The False Dilemma: Rethinking AF Science and Technology Officer Talent Management Published Dec. 1, 2022 By Dr. James E. Bevins, Major, USAF Wild Blue Yonder -- “The advantage will go to those who create the best technologies and who integrate and field them in creative operational ways that provide military advantages.” – former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson Too few U.S. Air Force officers have sufficient science and technology (S&T) backgrounds to drive and lead technological innovation because a vast majority of the service’s career fields do not actively track and foster this aspect of their education and experience. Previous studies to increase technical competency have often settled on a false dilemma: a large, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)-cognizant or small, STEM-expert force, with the latter being the default solution implemented. Excellent recommendations have been made to connect the small S&E officer community to operational needs, but this falls short of the strategic imperative and does not address the fundamental issue of prioritizing STEM competency to meet national security challenges. A long-term, service-wide framework that pushes significantly more officers to become technologically savvy is proposed to enable the Air Force to compete with global adversaries. The STEM Expertise Gap: A concern for a lack of trained scientific and engineering personnel in the Air Force dates to the 1948 Finletter Report, which recommended to: “…offer every possible inducement for capable officers to enter aeronautical research and development work. They should be given opportunity to take graduate work…at Government expense…and [their] opportunities for advancement in rank will not be prejudiced as a result. Only by so doing will we be assured of the continuity of research leadership that we require.” While recent studies have not been as forceful in their recommendations, the drumbeat of the importance of technological innovation has increased, especially with the rise of China and re-emergence of Russia. The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) highlights that “the drive to develop new technologies is relentless…and moving at accelerating speed…advanced computing, “big data” analytics, artificial intelligence, autonomy, robotics, directed energy, hypersonics, and biotechnology…ensure we will be able to fight and win the wars of the future.” To stay apace of this trend and minimize erosion of the U.S. technological edge, the 2018 NDS and 2030 S&T Strategy call for the establishment of a stronger pipeline of “technology-proficient airmen” capable of elevating S&T advocacy and rapidly adapting to the unpredictable nature of revolutionary or disruptive technologies. In other words, the next offset in strategic advantage will be achieved by an agile Air Force that requires broad-based, rigorous, on-going education to develop a concentration of officers with STEM and critical thinking skills. Despite this seeming consensus, the current efforts to add S&T talent have been deemed “insufficient” as the percentage of officers with advanced STEM degrees has not changed appreciably since 1976, never reaching above 12%, despite the fact that 40-50% of officers regularly have advanced degrees. In 2021, 15% of Air Force general officers had a STEM master’s degree; less than 1% had a STEM doctorate. As one point of comparison, at least 32% and 13% of founding CEOs of Fortune 500 technology companies had a master’s and doctoral STEM degree, respectively. Similar results are found at the most innovative companies where 65% have STEM undergraduate degrees, and 30% have STEM graduate degrees. Senior leaders have recognized this disconnect, and several efforts regarding STEM competency have been conducted. However, STEM human capital needs are managed at the unit and career field level with only two career fields systematically tracking future STEM needs. Management at this level leads to career “silos” and the tactical “needs of the present” dominating the strategic “needs of the future.” A lack of broad participation also ensures that the decision on a large STEM-cognizant or small, STEM-expert force is made by default by those tracking and the most pre-disposed to advocating for STEM needs. Consequently, a vast majority of recommendations have focused on the small STEM-expert community – an exercise in diminishing returns. In essence, the current solution to developing STEM-savvy leaders boils down to finding unicorns – officers that have chartered the unforgiving pathway through the traditional “gates” to general officer while obtaining sufficient STEM proficiency along the way. These officers exist, albeit at a rate below what the evidence would suggest is necessary. The small, STEM-expert force approach fundamentally limits the ability to develop a deep pool of STEM-savvy officers and ensures the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias where limited knowledge in an area leads to a tendency to overestimate knowledge and performance, is prevalent. This effect explains why leaders in large organizations without sufficient technical knowledge struggle to drive innovation systems and connect ideas to reality. The evidence for this is abundant: acquisition challenges for high-tech systems, significant pushback to the “revolution in military affairs”, and failure of the “Third Offset” to take hold and deliver capabilities to offset Chinese and Russian capabilities to name a few. Tellingly, when Nicolas Chaillan, former Air Force Chief Software Officer, offered his resignation, one of the main reasons was a consistent lack of leaders with necessary expertise to deliver on key priorities – “they couldn’t ‘walk the walk.’” In short, we need more leaders with hard-earned STEM competency to create and integrate technologies for military advantage. This will not be accomplished by restricting the emphasis to the traditional