Cover: Air Force Professional Military Education

Air Force Professional Military Education

Considerations for Change

Published Jul 12, 2021

by Lawrence M. Hanser, Jennifer J. Li, Carra S. Sims, Norah Griffin, Spencer R. Case


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Research Questions

  1. What are the boundaries within which PME must operate?
  2. How do senior leaders in the Department of Defense and the Air Force view the purpose of PME?
  3. How do recent in-residence students view the purpose, value, and quality of the PME they attended?

Professional military education (PME) for U.S. Air Force officers is part of a complex system for preparing officers of all services for command and staff work in a joint context. The system must accommodate thousands of officers every year — some in-residence at service schoolhouses, some through fellowship opportunities at varying locations, and still others through distance learning.

There is an apparent imbalance in the assignment of Air Force officers to specific PME programs: A greater proportion of officers who are ranked lower by the central developmental education board are assigned to PME at Air University than those higher on the rankings, who tend to be assigned to non–Air Force schoolhouses or fellowship programs.

The authors examine the process for selecting officers for assignment to in-residence schools and fellowships and review U.S. Air Force and Department of Defense policies on PME. Drawing on interviews with Air Force leaders who oversee and conduct PME and on recent graduates' opinions of these programs, the authors make recommendations designed to help the Air Force improve its system of PME to better serve the organization and its members.

Key Findings

There is a systemic tendency to value options other than Air University

  • In-residence seats are consistently allocated to the top officers as ranked by order of merit, but the officers ranked most highly do not usually attend in-residence PME at Air University.
  • More officers who were ranked lower by the central developmental education board are assigned to PME at Air University.

Some senior leaders cite problems with PME, but this concern is not universal

  • The National Defense Strategy notes that PME has “stagnated” and does not foster the skills and abilities needed for independent action during combat.
  • Within the Air Force, there are many suggestions for how the entire PME system might better prepare officers for the future, but most senior Air Force leaders whose statements the authors reviewed did not call for a wholesale revision.

Officers do not rank the quality of Air University schoolhouses highly

  • Surveyed officers view PME at Air Force schools less favorably than other options; few ranked Air University options as top quality.
  • Officers who had attended Air University programs were more likely than others to say that the course content needs improvement.

There is considerable discontent with Air University's location

  • Survey respondents and Air Force leadership voiced concerns about the location at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.
  • The quality of local public schools and employment options for spouses are the top concerns and impede the ability to recruit top-notch faculty to the area.


  • Encourage vectoring practices that place a higher value on Air Force institutions.
  • Enhance the value of attending PME at Air University by providing valuable experiences unavailable to students elsewhere, such as engagement with three- and four-star generals for mentoring and knowledge transfer.
  • Consider adding boutique-like programs that members can request and be vectored to directly.
  • Look more deeply into what Air University graduates would recommend for changes at the schoolhouses, including faculty and course content.
  • Task the Air Force Personnel Center with improving the relevance of follow-on assignments.
  • Implement a communications plan that reinforces core Air Force values and professional standards and the unique value of attending Air University (i.e., PME as a "bluing" process).
  • Reconsider relocating Air Force schoolhouses from Maxwell Air Force Base to a more attractive location that would present fewer difficulties to faculty, students, and their families — which would in turn affect education quality, officers' interest in attending, and the assignment process that begins with officers stating their preferences in MyVector.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by the Director, Force Development, Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower, Personnel and Services, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Washington, D.C., and conducted within the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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