Warrant officers in the Air Force have long history

  • Published
  • By Vincent Hodge
  • 502nd Air Base Wing and JBSA Historian

Long before our nation was founded, navies used warrant officers to handle technical operations aboard Navy warships, while the more aristocratic officers were "commissioned" to command them.

The Army gave a similar in-between grade to headquarters clerks in the late 1890s, but it did not use the warrant officer title until 1918 when it created its own navy. In that year, Congress approved a seagoing Mine Planter Service for the Coast Artillery and authorized the use of warrant officers as masters, mates, and chief engineers.

By 1920, Congress allowed the Army up to 1,120 warrant officers, and the service was given the rank not only to mine planters and headquarters clerks (now called field clerks) but also to quartermaster clerks and bandleaders.

That same year, Congress voted on another provision that was to muddy the status of the grade for several decades. It allowed the Army to give warrants to long-service enlisted members and to former officers, including some Army Air Service pilots, who lost their commissions in the demobilization after World War I.

In 1942, Congress created the flight officer rank. The plan was to give it to enlisted pilots to avoid the then-socially unthinkable prospect of having NCOs command aircraft on which commissioned officers served as crew members.

Unlike other warrant officers, however, flight officers were not tied to enlisted career fields. They filled the same crew positions as other officers, including aircraft commanders. Some flew with commissioned copilots, and at least a few led major elements on missions.

Most warrant officers filled the essential clerical, administrative, and technical jobs with quiet efficiency and attracted little attention.

When the war ended, the Army stopped appointing both flight officers and warrant officers, and most wartime appointees went home.

Two years later, in 1947, the Air Force began life as a separate service and inherited 305,000 former Army Air Force members, among whom were 1,200 warrant officers. The service had no specific warrant officer career plan, but it continued to appoint more.

In the early 1950s, the Air Force tried to define the warrant officer by regulation. Air Force Regulation 36-72 called the warrant officer "a technical specialist with supervisory ability, who was appointed for duty in one superintendent Air Force specialty.”

The regulation defined warrant positions as those in which supervision was limited to other warrant officers, enlisted members, and civilians. These duties required more responsibility than was desirable for an NCO, but greater specialization than was desirable for a junior officer; and duties could be handled by senior NCOs in the temporary absence of warrant officers.

The Air Force regulation also noted that putting this superintendent position at the top of the Airman career ladder provided for the progression of outstanding Airmen. This was intended to make the rank an incentive for outstanding enlisted performance rather than a reward for past service.

Another problem was the small number of warrant officers. Though the Air Force made appointments well into the 1950s, peak strength never rose much above 4,500, or about one-half of one percent of the total active duty force.

There were not enough warrant officers to fill more than a handful of commissioned officer billets and far too few to occupy all of the superintendent-level slots in the enlisted fields.

As a result, many master sergeants spent years in superintendent positions with little hope of winning warrants. From the early 1950s on, warrant officers were counted as commissioned officers for budgetary purposes. The Air Force was not eager to give up commissioned slots to add warrant officers, particularly if it meant taking them from the rated officer ranks.

In 1958, Congress created two new enlisted grades, E-8 and E-9. The rationale was that enlisted members were reaching the top NCO grades midway in their careers and had no place to go from there. The services did not want to use officer authorizations to make more warrant appointments, so the solution seemed to be to add another tier to the enlisted ranks.

In 1959, the year that the Air Force promoted its first master sergeants to E-9, it also announced plans to phase out its warrant officer program. The Air Force admitted that it had decided that warrant officers constituted an unnecessary layer of supervision between the commissioned and noncommissioned ranks.

Some years later, officials concluded that the new senior noncoms were "capable of doing the same jobs as warrant officers."

It was not until 1980, however, that CWO James H. Long retired from the 438th Transportation Squadron at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey, and the Air Force said goodbye to its last active duty warrant officer.

In April 2024, the U.S. Air Force announced a decision by the Secretary of the Air Force to bring back the warrant officer carrier field, which signified a pivotal moment in Air Force history, representing a strategic shift towards bolstering technical proficiency and operational effectiveness.

The reintroduction of the warrant officer career path reflected the Air Force's commitment to expanding and retaining technical excellence, essential for maintaining a strategic advantage in an era defined by Great Power Competition.