scientists and engineering (S&E) career fields. The pool, only 10% of officers, and general officer progression is just too small. Fortunately, the recent SECAF’s Management Initiatives and Chief of Staff’s (CSAF) Action Orders, both containing emphasis on organic expertise to “accrue advantage in military-technological competition,” present an opportunity to truly develop a framework for the force of the future. Current Air Force STEM Development Framework: Current Air Force accessions, despite rather soft STEM requirements, average about 40% of line, i.e. non-medical, officers entering with a STEM undergraduate degree, and approximately 1% enter with a STEM master’s. However, current entry requirements are broad and can lead to degrees that make little sense – i.e., there are 777 non-medical officers with a pre-med bachelor’s as of December 2021. Due to the one-way entry pipeline for military officers, this is the baseline of talent available to be developed into future leaders, and it must be managed strategically to ensure that a sufficient talent pool exists for future development. With few officers entering with advanced STEM degrees or experience, the Air Force must develop the talent required. While there are numerous programs to do this, the top route is through the Air Force Education Requirements Board (AFERB). Annually, the AFERB provides opportunities for 600-650 officers to pursue master’s and doctorate degrees, with approximately 60% of those being STEM degrees. Notably, the AFERB allotment has been flat and the fill rate averages 70% of the stated need, a condition explicitly defined in Air Force Instruction 36-2670, which states the AFERB is not “designed nor resourced to support the full contingent of…developmental needs.” As a result, only about 50% of STEM graduate degree positions have a STEM graduate assigned. Because “somebody” is better than “nobody,” this leads to the self-defeating step of removing or degrading positions requiring graduate degrees, resulting in the loss of 25% of STEM doctorate authorizations in the past decade – a downward trend that is still present. The AFERB prioritizes these graduate education fills based on, in part, current inventory and historical utilization rates, both metrics rooted firmly in past, not future, requirements. This is despite the Department of Defense Instruction 1322.10 giving wide latitude on the definition of a position requiring a graduate degree and stating the program’s purpose is to “develop or enhance the capacity of the [DoD] to fulfill a present need, anticipated requirement, or future capability.” Accordingly, a preponderance of AF-funded STEM degrees, 85+%, go to the S&E career fields who are predisposed to track requirements; most of the remaining non-S&E career field degrees are driven by academic billets at The U.S. AF Academy, not the operational units. A Proposed Force Structure: To “accrue advantage in military-technological competition,” the Air Force needs to consciously reject the false choice of a large, STEM-cognizant or small, STEM-expert force and choose an all-of-the-above approach. In short, the Air Force needs to develop and manage a spectrum of STEM talent, across all career fields, to ensure a robust, agile workforce to meet the uncertain technological challenges of the future. Currently approximately 60% of line officers possess a non-STEM degree. Of the approximately 40% that have a STEM degree, 3/4 are at the bachelor’s level, insufficient to lead programs given the ever-decreasing knowledge half-life. Depending on one’s perspective, this places 60-90% of line officers firmly at risk for the Dunning-Kruger’s effect with respect to S&T. This is simply inadequate to lead the Air Force, where technological parity is insufficient to maintain military superiority. However, completely inverting this paradigm would starve the Air Force of non-STEM knowledge and expertise. Instead, the solution is somewhere in between, a “Goldilocks” solution that improves STEM competency while maintaining diversity in intellectual capital. A proposed distribution that increases the accessed STEM talent pool to levels on par with the Naval Academy, accounts for the time to obtain advanced degrees, and results in a more balanced general officer STEM distribution consistent with that found at the most innovative companies is shown below. Strategic STEM Management: While reasonable people can disagree on the exact distribution of STEM talent and may generate a different distribution than the one posed above, it is clear that the current paradigm of managing STEM requirements by functional areas is insufficient to move the needle in the direction needed. Instead, this should be managed strategically by creating a new STEM management office at the Air Force level with the mission to look AF-wide for STEM human capital management. The office’s core functions would be to project future STEM human capital needs, set officer STEM requirements, develop and implement tracking indicators, and prioritize STEM investments. The STEM manning requirements should be further broken down to each of the six line developmental categories to account for tactical and operational differences in each category. For example, the Force Modernization category, composed of a majority of S&Es, will have a higher requirement than the Combat Support category. This will further enable the adjustment of officer accessions to include hard STEM requirements, ensuring a sufficient starting talent pool enters the Air Force. However, setting requirements to move to a more sustainable distribution of talent is insufficient – that talent must be locatable and utilized. This new office should work with career field managers and units to actively develop and track key STEM billets in a manner similar to the management of key nuclear billets and critical acquisition-coded positions to ensure high fill rates. This will allow the development of Air