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Op-Ed: Fighter Pilot Leadership Isn’t The Future Of The Air Force

February 13, 2016

All opinion articles are the opinion of the author and not necessarily of American Military News. If you are interested in submitting an op-ed please email [email protected]


While working toward my MBA with George Mason University’s School of Business, I have gained supremely valuable exposure to a wide array of fundamental business concepts and management tools that will no doubt serve me well in my future endeavors.  What has been most enjoyable, however, are the in-depth and thought-provoking discussions on organizational leadership and the essential role diversity plays in an organization’s success. Especially valuable for me have been the opportunities to glean knowledge from my fellow GMU classmates, a talented group of professionals with a wide range of personal and professional backgrounds. Their experiences have informed and at times even challenged my military-fashioned perspective on leadership, professional development, and organizational diversity.  Further, my MBA Team has inspired me to take a fresh look at how the Air Force as an institution approaches diversity, not just from a race and sex/gender standpoint, but also as it pertains to diversity of background, experience, education, training, perspective, worldview, and otherwise.  This has led me to reconsider my own experiences to include observing Air Force senior leaders over the last 24 years, taking note of certain organizational proclivities toward tribal preference which have undoubtedly stifled diversity.


“The mission of the United States Air Force is to fly, fight and win … in air, space and cyberspace. To achieve that mission, the Air Force has a vision of Global Vigilance, Reach and Power.”

“That vision orbits around three core competencies: developing Airmen, technology to war fighting and integrating operations.” 

It has been nearly 15 years since then Maj “Moose” Danskine published his SAASS (then SAAS) thesis, “Fall of the Fighter General: The Future of USAF Leadership.” Danskine’s title is a play on Col Mike Worden’s book, “Rise of the Fighter Generals: The Problem of Air Force Leadership.” Both are well worth the read for Airmen and Air Power enthusiasts alike.

In his writings, Col Worden stated:

“…Broad education and experience and a diversity of views at the senior executive level are necessary to cultivate visionary leaders.  These leaders must appreciate obvious immediate concerns and manage and anticipate change with a view towards a greater, more holistic, and enduring contribution to the future. These concerns include an understanding of how both internal and external forces influence the institution. For the military, battlefield victory embraces only one dimension of its professional requirements. Sociologist Sam Sarkesian concludes that military leaders must develop political and social insights to function successfully in today’s security environment. In today’s time of geostrategic change, as reflected by the end of the cold war, institutions that maintain broad, pluralistic, and pragmatic perspectives can better recognize and adjust to the new paradigm or realities.

If not for the reference to the Cold War, Worden’s words could have been taken straight out of any branch of service’s current professional military education (PME) curriculum. Although written at a different time in history, Worden’s insights are no less relevant now than when his book was published.

Comparably, I am quite impressed by the professional courage it took for Danskine to refresh and advance the debate Worden started by probing the psyche of Air Force leadership and challenging the status quo by suggesting that in the future, USAF fighter pilot dominance in filling senior leadership positions is not guaranteed.  Although Danskine understands that he must accept the current leadership development and promotion model that perpetuates tribal bias, he remains optimistic that the service will ultimately accept new leadership selection norms when world events and national policy require such a change.  While Worden attempted to analyze historical trends and answer the fundamental question of how Air Force leadership transitioned from one Air Force demographic (bomber pilots) to another (fighter pilots), Danskine’s work was more ambitious as he attempted to build a case for why the Air Force should reconsider how it philosophically approaches and executes senior leadership development in general and executive-level selection/hiring specifically. He believes, much like Worden, that the Air Force, the Department of Defense, the Combatant Commanders, the American People, et al… are best served by an Air Force that is led by a professionally diverse senior leadership cadre possessing a wide variety of skill-sets, backgrounds, experiences, and worldviews.  Meanwhile, we retain a model that intentionally selects a disproportionate number of its senior-most Air Force leaders from a proportionally small pool of pilots, most often from the even smaller fighter pilot tribe.  This model of tribal bias is unquestionably outdated and misaligned with the Air Force’s three core competencies and overall mission of the organization writ large.  As a professional recommendation, Danskine suggests adopting the lessons learned by the other military services who have satisfactorily addressed intraservice tribal differences.

“In tomorrow’s air and space community, combat aviators will increasingly find themselves sharing the operator spotlight with UAV pilots, space controllers, and information warriors…”

Before going any further, there is an important question that should at least be acknowledged: Does the fact that a senior leadership cadre with disproportionate representation from a particular tribe matter? After all, these are truly some of the most talented pilots and leaders the Air Force has to offer. On this topic, I believe Danskine knocks it out of the park and provides a compelling argument for why not having a more diverse senior leadership cadre matters:

