The new great power competition will require the U.S. Air Force (USAF), like the other Services, to reshape itself consistent with the nation’s National Defense Strategy (DoD, 2018). This new competition will be more complex than the late 20th century Cold War, complicated by the ongoing demands of what was once called the “war on terror” (despite recent plans and steps to reduce those demands).1 It involves both Russia and China, each pursuing different approaches and thus posing different military problems, but each benefitting from advanced technologies that rival our own. And it is characterized by the emergence of robots and artificially intelligent agents on both sides of the fight.
The Air Force will need to meet this new challenge with a force that is numerically much smaller than what it enjoyed in the Cold War. In order to offset its limited size, the Air Force will seek technological advantages in air, space, and cyberspace. But with the global spread of technology to allies and adversaries alike (with special concern over recently accelerating technological capabilities of China), there is no guarantee that the Air Force can count on the same technological margin that once provided a solid foundation for American air and space dominance. “The military advantage [the United States] possessed for the last 30 years is now being challenged, equaled, and in some cases, surpassed” (Manasco et al., 2020).
To meet these future challenges, the Air Force enjoys an advantage from which it has long benefitted—the high quality of its people. In the
words of General Brown, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, prepared for his confirmation hearing, “The National Defense Strategy Commission asserted unequivocally that the most critical resource required to produce a highly capable military is highly capable people, in the quantity required, willing to serve” (Brown, 2020, p. 49). Fortunately, the Air Force continues to attract and retain some of the country’s best talent, a rich resource of “human capital.” In principle, that human capital might allow the Air Force to have an advantage over its opponents and to help create the joint force that can protect American interests against both Russian and Chinese military advances. However, human capital has become increasingly valuable among all employers, and the Air Force is in constant competition to attract and retain a high-quality staff across its unified Total Force (active duty, reservists, and civilian employees). Furthermore, although recent legislation provides enhanced flexibility for direct commission of highly skilled personnel in specialized fields (e.g., cyber2), the Air Force has a very narrow window of time in which to attract and recruit the majority of its workforce compared to its competitors. Consequently, the Airmen essential for future success must be recruited now and their capabilities grown internally over the next 10–20 years.
At the same time, the preferences and expectations of those who might serve in the military are changing (Akosah-Twumasi et al., 2018). For many individuals, there is less interest in a single career path (versus pursuing new skills and opportunities over time) and more interest in having a say over one’s career trajectory. There is concern over how the choice to serve in the military affects the other members of the family (Meadows et al., 2016; NASEM, 2019). And there is the reality that a more diverse—and potentially more effective—force challenges the policies and behaviors that were sufficient in earlier years (CRS, 2019). To paraphrase the advertising slogan, “It’s not your father’s Air Force.”
In these circumstances, it is self-evident that the Air Force will not reach the level of excellence necessary to achieve its missions if it does not use its human capital well. In part, this means that each person the Air Force recruits (officer and enlisted) is matched to best use that individual (“person-job fit” based on talents, skills, interests, preferences, etc.) and as a member of an effective team. This implies that the Air Force uses its testing and assessment processes to determine which career field best fits the individual; develops and maintains the education and training approaches that will impart the necessary preparation for service (and the continuing training and education investments needed over a career); and manages careers to make the best use of and retain its exceptional
2 See National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, Title 5, §508, available: https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/2943/text.
workforce. As the world moves forward into the next great power competition, optimal selection, training, and utilization of human talent is increasingly important.
Concern over these matters prompted the Air Force to request that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine conduct a study to examine how to strengthen the USAF human capital management (HCM) system in support of optimal mission capability. The USAF HCM system includes the organizations, offices, and decision-makers who provide the service with leaders, innovators, and warriors capable and ready to pursue its mission to win in air, space, and cyberspace with excellence and integrity. USAF human capital elements inform (e.g., human capital data and research), make (e.g., policy decision-makers), and implement (e.g., career field managers) human capital policies, procedures, and processes. As such, system elements have interdependent objectives, responsibilities, and tasks that span the entire life cycle of an individual’s military service—from recruitment, selection, and assignment, through training, retention, and departure. The complicated and interdependent nature of the system makes it critically important to understand both direct and indirect relationships between the elements and externalities, as will be introduced in the next chapter and discussed in more detail throughout the report.
The Air Force is at a critical crossroads: Continuing its traditional approaches to HCM risks failure in the new environment3 it faces—an environment that presents a different military problem from the last 30 years, and an environment with a new generation of Airmen4 whose preferences
3 According to the current National Defense Strategy, “[The] increasingly complex security environment is defined by rapid technological change, challenges from adversaries in every operating domain, and the impact on current readiness from the longest continuous stretch of armed conflict in our Nation’s history. In this environment, there can be no complacency—we must make difficult choices and prioritize what is most important to field a lethal, resilient, and rapidly adapting Joint Force. America’s military has no preordained right to victory on the battlefield.” (DoD, 2018, p. 1).
