Seven Stories for Seven Tribes

Crafting Combat-Centered Archetypes by Changing Competitive Categories

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part article exploring a new construct for officer talent management, career progression, and promotion.  Part one lays out the reason for establishing new competitive categories in US Air Force officer management.  Part two, which will be published Wednesday, proposes seven different categories, or “tribes”, to optimize future force development.

Estimated time to read:  14 minutes

By Dave Blair

“We’re going to step back and take a look at the development of our officers and our enlisted corps, and take a look at what do we need to tweak here to ensure that we are actually looking at the business of combined arms and how do you bring together the various components and either join with or lead a joint task force to be able to optimize those components and build a campaign that’s truly joint in nature.”
–        General Dave Goldfein, Air Force Chief of Staff, 2016

Talent Management has become an interesting topic of late in Air Force circles, and one facet of this discussion is ‘Competitive Categories.’  Under the rules of the Defense Officer Personnel Management system, a three-decade-old law that drives most of our promotion processes, we can break out promotion boards by professional sub-groupings. The Army divides into conglomerations of its branches –– maneuver, support, sustainment, and special branches. The Navy has a larger number of categories to cover down on technical specialties. The Air Force, on the other hand, has one large category for line officers, and a number of professional categories for Judge Advocate Generals (JAGs), Chaplains, and Medical fields.

There seems a gathering consensus that one line category turns the diverse and fascinating spectrum of Air Force careers into a mediocre mush where officers are weighed against each other on objective, if irrelevant, apples-to-apples metrics. The Air Force seems to be heading toward some expansion of these categories. This paper is a thought experiment to explore what that might look like if the service built these categories not out of a logic of force management efficiency, but rather upon a vision of expanding the franchise of combat culture to include the whole of the force. These categories should be built on a foundation of design principles rooted in the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s (CSAF’s) ‘big rocks’ of refocusing on the squadron, on combat, and on building joint leaders.

The Air Service has a once-in-a-generation chance to re-script who we are around the needs of the current and the next wars.  We are extremely fortunate to have such a chance, but we need to realize how rare, how important, and how most likely irrevocable these choices will be. By way of institutional design tools, through the means of incentives, toward the ends of the war fight, our service’s present renaissance will continue and culminate in a place where we bring profound value to the nation.  The first half of this paper uses game theory and behavioral science to build organizational principles along those lines.

The second half of this paper, proposes seven competitive categories, based on those principles, built around seven key Air Force warfighting roles: air combat, which includes current rated fields; space combat, comprised of space and missiles; cyber combat, including cyber, intelligence, and communications; combat sustainers, who generate aircraft, bases, and logistics for forward warfighting; combat developers, our acquisitions and lab corps; combat accelerators, troubleshooters who leverage authorities over personnel and money to troubleshoot the mission; and combat integrators, battlefield airmen who bridge the air and ground domain.  But whether these principles result in four, seven, nine, or one category is less important than building archetypes and stories that celebrate the diverse combat roles of airmen. Toward that end, let us begin.

Refocusing on Combat: A Vision of Iron Colonels. One of the first principles of this system is to ‘be here now.’  A key problem of the current system is undue upward pressure – people who are well qualified for somewhat senior positions are disqualified if they have no chance of achieving very senior positions. A system less concerned with picking general-candidates and more concerned with picking the best colonels to lead their branches of our service will allow us to leverage talent that is currently lost, and it will better calibrate our Field Grade promotion processes to refocus on the Secretary of Defense’s (SECDEF’s) priority of lethality.  In this hypothetical force, every airman can look up to a colonel who is serving as a combat-focused high operational integrator that came from wherever he or she hails from. The Air Force would celebrate these colonels, just as we celebrate Colonel Boyd and Colonel Warden.

Former SECDEF Robert Gates once criticized the Air Force for choosing its generals as captains.  As a logical consequence of having only one ‘line of the Air Force’ competitive category, the Air Force promotes people for being a certain percentile of the resume of the CSAF. The service may pick its generals as captains, but it also asks our captains to act as if they are contending for general in order to make colonel.  Diversifying our promotion boards counteracts this trend by fine-tuning promotion boards to correctly understand and interpret the diverse and often highly contextual strategic contributions of our airmen.