This group mindthink of a single dominant tribe can have serious repercussions for the service. It can lead to skewed doctrine: the Vietnam War is often portrayed as a war the Air Force was not prepared to fight because its doctrine was focused on strategic bombing and nuclear deterrence. Similarly, today‘s USAF doctrine may be skewed to tactical aviation, at the expense of space or information operations. Senior leadership has also lost budget battles, due to differing budget priorities between the Air Force and its civilian leaders. The cancellation of the B-70 bomber program in the early 1960s in favor of intercontinental missiles, much to the disappointment of USAF leadership, may portend a similar situation with the F-22 and Joint Strike Fighter programs vis a vis space systems and UAV development. Even during force employment, target lists for air campaigns may be skewed toward achieving “air superiority” when this may not always be a priority mission if it is at the expense of maintaining space or information superiority. Discordant, possibly “heretical,” ideas are not cultivated. Tribes out of favor are taken over by representatives of the dominant tribe. The direction of these tribes may be led by senior leaders who do not share the communal vision of that tribe. It becomes a struggle: do the senior leaders change the culture of the tribe, or does the tribe eventually produce its own senior leadership to represent its own worldview? Unbalanced tribal dominance thus breeds discontent among the remaining tribes; such self-serving elitism sows the seeds of discontent among those whose contributions to mission have been denigrated and who have been excluded from any hope of leadership.

When Danskine’s SAASS thesis was published, he indicated that “eight of twelve USAF four-star generals are pilots with a background in the fighter community.  Almost half, over 46 percent, of all senior leadership are fighter pilots.  Five of eight commanders of the major commands are fighter pilots.  And yet the fighter pilot community makes up only 5.3 percent of the entire officer corps.”  (Interestingly enough, these numbers resurfaced in an interesting Air & Space Power Journal article from Jul-Aug 2013 on leadership development and opportunity in the RPA community.)  The latest numbers posted online by the Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC) indicate that pilots make up 4% of the total Air Force and 21% of the Air Force officer corps. Fighter pilots make up a much smaller percentage of the total officer corps.  Additionally, there are currently twelve 4-star Generals in the Air Force, of which six (or 50%) are from the fighter pilot community.  It goes without saying, however, that the Air Force of today does considerably more than fly fighter aircraft.  In fact, given the operational significance of so many other Air Force mission sets (ISR, Space, SOF, etc), these numbers do not suggest an organization that is most effectively identifying, grooming, or providing opportunity for some of its most talented people from non-fighter pilot communities.

As both Worden’s and Danskine’s works attest to, throughout its history, the Air Force has struggled to become a more diverse organization. Since before the USAF became a separate service, a distinct and disproportionately small demographic has always assumed the mantle of being the dominant tribe. Moreover, throughout our service’s history, the Air Force has perpetuated a professional development and promotion system that grooms, develops, promotes, and simply prefers the chosen tribe for many of its key and senior most leadership positions. Despite studies, increased attention, and well-intended rhetoric, there are no obvious signs that the Air Force’s preference for pilots in general, and specifically fighter pilots will change. Danskine’s call for a service that intentionally seeks out, cultivates, and promotes diversity of thought, education, expertise, experience and worldview among the USAF’s senior most leaders remains a bridge too far.

In his concluding remarks, Danskine so aptly provided:

“Benjamin Lambeth, in The Transformation of Air Power, makes this observation: ‘In tomorrow‘s air and space community, combat aviators will increasingly find themselves sharing the operator spotlight with UAV pilots, space controllers, and information warriors, all of whom will be bona fide trigger pullers with a common operational-level responsibility and outlook.'”

And finally, before laying down his pen, Danskine offered these thoughts:

“History indicates that the USAF, as an institution, tends to become dominated by a single tribe at any one time rather than maintaining the competitive balance found in its sister services.  This may not be the healthy approach.  For an organization to be prepared to adapt to a changing environment, it would be preferable to have tribal balance, not dominance, be the norm.”

What would Worden and Danskine say about Air Force senior leadership today?  Have we found tribal balance?  Or, are we simply perpetuating the tribal dominance model Danskine so thoroughly detailed?  As an ever-changing Air Force that is called on by Combatant Commanders and the nation for such critical missions as ISR, Cyber, Space, Mobility, and Special Operations, we must go to great lengths to ensure our service has the right mix of senior leaders at the helm, leading our service, and advising our policy makers.  Moreover, we must always be willing to ask tough, probing questions even if that means offending the sensibilities of some by suggesting that a paradigm shift is required so that we ensure our nation maintains the greatest Air Force the world has ever known.

“The Air Force bases its core competencies and distinctive capabilities on a shared commitment to three values: Integrity first, Service before self, and Excellence in all we do.”

So, to that, I ask… Are our senior leaders sufficiently diversified to most effectively manage such an increasingly complex Air Force portfolio?  Do we have the right mixture of expertise in our senior most positions to make the most innovative or effective strategic, doctrinal, budgetary, or other vital decisions critical to moving the disparate Air Force capabilities and mission sets in the right direction?  Are we well postured for an uncertain and challenging future that will rely more than ever on Air Power and Air Force ISR, Cyber, Space, Mobility and Special Operations?  And finally, how will the next chapter of this discussion started by Col Worden in 1998 and continued by Moose Danskine in 2001 be written?  With any luck and a modicum of soul searching, the United States Air Force will continue to evolve and become a stronger organization as a result of its willingness to challenge the norms and embrace diversity at all levels.  We cannot afford to self-limit in these times that call for innovative, original thought and bold leadership for a new generation of talented Airmen and the American people.