4 In the Air Force context, “Airman” is a gender-neutral term inclusive of both men and women who serve the U.S. Air Force, and this report adopts its use as such. Furthermore, in accordance with the Human Capital Annex to the USAF Strategic Master Plan, Airmen “includes uniformed and civilian Airmen from the Regular Air Force, Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard, and contractor/contracted workforce” (USAF, 2015a, p. A-2). However, for the purposes of this report, unless otherwise noted, the committee generally intends Airmen to mean the men and women of the USAF active duty enlisted and officer corps.
and expectations reflect important changes in American society.5 Alternatively, the Air Force can embrace and implement needed changes in the way it manages its workforce. In fact, many of the challenges to USAF HCM, as well as some of the actions recommended in this report were formally documented 5 years ago in the Human Capital Annex to the USAF Strategic Master Plan. In it, the Air Force recognized the opportunity an all-volunteer force affords to recruit quality volunteers, and cautioned to “take care to meet the challenges of competition and fiscal realities . . . to retain families and maintain [the] all-volunteer force” (USAF, 2015a, p. A-2). This study comes at a time when the need for innovation and change is matched only by vast opportunities for that change.
Strategically, the Air Force recognizes the need for “transformation because the changing environment requires it, and our country demands it” (USAF, 2015a, p. A-3). It also recognizes that successful transformation requires deliberate planning and investments. In implementation, “strategic agility hinges on the ability to negotiate risks associated with change and avoid the risks connected to stagnation” (USAF, 2015b, p. 11). However, as examples throughout this report will show, the relative success of the status quo encourages complacency (and risk aversion) among those in the Air Force who must manage its day-to-day affairs, making revolutionary change difficult to embrace and even more difficult to implement at the operational and functional levels.
Difficult though it may be, change is necessary in this new environment. The competitive position of the Air Force—indeed, of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD)—is by no means guaranteed. It will need agile and innovative human capital capabilities to replace outdated 20th century behaviors, approaches, policies, and incentives.
An ad hoc committee will conduct a consensus study to assess and strengthen the various USAF initiatives and programs working to improve person-job match and human capital management in coordinated support of optimal mission capability. The committee, informed by established professional principles and the best scientific evidence in appropriate domains, will consider the USAF human capital management system (including historical, cultural, and organizational contexts) to develop findings and recommendations (e.g., research, operational, technical, policy, or acquisition approaches) that would improve USAF personnel selection and classification and other critical system components across career trajectories. This
5 The committee wishes to acknowledge that this report is written within the context of many uncertainties associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
activity will cover the broad spectrum of human capital management with a special emphasis on high visibility6 occupational specialties. Specifically, the committee will:
- Review current and emerging USAF personnel community research programs, policies, and processes, and consider any relevant lessons to be learned from similar institutions (inside and outside the defense sector);
- Consider state-of-the-art approaches in selection and testing contexts (e.g., data, methods, tools, analyses, and decisions) that would be relevant to USAF existing and future needs in recruiting, accession, and attrition processes in order to recommend appropriate operational application areas and vetting methods to ensure approaches are based on a strong scientific foundation and proven through rigorous validation;
- Recommend a roadmap of goals and timeline for executing enhancements to include:
- Operational improvements, new strategies, and outcome metrics that have a sound basis in science and practice;
- Potential procedures, processes, and structures to optimize USAF collaboration, communication, integration, and operational implementation timeliness across the human capital management mission; and
- Identification of resources necessary to implement the recommendations.
This report was requested by the USAF Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower, Personnel and Services (AF/A1),7 and its contents are intended to advise AF/A1 senior leadership (e.g., Director of Military Force Management Policy [AF/A1P]) as well as its subordinate elements (e.g., Air Force Personnel Center). AF/A1 is the senior Air Force officer on the Air Staff with responsibility for comprehensive personnel management
6 At the outset of the study, the committee was instructed by the study sponsor that “high visibility” occupational specialties included, for example, cyber security and special operations. Specifically, some occupational specialties have persistent and very high attrition rates that have resisted management by simple adjustments to entrance standards. Most of these high-attrition specialties are also high-demand, direct combat specialties—thus, high visibility. Importantly, the committee focused on those high-visibility occupational specialties where improved selection and classification approaches will yield the highest benefits.
7 The AF/A1 is military led, and as of the time of the writing of this report is led by a three-star general officer, Lt. Gen. Brian T. Kelly, USAF.
plans and policies for military and civilian personnel. On the Air Force Secretariat side, the report’s implementation falls to the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Manpower and Reserve Affairs (SAF/MR)8 and the subordinate elements of that office who have responsibility for the supervision of USAF military and civilian manpower, including the Reserve component, and personnel readiness for the Department of the Air Force.
