I have had a rough time over the past few months. I have been working a lot of hours so this all probably boils down to working too much and getting burned out, but it has caused me to reflect on a lot of issues which have newly manifested since I commissioned. As I have said in other posts, I am a Christian and this post will contain many of my own personal beliefs. If my beliefs offend you, feel free to tune out now.
Daniel 6: The Plot Against Daniel
My pastor recently preached a message from Daniel 6, and in my Bible it is titled The Plot Against Daniel. Lately, I feel like everyone around me is plotting against someone else. We have a billion Lieutenants in my squadron and everyone is constantly moving around to different positions. If someone is slotted for a position they don’t want, someone is probably plotting to get that person back to where they want them to be. Sometimes it is the person, sometimes it is the person’s supervisor, or sometimes it is someone else with a vested interest. For me personally, it is exhausting. I have witnessed first-hand what some people will do to get what they want. I have also witnessed what back-stabbing can look like, and it disgusts me. The purpose of this post is not to dissuade you from joining the Air Force or the 13S career field, it is to give you an idea of what you can expect once you join. In my opinion stuff like this is a reality and will never go away, but knowing what to expect and how to deal with it can be the key to maintaining a positive attitude and making it through unscathed. Also note this may look very different in the 13S career field vs. other career fields.
Daniel 6: 1-3: Excellence
6 It pleased Darius to set over the kingdom one hundred and twenty satraps, to be over the whole kingdom; 2 and over these, three governors, of whom Daniel was one, that the satraps might give account to them, so that the king would suffer no loss. 3 Then this Daniel distinguished himself above the governors and satraps, because an excellent spirit was in him; and the king gave thought to setting him over the whole realm.
This is the third or fourth time in the past few months that I have seen references to the Air Force Core Values in the Bible. “An excellent spirit” was in Daniel, and that caused him to stand out among his peers. Daniel 1-5 tells us the story of how Daniel was taken from his home and how he became a top adviser to King Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar of Babylon. Now that Babylon had fallen, Daniel was placed in a position of authority once again for the new kingdom under King Darius.
I don’t think it was an accident that Daniel continued to be recognized through different regime changes. There was something about Daniel that caused him to be successful and respected by multiple rulers. How many Obama Administration advisers are still employed at the White House under President Trump? I believe Daniel was good at what he did. I believe he was intelligent, wise, and loyal to his beliefs. I believe he lived his life and tried to be excellent in all that he did, and he was recognized for doing so.
Daniel 6: 4-5: Integrity
4 So the governors and satraps sought to find some charge against Daniel concerning the kingdom; but they could find no charge or fault, because he was faithful; nor was there any error or fault found in him. 5 Then these men said, “We shall not find any charge against this Daniel unless we find it against him concerning the law of his God.”
One area I have been struggling with is finding my identity as an officer vs. a NCO or SNCO. After the first 18 months I decided to stick with what I was good at which was keeping my head low and doing my job well. That was my strategy for the previous 10 years and it always served me well, I was eventually recognized for my work and commissioning through OTS just fell into place. However, minor differences with being an officer have really thrown me off. For example, I always just kept a few close personal friends and kept everyone else at arms-length. Professionally I knew and related to everyone, but off-duty I focused more on my family and those few close friends. As a TSgt this worked out because there were never very many other NCOs who wanted to hang out. Now, there are a billion other Lieutenants in my squadron so I find myself being invited to tons of social gatherings. Now that I have started my masters, I have even less time to maintain relationships with more people. This all may sound very silly, but it marks a fairly large change in my life, and the lives of my family.
Another change is the political posturing that everyone is doing right now. I never worried about what my next job would be because my supervisors always set up my path for me. As an officer this is still the case for my own career, but now I have to start thinking about my subordinates. If I want them to succeed I have to play the game on their behalf. I didn’t realize this before, but I would say about 80% of an officers path is set up by their superiors. This percentage is much higher than I initially expected. If a young Lieutenant has missed an opportunity, it is likely because his or her superior didn’t get involved in the politics early enough, or didn’t work with the right people.