More competitive categories mean that each board has an archetype better calibrated to what airmen do within that tribe, which results in beneficial follow-on changes in how reports are written and how rack-and-stacks are weighted.  Since boards are composed of senior members with a broader sense of perspective, they will still select leaders who have the potential to lead the broader force – there is a proper expectation that leaders will broaden their perspective as they advance.  But this should be balanced with an instinct to celebrate and reward successes in their core mission sets.

Gene Pools & Game Theory: Building an Organizational Architecture Toolkit.  Institutional architecture is the house in which airmen build careers, learn to fight, lead, and thrive as airmen. The design of that house scripts much of how we spend our time, options, and experiences; it even shapes the character of officers through those experiences. In the aggregate, institutional design is destiny – through creating scripts, it molds the stories lived by those who inhabit the institution.  These result in archetypes, idealized visions of what a So, if institutional design is approached as an experiment in crafting future airmen, not just as an exercise in matching human capital to some force management constraint, but rather, then it should start with these archetypes in mind. Two design principles would aid that effort.

First, we must realize that building colonels is a two-decade project, and war will almost certainly look differently two decades from now. If I were to take a wild guess at the nature of air war a decade from now, I would guess at some sort of aircraft that survivably placed airmen in an inertial frame from which they could run an offboard swarm of highly maneuverable aircraft. We currently have a couple of different flavors of wings – one for flying aircraft, one for remotely flying aircraft, one for remotely flying laser-and-TV-guided weapons, and one for remotely flying everyone else through radars and datalinks. If we think about what sorts of DNA we will need to build this future swarm-runner pilot, we will likely need to make some mash-up of all of the above. Take the Air Battle Manager’s instinct for a full court press, the Weapon System Officer’s surgical skill with the air arsenal, the traditional pilot’s air-sense and airmanship, and the remote pilot’s ability to project their will across datalinks, mix them into a big vat of recombinant DNA, and you have that swarm-runner.

This is the ‘gene pool’ principle – start with a vision of all the things needed for the future and put them altogether in hopes that relevant instincts and skills will migrate toward combat needs. So rather than thinking about the Hobson Wing-Base model– the Cold-War-era schema that made the current Maintenance and Support group structure to support nuclear bomber sorties from bases on the American mainland – the Air Force should think about putting skills and talents together in order to posture for joint, expeditionary warfighting. Rather than managing the force it has, the service should cultivate and manage the talent needed for the future.  While civil engineers presently live with the support group for maintaining the base, at present they could be paired with maintainers to better support Joint Force logistics. Doing so, the Air Force could field Sustainment Wings and stand proud in the company of the Joint Force in the high art of military logistics.  Similarly, by placing cyber, communications, and intelligence together, the Air Force can build a cadre with a passion for leveraging information for both decision advantage and action. The key is to think about where the service needs to go and use the competitive categories as conversation starters and career shapers in order to get there.

The second principle is game theory, an economics discipline that explores how incentives yield complex behaviors in the social world. While the gene pool principle tells us to think about capabilities and skills to build the right ‘chimneys,’ game theory teaches us to think about relative proportions of communities within a ‘chimney’ in order to incentivize collaboration and suppress toxic career or community strategies. Where the gene pool principle helps us craft technical expertise, game theoretic principles help us craft good character. If airmen grow up in a ‘Game of Thrones’ world, where every community tries to crush each other in order to survive, then they will be parochial and petty leaders should they learn to win that game.


There are a number of potential game theoretic problems in ‘chimney’ imbalances. First is the ‘Highlander’ problem: a lack of conceptual focus within a category leads to a lack of interdependencies between functions, which means that the best strategy for advancement is to sequentially marginalize competing tribes. This leads to collective action problems for the institution and a chilling effect on collaboration for individuals. Second is the ‘Applesauce’ problem, where the category is too broad to have a meaningful discussion of mission, so as in the current system, the board falls back to any common (‘apples-to-apples’) quality indicators, even if only marginally relevant. Third, the ‘Bully’ problem occurs when one tribe within a category is so numerically dominant that it can unilaterally control the script and treat the other tribes as cannon fodder. There are several other possible problems, which can be explored through both formal theory as well as thought experiments.

