Cover: Rare Birds

Rare Birds

Understanding and Addressing Air Force Underrepresentation in Senior Joint Positions in the Post–Goldwater-Nichols Era

Published Oct 3, 2017

by Caitlin Lee, Bart E. Bennett, Lisa M. Harrington, Darrell D. Jones


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Research Questions

  1. How can Air Force competitiveness for the most-senior joint positions be improved?
  2. How can development of airmen for these positions be improved?

To assist the Air Force in its goal of increasing representation in the most-senior joint positions, this report examines which senior joint positions matter most and why, quantifies Air Force representation in those positions, and recommends how the Air Force might control factors shaping joint leader selection.

The joint senior leader positions most widely viewed as critical are tied to strategymaking and warfighting. Among the most critical positions are chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; combatant commands; joint task force commands; director of the Joint Staff; and the Joint Staff directors of the following three directorates: Operations (J3), Strategic Plans and Policy (J5), and Force Structure, Resources, and Assessment (J8). Airmen are underrepresented in many of these key positions.

Interviewees perceived that the Air Force may have a cultural tendency to focus on grooming its rated force for top positions inside the service rather than for joint assignments. Other factors that may be reducing competitiveness include a potential shortfall in the quality of joint experience in terms of both Washington staff work and cross-domain exposure, a lack of joint experience early in airmen's careers, a lack of focus on strategic-level education focused on interagency cooperation and geographic expertise, and an inadequate organizational structure to support the establishment of joint task forces. Before addressing these shortfalls, the Air Force should consider whether it is willing to undertake a fundamental cultural transformation by implementing reforms that will effectively elevate the importance of senior joint command over senior Air Force command.

Key Findings

Correcting Underrepresentation Will Require Trade-Offs

  • Airmen are underrepresented in senior joint positions critical to shaping U.S. national security strategy and warfighting capability.
  • If the Air Force decides to embrace meaningful reform, it will need to (1) openly examine and acknowledge its values and priorities in regard to senior leader development and (2) use those values and priorities as a basis to make conscious decisions about where to invest time and resources in joint senior leader development while acknowledging the corresponding trade-offs.

Pursuing Reforms Related to Joint Senior Leader Development Has Potential Drawbacks

  • To some extent, the senior joint jobs that are most important for the nation change over time as the strategic environment evolves.
  • A wide variety of external factors beyond the Air Force's control impinge on the decisionmaking process that surrounds senior joint leadership selection.
  • To the extent that the Air Force can influence its competitiveness for the most-critical senior joint billets, there is a broader question that the Air Force needs to consider about whether it is willing to take on some risk in the development of its officers for senior Air Force positions in order to support enhanced joint senior leader development.


  • Decide whether vying for senior joint positions is desirable despite the potential risks.
  • Decide which senior joint positions are most important.
  • Select the officer candidate pool.
  • Build a succession plan and institutionalize general officer development practices.
  • Increase the quality of joint experience.
  • Increase the extent of joint experience.
  • Reconsider the nature and extent of joint and strategic education.
  • Consider organizational reforms for joint task forces.
  • Lead joint senior leader development reform from the top down.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by Air Force Manpower, Personnel and Services, Headquarters Air Force, and conducted within the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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