The fact that the governors and satraps could find no charge or fault in Daniel speaks volumes about Daniels integrity to his own beliefs. As an officer I have realized I need to maintain integrity not only to my own beliefs, but to who I am. Just because I am invited to a social event doesn’t mean I have to attend. If attending it isn’t ‘me’, then I should stay true to who I really am and do what ‘I’ want to do. Similarly, sometimes how I play the political game doesn’t feel like ‘me’ doing what I would normally do, so I should do it my way. Unfortunately, it isn’t as black and white as this. As an officer I am being molded into something new so the definition of ‘me’ is changing. So how in the world am I supposed to stay true to who I am? To be honest, I have no idea. I hope to blog about this as I figure it out. As of now I plan to start by staying true to my beliefs and trying to consider in advance who I want to be. Hopefully by starting there I can maintain control of the type of officer I become.
Daniel 6: 10: Confidence
10 Now when Daniel knew that the writing was signed, he went home. And in his upper room, with his windows open toward Jerusalem, he knelt down on his knees three times that day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as was his custom since early days.
One thing that was drilled into me since Day 1 of OTS was the word confidence. No matter what you did as a cadet, they were looking for you to do it with confidence. If you had no idea what you were doing, it wasn’t quite as bad (most of the time) if you did it with confidence. The expression “fake it till you make it” comes to mind. I haven’t fully explored how this looks as an officer, but off the top of my head I think there is value in being a confident leader, but it is more important to know what you are doing. In the post I did about my “18 Month Update,” Click Here, I talk about how in my opinion we as Lieutenants should spend as much time as possible building up a foundation of operator knowledge. Confidence is obtained through this knowledge, and at the end of the day you will be a much better leader if you can have true confidence vs. faked confidence. There will be times where you will need to blindly charge ahead with confidence, but in my opinion that time should not occur while we are Company Grade Officers.
Despite the targeted training and cliche of confidence, I have found becoming an officer has actually shaken my own personal confidence. As a TSgt I had a lot of time to get comfortable, become an expert, and become extremely good at it. Everything moved slower because there was no major rush for us to move on to the next thing. Through this stability, by the time I had to make decisions I 100% knew what I was doing. There was no shaking my confidence because I had the experience to make well informed decisions and stand by them. As a 13S my job is constantly changing. I start crew as an operator then there are rumors that I may move, but no-one will tell me where. Finally I get a quasi official notification that I will switch flights and do a different job, but no-body can tell me when. After it is all sorted out and I am trained the slot I’m supposed to fill is suddenly critically manned, and I needed to be certified two weeks ago. Even if you are on the more routine path of an operator, things move fast. You are expected to be an expert from Day 1 and be ready for the next thing a week later. If you aren’t, you are behind the power curve. It is easy for me as a prior enlisted officer, but I don’t know how anyone else without that foundation of experience can truly keep up.
On a more personal note, it is hard to explain how this lack of stability affects my confidence. I think some of it is my personality because I am a person of routine and order. Taking away that may seem minor, but not having a minor thing you are accustomed to can start you off limping. It just shakes me up a little bit before I even get started, which causes me to take longer to get comfortable. More practically, my stress level is elevated. I am sometimes more distracted when around my family the day before I go back to work. I have never had a problem with my temper before, but now there are times when I slightly lose my cool. I have always been very methodical and careful about how I choose my words, but now I often find myself regretting minor things I say.
Another thing which messes me up is with my trust of those I work with. I am an extremely good judge of character so once I know you, I know if you are someone I can trust. While I was enlisted once I knew my coworkers that trust never had to change, it was very black and white based on the person. Either you were one of the good ones that I trusted, or you weren’t. As an officer, the political piece plays a larger role. It is much more difficult to have a blanket list of people you trust, or people you don’t. Now there are people you can trust with certain things but can’t trust with other things. Now there may be someone that you can trust outside of work and you can be best buddies with, but at work you have to watch yourself because they may stab you in the back. Some people you may think you can trust, but later they will reveal more cards and you aren’t so sure. This all makes life very exhausting. It shakes my confidence because if there is something that needs to get done, you aren’t always sure who you can go to for help. Sometimes you have to go to people you don’t really trust, then you have to think through the implications. I am getting good at this game, but I hate that I have to play it.