Because the Air Force is a large entity with nodes of its HCM system extending across and into its numerous organizations and offices, different parts of the system are anticipated to have interest in specific portions of the report and the Flight Plan, which offers the committee’s roadmap of actionable recommendations. Accordingly, the committee addresses the Flight Plan to SAF/MR, as the resource authority, for implementation oversight across the various relevant USAF organizations as well as leveraging external research organizations as may be appropriate to supplement internal capabilities.
The study was initiated in May 2019, and the committee first convened in July 2019. Members of the inter-disciplinary committee served as volunteers, selected and appointed by the National Academies to cover a spectrum of relevant areas of expertise, including basic and applied research and practitioners. Several committee members represent different areas of work within the field of industrial and organizational psychology, especially in selection and classification methods. Others have expertise in economics, human-systems integration, computer sciences, and cybersecurity. Additionally, several committee members previously held senior military and civilian leadership positions within the DoD and USAF (see Appendix H for committee and staff biographies). To conduct its study and develop consensus on its final report, the committee met four times in-person in plenary session with numerous additional virtual plenary meetings over a 10-month period. It also conducted multiple site visits to gather input from relevant organizations and stakeholders. The stakeholders with whom the committee met were located across the United States and provided unique perspectives representing multiple disparate and connected communities within and outside the Air Force (see Appendix G for a summary of the committee’s data-gathering activities, including a list of those commands and organizations and many of the individuals who met with the committee or a sub-group of the committee). Site visit presentation materials cited throughout this report are available, by request, through the study’s Public Access File. The day-to-day experiences, challenges, and successes and insti-
8 The SAF/MR is a political appointee whose office is predominantly civilian-staffed, and at the time of the writing of this report is led by Shon J. Monasco.
tutional and job-specific knowledge relayed personally to the committee by the numerous Air Force subject matter experts with whom the committee met, however, are unique and critical data points of this study not available elsewhere. In selecting examples and other data points provided by individuals to include in this report, the committee chose those that they judged to be representative of systematic conditions and experiences across many organizations working to support the Air Force mission.
Due to the short duration of the study, the committee prioritized its visits with stakeholders and experts identified by Air Force senior leadership and the committee as having critical roles and responsibilities in the USAF HCM system to emphasize collection of data anticipated to be of highest value to the study’s specific task. Sub-groups of the committee who conducted site visits consulted on location with subject matter experts regarding Air Force personnel selection and classification assessment practices relevant to the following sample of broad issues applicable across different Air Force populations of interest (e.g., officers commissioned through USAF Academy versus Officer Training School and pilots versus special operators):
- General minimum/qualifications standards;
- Career field specific minimum/qualifications standards;
- Waiver approval/denial decisions;
- Initial selection decision;
- Initial classification decision;
- Training and development;
- Promotion and assignment, including selection for jobs post-entry; and
Because this study did not review or evaluate the merit of individual programs or initiatives, the committee’s questions during its site visits and plenary meetings with Air Force representatives focused on identifying the opportunities and challenges associated with related interests and needs across the USAF HCM system as a whole. As such, during all applicable data-gathering sessions, the committee generally engaged in lines of inquiry such as:
- Which Air Force office conducts research to keep assessments9 and decision-making processes used in this area current?
9 In this context, assessments are not intended to be limited to initial entry assessments, but instead refer to many different assessments that may be made about an Airman over the course of a career (e.g., assessments of skill competency following training or assessment of suitability for promotion).
- Which Air Force office warehouses data stemming from assessments and decision-making processes used in this area?
- Who maintains technical documentation on assessments and decision-making processes used in this area?
- What criteria or outcomes are the Air Force aiming to impact through use of assessments and decision-making processes used in this area?
- What is the Air Force trying to evaluate or predict regarding individuals based on assessments and decision-making processes used in this area?
- What evidence supports the assessments and subsequent decisionmaking processes used in this area?
- What are the plans for making changes to the assessments and decision-making processes used in this area?
A key issue that emerged through the committee’s review of previous studies and Air Force policies, discussion with key stakeholders, and internal deliberations and that consequently is prominent throughout this report is the critical role research has in supporting an effective and efficient USAF HCM system. The committee emphasizes the broad definition of research that was adopted by this study in order to capture the broad spectrum of activities conducted across the Air Force research enterprise. Specifically, what might be considered analysis, assessments, or validation in other contexts are operationally considered research activities to support the Air Force mission. As such, this report adopts a broad definition of research that the committee feels best aligns to the missions and activities of the offices the Air Force will leverage to implement this report’s Flight Plan.
