Airmen and seeing my Airmen do great things under my leadership.
In space it looks a little different. Right now my boss is a Capt and my troop is an A1C (E-3). Space tries to inject the combat mindset into our job and I personally know this is a real thing we need to do because of the space threats out there, but it is still different. If war happens in space I will not be getting in a rocket and blasting pieces of debris with lasers, I will still be on my console ensuring my satellite can still perform it’s mission. I have leadership opportunities with the people I work with but most are officers with a few NCOs or Airmen sprinkled in. We all have different jobs so instead of influencing 20-30 people to do the big mission of recapturing a weapon, my A1C partner and I influence our realm and everyone else is responsible for their own. I guess you could say it is more compartmentalized and being good at our job has a less tangible impact. My partner and I are the dudes who upload commands, the mission planners create the commands and decide when they are performed, the engineers make the commands more efficient and fix broken stuff, and my mission commander reports when it is all broken and when it will be fixed. We all have the opportunity to leverage our system to achieve a farther reaching objective, but it still feels different than entering a blacked out PAS with NVG’s or flashlights and harnessing the chaos with 5.56 rounds. I love being a 13S and I super excited about where this career field is going and how we are blazing the trail of strategy and policy in space, but as a Lieutenant it looks much different. Perhaps the biggest lesson from all of this is to love what you do no matter what your job is! That strategy has served me well.