Tying it all Together
The reason this passage spoke to me is because Daniel thought he could trust the king. The king liked Daniel, and he was so impressed with Daniel’s work that he put him in charge of the entire kingdom. After his jealous co-workers out-maneuvered him and spoke to the king behind his back, he was required to either betray his beliefs and rituals of his faith or face certain death. Despite being out-maneuvered he didn’t despair, he confidently faced reality and accepted certain death by boldly and confidently continuing to pray. The rest of Daniel 6 (verses 18-28) explains how God miraculously saves Daniel in the lion’s den and how Daniel continued to prosper.
I am pretty exhausted at the moment, and the new environment of officership is shaking what I used to rely on; the consistency and routine of life. Now that I am continuously being pushed past my limits, I am forced to fall back on whatever I have left which is who I am: my faith and my family. For me, falling back on my faith means re-calibrating my routines. I can no longer ignore the fact that I need to set aside personal time of prayer and reflection with God reading His word and reflecting on what He is telling me to do. Through that new routine I will find the strength to continue on this journey of officership and with leading my family through life. I am truly grateful that I am being asked to grow in this way.
Busy, Busy, Busy
It has been 18 months since I commissioned, and it has been a wild ride. I have been waiting for life to calm down and be “normal” again, but I am beginning to realize that being busy is the new normal. I think this is the nature of the game. I miss the comfort of enlisted life, but at the same time I know I am becoming a more seasoned leader and am being pushed past where my previous boundaries existed. I believe the degree of success you achieve as an officer will be measured by how well you can conquer the chaos, and how well you inspire the people around you to more effectively accomplish the mission. As of now I am still trying to conquer the chaos.
Over the past 18 months I have realized I am in a 24/7/365 battle of balance. When I was in training the Air Force asked a lot from me; I had to maintain my relationships with my family while fulfilling and exceeding my responsibilities as an Airman. My Airman responsibilities evolved from being a Cadet at OTS, to being a student in tech school, to becoming an expert in my space system (we call them weapon systems). Once I mastered one duty position I was asked to master another one. After I master the second one, I will be asked to master a third.
There is a “track” we are expected to follow and there is a constant pressure to be moving upward through this track. There is more of an emphasis on my career and whether or not I am staying on track, and less of an emphasis on the mission. I honestly think this is a fundamental flaw of the system. The flaw is not the existence of the track, but the emphasis. Instead of focusing on which officer is excelling most and who is ready for the next step, we should focus on which mission related positions needs to be filled and which officer would be the best fit.
I was chatting with one of the Lieutenants in my squadron and he was asking for my advice about the track he was on. There were rumors that he was being looked at to be promoted from the basic operator job to a more advanced/technical position. In the space ops world we all start with some version of satellite operator, which is the basic level certification. Some of us operate the bus of the satellite (the brain, power, and associated guts), and some of us work with a specific payload (component responsible for the mission). For our first duty position, it is crucially important that we understand the technical aspects of our job. As a brand new operator we aren’t expected to lead, we are expected to be “weapon system experts.” Once we know how to operate our system nominally (space lingo for normally), we are expected to know how we can leverage our system to more effectively deliver combat effects downrange. Later in our career we will transition to higher levels of leadership, but this is our ONE opportunity to have a technical-operator foundation. I can’t say this enough, it is crucial for us to have this depth of technical-operator experience. This experience will be our foundation as we advance to future leadership positions. In my opinion, truly outstanding officers will be able to have a depth of technical experience in multiple systems. Remind me and I will blog about the depth and breadth debate.