In addition to other implementable actions, this report’s Flight Plan establishes the foundational elements for data-driven human capital analysis and decisions. Although this study did not address issues of diversity or inclusion of minorities and women in depth, these foundational elements are essential for accurate and effective human capital policies and practices, including those of diversity and inclusion, to be analyzed, implemented, and validated across a connected HCM system. Furthermore, developing these foundational elements will allow the Air Force to be much more ambitious with the level of granularity that it is able to analyze and impact issues of diversity and inclusion. However, the level of commitment made to make data available for research purposes across the USAF HCM system will determine the extent to which efforts to improve diversity and inclusion will benefit from the human capital data collected and research conducted. For example, connecting longitudinal data across the HCM system would allow analysis of several cohorts in many career specialties and location assign-
ments to provide an important capability to understand the performance and retention of minorities and women.
In conducting the study, the committee also considered relevant information provided by invited expert speakers from academia, government, and private industry, in addition to numerous previously published products (e.g., see Appendix A for a brief summary of key points from Air Force strategic guidance and previous studies). As cited throughout this report, the committee also consulted the extensive library of publicly available official USAF instructions, manuals, and regulations related to its HCM practices. Virtual data-gathering sessions also permitted the collection of targeted information from specific organizations of interest, such as the Israeli Defense Forces. Although the committee’s data-gathering efforts were extensive during the study’s short timeline, certain constraints precluded an exhaustive study that also could have included, for example, additional visits with stakeholders outside those immediately relevant to the Air Force’s AF/A1 and SAF/MR missions such as private corporations. However, some of these additional areas were considered through published open source literature (including industry best practices as defined by professional standards and guidelines) and independent research conducted by individual committee members as cited throughout the report. This report is based on the information provided to the committee over the course of the study and on the committee members’ collective experience and expertise in HCM and related areas of research, as well as DoD and Air Force operations.
The months between the committee’s last meeting and the publication of this report were spent preparing the draft manuscript, gathering additional information, reviewing and responding to the external review comments, and editing the report.
This report is organized to provide easy access to the committee’s recommendations for action as well as the evidence and rationale of those recommendations and supplemental information for the benefit of those who will be responsible for implementing change. The remaining portions of the report are as follows:
Chapter 2 provides an overview of the USAF HCM system, emphasizing the committee’s approach to understanding the broader human capital ecosystem, including USAF elements and externalities that influence the ecosystem. The chapter also briefly describes relevant features (e.g., force size and demographics) of the current Total Force and a summary of the research organizations that have historically supported the USAF HCM system.
Chapter 3 discusses the attributes of an effective and optimally integrated HCM system based on the current state-of-the-science and professional standards, guidelines, and best practices.
Chapter 4 summarizes the personnel decisions associated with enlisted and officer Airmen accessions and discusses needed research support for recruiting, selection, and classification decisions.
Chapter 5 summarizes post-accession personnel decisions for force development, utilization, and retention of enlisted and officer Airmen, including professional military education, basic and continuing military training, and subsequent promotion and assignments across a career trajectory. The chapter also discusses needed research support for the myriad of personnel decisions that occur across the Air Force and across an individual Airman’s career.
Chapter 6 offers Air Force leadership a Flight Plan of actions to be taken across three priority areas of focus: Data, Airmen, and Research.
The report concludes with several Appendixes that provide additional details on specific data and deeper discussion of certain aspects of the report, including the study’s data-gathering activities and volunteer committee member biographies.
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Brown, C.Q., Jr. (2020). Senate Armed Service Committee Advance Policy Questions for General Charles Q. Brown, Jr., U.S. Air Force Nominee for Appointment to be Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Available: https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Brown_APQs_05-07-20.pdf.
CRS (Congressional Research Service). (2019). Diversity, Inclusion, and Equal Opportunity in the Armed Services: Background and Issues for Congress (R44321). Available: https://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R44321.pdf.
DoD (Department of Defense). (2018). Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America. Available: https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf.
Manasco, S., S. Wilson, & D. Thompson. (2020, March 3). Fiscal Year 2021 Budget Request for Military Readiness. Presentation before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness. Department of the Air Force. Available: https://docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/AS03/20200303/110633/HHRG-116-AS03-Bio-ThompsonD-20200303.pdf.
Meadows, S.O., T. Tanielian, & B. Karney. (2016). How Military Families Respond Before, During and After Deployment: Findings from the RAND Deployment Life Study. RAND Corporation. Available: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB9906.html.
NASEM (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine). (2019). Strengthening the Military Family Readiness System for a Changing American Society. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
USAF (United States Air Force). (2015a). Human Capital Annex to the USAF Strategic Master Plan. Available: https://www.af.mil/Portals/1/documents/Force%20Management/Human_Capital_Annex.pdf.
USAF. (2015b). USAF Strategic Master Plan. Available: https://www.af.mil/Portals/1/documents/Force%20Management/Strategic_Master_Plan.pdf.
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