Do We Really Need Officers in Our Military?

A military organization that dates back thousands of years is antiquated in 2023 and should be re-assessed, says a 38-year vet.
Do We Really Need Officers in Our Military?
Officer candidates take the oath of office during a commissioning ceremony following graduation from Officer Candidate School at Naval Station Newport. (Gregg Kohlweiss/U.S. Navy) 
Battlefields Staff


Earlier today I was watching videos from an Army officer who posts under the name “MandatoryFunDay” and he’s hilarious. He also has great insights and tells it like it is with the military. In one of the videos, he mentions how he has been called a traitor for going commissioned from the enlisted ranks. I’m sure that most of the slams are just good-natured, but there are probably a few that have a vein of truth feeding the sentiment. I will say that if he walks the talk from his videos, then he’s probably a pretty good officer. I commented on his post, noting that in my experience, officers who came from the enlisted ranks were usually better officers than those coming in straight from college or the service academies. As is normal for me, this caused my mind to start perusing questions regarding officers and the force structure.

Prior Enlisted

Does being prior enlisted make better officers? It’s certainly a topic that comes up quite frequently when the troops are informally evaluating their officers. The conversation normally contains something like, “Yeah, he’s good, and he was prior enlisted” followed by knowing looks and nods of assent among the assembled group. In all fairness though, I’ve also heard, “Yeah, he’s useless, and he was prior enlisted.” followed by muttering and rolled eyes. It seems to me that the former happens more often than the latter, but I haven’t read any scientific research on the topic. For discussion’s sake, let’s just assume that being prior enlisted is a benefit. What might be some of the reasons?

Usually, one reason given is that the officer understands what it’s like to be an enlisted troop. They have been there and done that. During their time in the lower ranks, they had to suffer under bad leaders and mindless regulations. The consensus is that the officer will be more of an advocate for the troops and will temper decisions based on having walked in their boots. Anecdotally I believe this to be true, but the duration may be limited. As the officer continues in his/her career, they seem to be assimilated by The Borg. Okay, that’s just a little comedic dig, but you get my drift. It’s human nature to identify with the group that writes your evaluations, especially when said evaluations determine your advancement in that group.

Perhaps another factor is that prior enlisted officers already have four to six years (or more) of military experience when they apply for a commission. That experience is invaluable when compared to officers coming straight from college or a service academy. It’s like the difference between a high school junior and a college senior. Yes, newly minted Butterbars [junior commissioned officers] from both groups are nervous at first. But the prior-enlisted ones are only nervous around the other officers, whereas the non-priors are nervous around everyone.

Eight enlisted members become non-commissioned officers at the Schriever Space Complex during the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Senior NCO Induction ceremony, on Dec 6, 2017.  (Van Ha/U.S. Space Force)
Eight enlisted members become non-commissioned officers at the Schriever Space Complex during the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Senior NCO Induction ceremony, on Dec 6, 2017.  (Van Ha/U.S. Space Force)

It’s not my intent to write an exhaustive study on the pros and cons of officers who were prior enlisted. But if there are great advantages, then perhaps we should make it a prerequisite.  Now before you throw your academy ring at me, let me give you a real-life example.

In my forty-plus years as an aircraft mechanic, I have been at the mercy of aircraft design engineers. My interaction with engineers was more than just as a mechanic. I also worked in the F-22 Systems Program Office (SPO) right before it entered initial operating capability. Additionally, I worked for nine years with a major U.S. defense manufacturer that supplies military and civilian jet engines. In all these roles I worked closely with engineers, and I found something interesting. The ones who started out as aircraft mechanics or assemblers were way better engineers. Their designs were simpler and made sense from a maintenance and operational standpoint. The engineers who had only worked behind a computer just sometimes did boneheaded things.

For example, one of my jobs in the F-22 SPO was to evaluate aircraft modifications before they were approved. I met an engineer out at an aircraft, where he described his proposed modification to me. It involved placing a water drain line up in the front of the nose landing gear wheel well. Then the water would drain along the structure to eventually exit out of the landing gear door. I let him finish and then told him he couldn’t incorporate his modification. He was stunned. I went on to show him that there were four various pieces of aircraft structure that would block the flow of water, effectively making multiple dams. At altitude that water would freeze and could break loose and bang around in the gear well, causing damage. Additionally, puddled water on metal isn’t good. It eventually causes corrosion and weakens the structure. I showed him what he needed to do, which just amounted to extending the drain line all the way back to the door.

He didn’t know it was a bad design because he was a cubicle engineer. Had he come from a maintenance background he would have known what I knew. One company I worked for grew their own engineers. They identified talented people from the assembly floor and then sent them to college to become engineers. The maintainability of items designed by the old timers always outperformed those of the cubicle engineers. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be insulting to the kubikle kidz, they just don’t have hands-on experience. And it shows, quite painfully sometimes.

So back to my original question. If the prior enlisted officers are better, shouldn’t we make enlisted time a requirement for commissioning? And keep in mind that it’s not 1947 anymore. Tons of enlisted folks get their bachelor’s degrees during their first term.