The fundamental flaw of many failed leaders in our Air Force is that they fake their way through the foundation phase of their career and fallback on the tag word of leadership. I’m not saying leadership isn’t important, because it is crucial. But in my opinion the core of a good leader in our Air Force is a person who can have a genuine connection with people. This leader has to truly understand the challenges that we as Airmen face, and should have spent the years prior to being designated as “leader” figuring out how to deal with and eliminate those challenges. The only way to do this as a 13S is to spend time on the system, i.e., “in the trenches,” dealing with the challenges of being a space operator. If you as a space operator ever feel like you are a second class citizen, or everything you do isn’t important to the rest of your squadron, your leadership has forgotten where they came from or has likely never spent an extended amount of time in the trenches. Don’t be this type of leader, and always remember that the squadron should be “ops focused.”
I attempted to explain this to the Lieutenant in my squadron and his response was, “Yeah but that is a more technical job, and isn’t really leadership based.” He was missing the point, and this is something I want you guys to get. He was succumbing to the upward pull of tag word “leadership.” He was allowing the political pull to draw him away from his technical contribution to the mission. In his defense, he was an academy grad and he had spent four years of his life living and breathing political Air Force leadership.
The other thing that I have learned over the past 18 months is what I have coined “locked in experience.” It has been difficult to find my place as an officer. As a MSgt select my peers were seasoned NCOs or SNCOs. Most had families but we had all been around a while. We knew how the Air Force game worked and we had figured out how to play it well but still have a life outside of the Air Force. Now, that peer group doesn’t look at me the same. I am an officer, someone who crossed over to the dark side and there is a level of mistrust behind their eyes. Some feel threatened by me or some just naturally put up a wall. It is minute, but it is there. I’m not saying it is everyone, but this is a subtle thing I have picked up by many. Heck, maybe it is all in my head. Even if it is in my head and it is a superficial barrier, doesn’t it still exist? It is something to think about as you start your own journey.
If I can’t relate to who my peers were, maybe I can relate to who my peers are now. There are three categories of officers; academy graduates, ROTC graduates, and those who commissioned through OTS. 95% of the officers I work with are academy or ROTC graduates, which means almost all of the Lieutenants are in their mid 20’s. I am 30 so that alone creates a huge gap between us. They are just figuring out how to live life outside of college, and I have been earning stripes and fighting the fight for 11 years. They are dating or newly married, I have been married for a decade. We are in completely different stages of life.
When I first commissioned and started spending time around the other Lieutenants, it was difficult because I looked at other Lieutenants like kids. They acted similar to new A1Cs or Senior Airmen (from a NCO/SNCO perspective) but it threw me off because they were extremely intelligent and seemed better educated than I was. That may sound terrible, but remember that I started in Security Forces where the enlistment requirements were different and education wasn’t actively pursued by all. It took me a long time, probably almost 18 months, to learn that I indeed respected them. Learning how I respected them was revolutionary to my perspective as an officer. At first I thought I had to fit in with them, but over time I realized we are just on different paths. My path involved 11 years of Air Force experience, and their path provided them with surface level Air Force experience concurrent with outstanding educations. At the end of the day, we just bring different things to the table.
As we all began to traverse our paths through our new officer careers, I began to notice the very distinct differences between how we operated. Academy grads have a tendency to take an indifferent approach to tackling challenges. When faced with a task, their eyes glaze over and they try to find the easiest way to complete the task while still delivering most of what the boss is looking for. ROTC grads attack the task eagerly, but they don’t have a lot of experience so they tend to take a hands-off approach and let the NCOs do their thing. OTS grads are all over the place, it really depends on the person. Understanding an OTS graduates’ methods often requires analysis at the next level; prior and non-prior enlisted experience.
Locked in Experience
At first it was easy for me to lump myself in the OTS prior-enlisted category, but the more I did, the more I realized I didn’t fit into that category either. I am not just prior enlisted, I am a prior enlisted [essentially] SNCO. I had spent 11 years developing into the SNCO the Air Force wanted me to be. I know how to relate to Airmen “in the trenches,” I naturally try to mentor and mold young Lieutenants into outstanding future leaders, and I started playing the Air Force game while my peers were in high school (or earlier). When I commissioned, this experience was “locked in” for me and I started a new path as an officer. My experience didn’t go away, it shaped who I was when I started this officer journey. It is evident because I still try to take care of the Airmen, and try to help my fellow Lieutenants figure out the Air Force game.