Force STEM health metrics to inform strategic investments in STEM human capital. Some of these investments would come in the form of the AFERB, which should be managed by this new office. AFERB opportunities should be spread more equitably across the Air Force to support the required talent distribution in each developmental category. Current Air Force guidance should be rewritten to adopt the broad DOD guidance for development of future needs. Importantly, the AFERB should be resourced to support the full contingent of Air Force needs by doubling current STEM degree funding. Finally, talent is useless if you cannot find it, and no current Air Force system exists to do so. The service needs to adopt crowd-sourced tools akin to LinkedIn that allow for rapid identification of key competencies at all levels of the Air Force – from corporate management to units selecting officers for assignment. The Air Force Research Lab’s Subject Matter Expert Profile engine would serve as a strong foundation due to its natural language processing making it easy (minutes) to create profiles from existing records. This tool should receive Air Force-level investment and be integrated into the Air Force’s Talent Market place to fill this need. Accessing High-Potential Officers: Of course, meeting the required career “gates” while developing and maintaining STEM expertise can be a challenge, potentially relegating officers to lower promotion rates. To combat this, modifications need to be made to in-residence developmental education, which is often attended by those on track to become senior leaders. Current STEM opportunities comprise 2% of the 739 developmental education seats, a woefully low number. This should be increased to at least 5% with selection preference to those holding graduate STEM degrees to both broaden their expertise and maintain technical proficiency. A CSAF development education program allows for the pursuit of a social science master’s, but no equivalent STEM program exists. A SECAF thesis-based STEM Master’s program at top universities co-located with federally-funded research and development centers or university-affiliated research centers would allow high-potential officers the opportunity to deepen technical competency and establish ties to outside agencies, the latter of which is already a developmental education goal. This program should support at least 12 slots annually at the O-4 and O-5 levels for high-impact investment. Maximizing Advantage Through Integration: Lastly, technology is a means to an end and achieving that end requires integration of technology, strategy, and operational concepts. Xi Jinping recently stated one goal for the realignment of the Academy of Military Sciences was to ensure “the close integration of military theory and military science and technology.” For the Air Force, the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS) has the stated goal of creating premier strategists, but the technology component is lacking. Technology strategy does not happen in a vacuum, and SAASS should address this gap through enhancing the technology and technology strategy portions of their curriculum, bringing in and connecting to the nation’s leading experts to supplement current staff. Additionally, 25% of the slots should be allocated to STEM graduate degree holders to ensure a solid mix of technical, operational, and strategic thought that can result in game-changing advances in technology integration leading to military advantage. Conclusion: Dr. Theodore van Karman once said, “Scientific results cannot be used effectively by soldiers who have no understanding of them, and scientists cannot produce results useful for warfare without an understanding of the operation.” For too long, we have ignored this and “siloed” the two communities. Excellent recommendations have been made to connect the small community of S&E officers to operational needs. While necessary, this falls short of the strategic imperative and does not address the fundamental issue of prioritizing STEM competency to meet national security challenges, a fact consistently highlighted in reviews of Air Force STEM talent. The initiatives outlined in this article: create an AF-level organization to prioritize, manage, and track STEM talent and requirements; define improvements to the current graduate education system necessary to fully support Air Force needs; develop new DE pathways to obtain and maintain STEM competence for high-potential officers; and close the loop with improvements to SAASS to integrate technology with strategy to accrue military advantage. The CSAF’s Action Orders and SECAF’s Management Initiatives challenge the service to improve organic expertise to “accrue advantage in military-technological competition.” The union of enhanced operational utilization of a small community of deep technical experts with a broad base of STEM competency across all career fields and ranks meets this challenge and is required to ensure that leaders of all levels have the right knowledge and access to expertise. In sum, these approaches are a step in the right direction to reducing the impact of the Dunning-Kruger Effect resulting in better decisions, improved technological outcomes, and, hopefully, a reversal or blunting of the S&T trends eroding our technological advantage. Dr. James E. Bevins, Major, USAF Dr. Bevins is the nuclear wargaming program manager at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and an adjunct associate professor of nuclear engineering at the Air Force Institute of Technology. NOTES [1.] Thomas Finletter, Survival in the Air Age: A Report by the President’s Air Policy Commission (Washington D.C: United States Government Printing Office, 1948): 96. [2.] James N. Mattis, Unclassified Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of The United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2018). 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