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.
“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.