There are other prior enlisted officers who crossed over as Senior Airmen or Staff Sergeants. They enjoy the Air Force life, and they have a more eager and optimistic view of the Air Force. They are good at their job and think they can change the world. When they crossed over, their SrA/SSgt experience was “locked in,” and they began their journey as officers. Their experience didn’t go away, but it is evident in how they lead their people and perform ops on the floor.
This theory can also be seen from officers who re-trained from different career fields like Misileers or prior maintainers. It also applies to ROTC and academy grads, except their “locked in” experience includes four years of Air Force academy BS or four years of civilian college with the Air Force sprinkled in. I believe this is why ROTC graduates are better rounded leaders as they begin their officer careers, because they already had to juggle life outside of the Air Force while doing the Air Force thing.
The fascinating thing is that we will never develop past where we were before. I will always be a SNCO at the heart. Prior SrA/SSgt’s will always be prior SrA/SSgt’s, and fresh ROTC/Academy graduates will have a more academic perspective. Regardless of where we started or what experience we had in the past, we all start our commissioned journey at the same time. We all commissioned at the same time, will promote at the same time, and will compete for the same jobs. As commissioned officers we will all develop together, and start being molded into the officers the Air Force wants us to be.
Tying it All Together
I bring this up in an attempt to illustrate the importance of experience. There is nothing we can do about our life prior to commissioning, but as brand new Lieutenants this is our one chance to build experience going forward. The officer track moves very quickly, probably 3-4 times faster than our enlisted counterparts. We are expected to hit the ground running and accelerate through the many years of our career. Due to the intensity of our tracks, it is crucial that we spend our time as operators developing into tactical, knowledgeable system experts. If we don’t do it now, we will never have a chance to go back and do it over again.
Hands down, the quality of life in the AF vs. Army will be light-years better IMO. A lot of it will depend on your career field because there are a lot of career fields such as Finance, Contracting, Personnel, Services, etc. which will pretty much always work Monday through Friday, 0730 – 1630. Officers may put in a little more work hours in these career fields but a lot of that is under your control. For example, if you really want to get a something done or you suck at drawing the line or with time management, some officers may stay until 1730 or 1800 (or later). IMO, this is completely avoidable in most cases.
There are other career fields where you may be prone to shift work for the first few years, but as an officer you will typically advance to the support staff. Jobs like maintenance, Security Forces, perhaps Logistics, perhaps Comm, or other ops related (non-rated) positions which support a 24/7 mission will be shift work. In general the Air Force doesn’t like to work 12 hour shifts but there are often times when it is necessary. For any given four year tour in space, our shift work guys may be working 12’s for two years and 8’s for the other two. It really depends on the overall ops tempo, what is going on in the world, and what career field. My squadron has been working 12’s for the past 8 months but after that we are switching to 8’s. Like I said it is case-by-case.
In general the rated career fields such as pilots, navigators, ABMs, etc. are going to deploy the most and have the highest ops tempo. I’m not really sure how much these officers deploy though as far as length. I think it is closer to 4-6 months with a lot of time in between vs. 6 months on/6 months off. This would be a good question for the Facebook group.
I have been to four AF bases and at every base I have worked shifts for about one year then switched to some sort of M-F job. I am probably luckier than most though, but you have to remember I was there as an enlisted Airman, not an officer. At my first base I was on flight for about two years. I was Security Forces so we as a squadron worked 24/7. My schedule was three days on where we traveled out to the missile field, and we worked 12 hours shifts. This wasn’t bad because there was no extra BS before or after the shift. When you shift started you were wearing your uniform and you were the one that responded to alarms, but your shift was basically always over at 12 hours. On the third or fourth day we traveled back to base and we were off for 3-4 days, then we did it all over again. Sometimes while we were back on base we worked from 0800-1400 for training on one day but that wasn’t bad. After my first two years doing this, I was hired for a M-F and got all of the federal holidays and a few MAJCOM down days off as well. Christmas/Thanksgiving, Memorial, Independence were all four day weekends along with a few others, and the other holidays were three day weekends. My duty hours there were 0730-1630, later on same days, earlier on others. During this period we did not deploy at all at our squadron.