I suspect that my proposition will result in a rather visceral reaction among many officers. The natural follow on question is “Why does it create that reaction?” I’m positive that the answers could fill a book. But reactions are visceral when someone has a great gig going that they want to protect.

Consider this. In 2023, an O-5 (a lieutenant colonel in most branches) with twelve years time in service, makes right around $135,000 per year, $28,000 of which is tax exempt. This doesn’t include flight pay or hazardous duty pay. Keep in mind that health and dental care are free and life insurance for a $500,000 policy is $30 a month. Compare that to an E-7 (a sergeant first class) at 12 years who grosses $84,000 annually.

So, what’s the difference between the two individuals? On a very basic level, it may just be selection as an officer and successful completion of Officer Candidate School. There’s every probability that the non-commissioned officer (NCO) already holds an undergraduate degree, and the officer may not bear more responsibility. You’ll never convince me that a lieutenant colonel in charge of a public affairs office has more responsibility than a master sergeant in charge of a Minuteman missile maintenance flight.

This leads to my next topic ...

Do We Really Need Officers?

As I previously mentioned, this isn’t 1776, 1864, or 1941 anymore. The difference in educational level between commissioned and enlisted in the 21st century is much narrower than it has even been in our nation’s history. Yet we continue to propagate an organizational structure that goes back to the first known armies.

Consider the legions of ancient Rome. Usually, top leadership was reserved for those of patrician status—or the wealthy and elite of Rome. The NCOs (centurions) had to be literate in order to be selected for that rank. Legionaries were generally illiterate and only needed brawn and the ability to follow orders. That was the standard for armies, for millennia. Everyone entering the U.S. military today has to be literate, and in most cases, a high school diploma/GED is a hard and fast requirement for enlistment. Yet we are still organized like the Roman legions, with an elite ruling class. RHIP—rank has its privileges, right?

Did you know that a recent study showed that, across the U.S. military branches, there is one officer per every 4.7 enlisted persons? That is where we differ from the Roman legions. Honestly, does it really take that many officers to run an organization? And I’m tossing that same question toward the senior NCO ranks as well. When I first entered the Air Force, it was relatively rare to see a chief (E-9). Now you can’t swing a dead cat without knocking a half dozen of them down. If E-8s (master sergeants) have the time to loiter around outside the BX/PX handing out uniform gigs, then it means we have too many E-8s. Our organizational pyramid has become trapezoidal.

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. James C. McConville, left, and other military leaders in Afghanistan, on June 20, 2013. ( Staff Sgt. Richard Andrade/U.S. Army)
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. James C. McConville, left, and other military leaders in Afghanistan, on June 20, 2013. ( Staff Sgt. Richard Andrade/U.S. Army)

Organizations that are management-heavy have communication problems, gross inefficiency, and excessive bureaucracy, are typically stagnant, have high turnover, and low morale. The hallmark saying within these groups is, “Don’t ask for permission, just do it and ask for forgiveness afterwards.” Sound familiar? Don’t get me wrong, civilian corporations often struggle with the same problems.

General C.Q. Brown gave a directive to innovate and change when he took command as chief of staff of the Air Force. He used the phrase, “Accelerate, change, or lose.” That was two years ago, and not much has changed. There hasn’t been much innovation. Oh, there have been incremental things. But truthfully, the Air Force of 2023 is still the Air Force of 2021. [Editor’s note: Gen. Brown was made chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Oct. 1, 2023.]

Now, changing the rank structure and requiring enlisted service for commissioning are huge innovations and changes. Isn’t it time for us to realize that we aren’t in the Middle Ages and that the military organization of that era is antiquated in 2023? But Dave, federal law establishes the pay and rank structure of the military. Yes, it does. But laws can be changed.

Please don’t get me wrong, I know I sound like I’m knocking officers, but that’s not my intention. Some of my best friends are officers. I just think that we have way too many chiefs and not enough warriors. And the pay disparity between the two is antiquated and inequitable. Listen, when I was an E-1 [a private], I was married and lived off base, because at that time you had to be an E-4 [a corporal or specialist] to get base housing. I lived 30 minutes away and rent was $300 a month. My take home pay was $600 a month. My wife and I splurged on a $14 pizza once a month. I doubt that the brand-new 2 LTs [lieutenants] getting UPT [Undergraduate Pilot Training] on the other side of the base had to limit themselves to one pizza a month.

Some people have a great gig going, and I’m positive they will hold onto it tooth and nail, all the while maintaining that they care about the troops under them. RHIP ...

The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information in this article does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

Dave Chamberlin served 38 years in the USAF and Air National Guard as an aircraft crew chief, where he retired as a CMSgt. He has held a wide variety of technical, instructor, consultant, and leadership positions in his more than 40 years of civilian and military aviation experience. Dave holds an Airframe and Powerplant license from the FAA, as well as a master's degree in aeronautical science. He currently runs his own consulting and training company and has written for numerous trade publications. His true passion is exploring and writing about issues facing the military, and in particular, aircraft maintenance personnel.
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