At my next base I was on shift work for another two years and our schedule sucked. I was still Security Forces and our routine schedule was six days on, three days off, eight hour shifts. We had to arm up and de-arm before/after shift so the 8 hour days were more like 10 hour days. What made it bad though was whenever we had an “op” going on we switched to 12’s (really 14) and many people lost their days off. This was probably the worst schedule of my career. After those first two years I was hired for another M-F 0730-1630 job like above, but sometimes we had to support the ops so we worked the 12’s during that week. We rarely lost our weekends though so that made it better, but it was still a lot of hours. At this base about half of the people did one short deployment in the 2-4 year tour (the length of tour overseas there depended on rank).
I retrained to comm after that so I spent about six months training to be in the new career field. After training I went to another job which worked 24/7 but we did eight hour shifts. Comm was different in that our eight hour shifts were actually eight hours, so it was awesome. We worked two day shifts, two swing shifts, two mid shifts, and four days off then it rotated back again. It sounds crazy but this was my favorite schedule of my career. I did that for another 18 months or so then I was hired for another M-F job (this was a trend for me).
Now that I am a space officer we are working 12 hour shifts in my squadron, but it isn’t too bad. We work three days on, three days off, 6-6. Our shifts are basically done after the 12 hours so it is not bad at all. My typical day was to get up at 0430-0500, be at work for shift change at 0530, and work all the way until 1730. While on shift I work in an air conditioned building and the only downside is that I can’t have my phone. I use computers to communicate with satellites, downloading data and making sure they aren’t broken. During my shift if I have nothing going on there are two of us, I am free to go to gym or get lunch as long as nothing is going on. I have random tasks I have to do but I have down time where I can surf the web, work on admin stuff, or just BS. At 1730 they arrive for shift change and I am usually walking out at 1745. I usually get home around 1830 or so because I have a 30 minute commute. I do this for three days, then my three days off are typically untouched.
At my squadron we have other positions and officers, and some of them work a little more just because they like to, but most of the M-F officers still work from 0730-1630. Some of the alternative positions are 4 on three off around 0600-1530, it just depends.
I have had a lucky career so my story isn’t the best but also not the worst, so take that for what it is. We usually don’t have any trouble taking leave when we want and generally the work in the isn’t bad at all, especially if you aren’t on the flightline.
My overall long term goal for future posts is to 1) gather real inputs from Airmen (enlisted and officer) in ANY career field who can provide the no-BS what is it like to do this job. I would love to be able to post this information on my blog to give people a good starting point for choosing the path for their career.
Secondly, I would like to dive deep into how to become a successful officer once you completely make the switch from enlisted to officer, or civilian to officer. Things like second assignments, ADP, career vectoring, PME like SOS or ACSC, promotions, politics, etc., are all topics I plan to cover in depth. Please let me know if you support this plan and I will begin making posts once I actually figure this stuff out for my own.
When I was scouring the internet for information when I applied I discovered this was not a lot of information out there about OTS, and especially about the 13S career field. I somehow dug up this posting on reddit which provided me with an outstanding breakdown of what the 13S/1C6X1 career field is like (officer/enlisted AFSC, respectively). Now that I am fully immersed in the career field, fully certified, and intimately familiar with my mission, I can now personally vouch that this is good info.
Click here for the link. Post was created by SilentD
My own personal updates to this post:
Returning to School
The information posted about always returning to Vandenberg AFB, CA after every assignment is no longer current. Initial 13S and 1C6X1 tech school is indeed at Vandenberg, but after that you will start additional training at your first duty location. I am not 100% sure about what the current 1C6 timeline is, but for 13S tech school is still only a TDY meaning you will PCS to your first base then attend “Undergraduate Space Training” at Vandenberg for around three months.
Every time you arrive at a new base (including your first assignment) you will also need to do more specific system training there. Most bases are now calling this “Initial Qualification Training.” This training will be an additional 3-9 months depending on what unit you are at or what your system is. After you are fully certified you will begin working crew.
If you finish a tour at one base and PCS to another base, you will NOT be returning to Vandenberg for more system specific training (any variant of IQT/MQT). Because you have already completed tech school or UST you can jump right in to the IQT class specific to your new base. This will teach you how to operate your new system and you will again be good to go and return to crew.
Here is one of my older posts about the 13S tech school. I need to update this.
“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.
I thought I would take some time to provide a little update on how things are going as a space officer. It has been more than six months since I commissioned and as I have been staying in touch with my OTS classmates, I have realized we are all on very different paths. I graduated with people who have been at the base for months, who just finished tech school and are working at a desk, or who are at a console underground with their hands hovering over the big red button. I even have friends who have completed initial pilot training or are training in other rated positions. It is amazing how diverse the Air Force is and how far we scatter once we graduate from initial training.
Because of the 24/7 nature of our missions, most space officers can plan on going to crew. In another post I talked about how we have to go through tech school the local training at our first base. To recap, the first training is at Vandenberg and covers the basics of the entire career field. It teaches fundamental information from the electromagnetic spectrum, characteristics of space, or orbital mechanic to general knowledge about our career field as a whole. The second version of training is conducted at your first base. Some units have more formalized training programs while others will do their training “on-the-job” while on crew.
Satellite Vehicle Operator – Since I am at a satellite command and control base around 80% of the new officers here will learn how to become vehicle operators. Every unit has a different name for the job, but we are the ones who talk to the satellite, keep it in orbit, and make sure it is operating ‘nominally.’ Since each mission has different constellations the vehicle operator job can vary greatly, but the bread and butter of the job is the same. If your constellation is in LEO and you don’t have very many satellites, you will have short but more frequent contacts. If your satellites are in GEO and you have lots of satellites, you may have longer but fewer contacts.
Ground System Operator – It is important to note that every unit has different positions and the positions themselves change often. Some units combine all positions into one while others have had only one for the entire life of the system. In order for an operator to communicate with a satellite you will have to establish a ground link from your console or mission processors to the antenna which communicates with the satellites. This position would require familiarization with the infrastructure of your comm equipment and the procedures needed to operate it.
Payload System Operator – One of the other jobs some missions have is a payload specialist. If your mission is GPS, the payload guy would be in charge of making sure the GPS payload is fine tuned and communicating properly. Some missions have Air Force payload operators while others are contracted out or carried out by other organizations. The payload specialist will of course be different depending on the mission. One payload guy might know everything there is to know about communications while another may know everything about GPS.
Crew/Mission Commander – The mission commander is the one on the ops floor who is overall in charge of all operations on the floor. If a squadron has three vehicle operators, one ground operator, and one payload operator for a shift the mission commander would make sure they all are doing their job correctly. They can also be responsible for the contractors, mission planners, or literally anything else needed to accomplish the mission.
Mission Planners – These individuals are responsible for ensuring the overall mission is planned so the people on the floor can execute. It involves an overall understanding of the entire mission process and attention to detail to ensure all of the blocks are checked for mission accomplishment.
This is just a general idea of how a crew can be composed at any given squadron. In general crews work either 8’s or 12’s with the shift schedule being anything from 3 on/3 off, panamas (3 on, 2 off, 2 on, 3 off aka every other weekend off), to something crazy like 6 (2 days, 2 swings, 2 mids) on four off. They say that we are all going to do crew for a few months then switch to M-F for a training period for the rest of our lives due to something called “SMF” but I am sure it will blow over in a few years. In the past you would do a few years on crew then switch to M-F as you became more senior. Maybe someday I will attempt to explain the mindset behind SMF because it makes a lot of sense if it is explained properly.
I can’t speak for all squadrons, but the job itself will be a matter of learning technical information about your system and executing procedures with TO’s or checklists. While we are on shift we are expected to do the things and follow your training. There will be times when you may have to deviate from the checklists or TOs to more effectively accomplish the mission. While this may seem crazy in other career fields, it makes sense in space because of how dynamic our responses may need to be with getting highly complex systems to work properly.
Being on crew can be nice because you can really get to know your crew. Usually the size is anywhere from 2-12 people depending on the mission.