Multiparty game theory describes the bargaining that happens when institutions are divided into prime numbers – this explains the effectiveness of Constitutional checks and balances, where power is divided into institutions of two or three parts. If there are two tribes in an institution, they will tend to balance against each other if they are not reliant upon each other – think the two major political parties – but they will reach some accommodation if they need each other to do business – think the House and the Senate. By building career categories that similarly involve these dependencies, then these dualistic relationships can be healthy, as they are with Space and Missiles.  Triangles exhibit interesting balancing characteristics as well – the weakest of the three players can declare for one side or another and shift the balance of power, so no one can be entirely dealt out of the power structure. Hence the three branches of government, and hence the relatively successful triumvirate of combat, mobility, and special operations forces air forces in the aircrew world.

The advantage of these sorts of structures is twofold. For one, they provide institutional stability while ensuring some degree of inclusiveness. They also socialize the members of these institutions toward collaborative behaviors. If the promotion board is composed of members from two tribes, then a candidate with professional capital in both tribes will generally outcompete someone who only has capital in one tribe.

If this is true for the Field Grade tier, then it should be true for the General Officer tier as well. If General Officer selection is conducted from a whole-service perspective, a superstar that wins acclaim in multiple categories should be well positioned to advance into higher tiers of institutional leadership, provided their transition between categories does not induce prohibitive costs. Altogether, the virtue-crafting function of well-built institutions not only helps good leaders to rise, but they themselves help build these good leaders.

Therefore, each of the groups should have at least two core tribes, but no more than four core tribes. A solitary tribe does not create the ‘virtue-crafting’ dynamics and probably does not have enough DNA to weather changes in the nature of war. More than four major tribes and one is sure to be forgotten, which disenfranchises the losing airmen, and teaches the winning airmen to leave comrades behind in the course of the game. Also, with more than four tribes, the clarity of purpose in the ‘chimney’ is likely lost. Obviously, the tribes that are tied together in a category should make sense together in some conception of operational art for future warfighting.

Branches and Finding Our Place in the Fight.  Perhaps I missed something in the course of Professional Military Education (PME)– altogether likely – but it was only recently that I came to understand how Army ranks work. An Army signature block goes something like this: ‘COL, IN’ for ‘Colonel of Infantry’; ‘CPT, MI’ for ‘Captain of Military Intelligence,’ ‘MAJ, SF’ is Major of Special Forces, and so on. Their formal uniforms have different color stripes on their trousers and placards behind their rank epaulets to represent these branches. These are distinct from their qualifications, which they wear just like members of the Air Force. This provides a sense of identity and combat purpose, which manifests at the operational level of war. This is what ASBC was trying to do, in a way – the idea that every Marine is a rifleman, so every Airman should be similarly part of some shared identity, but that identity was never fully conveyed in a compelling way. That said, a weaponized Scan Eagle course that gave every Company Grade Officer (CGO) a basic applied understanding of air, space, and cyber at the tactical level, complete with checkride, might be a useful foundation for common understanding. Therefore, we need some sort of in-between identity that is both compelling and relevant to the fight. As CGOs, Army officers belong to their sub-tribe – Apache Pilot, Abrams Tank Platoon Commander, etc. But as Field Grade Officers, they have something higher to belong to, and the successful ones reinvent themselves as part of the broader tribe. In a ‘branch’ system, the transition from company to field grade comes with an identity reboot, and tribalism is punished as a ‘failure to launch.’

The same cycle repeats itself in the General Officer tier – in fact, this is precisely what the name of that tier means: an officer in general, as opposed to a specific officer of a branch. In the Army, generals leave their branch insignia behind, and wear a black General Staff insignia instead. The signature block changes as well to leave behind the branch identity, and the implication is that once someone becomes a general, their identity and loyalty is to the whole of the force. This is the instinct behind PHOENIX REACH, the Air Mobility Command program that transfers rising mobility leaders between the tanker and airlift sides of the larger mobility world. However, without a strong branch tier, the leap from tactical operator to whole-of-the-force leader is too much, and the cost in friendships and relationships too high, to generally achieve such a wholesale reboot. This intermediate tier provides another rung to help our young leaders become who they need to be in order to the lead the whole of the force. Combat must be the shared reality of the whole of the force, even if the relationship to the reality of combat is viewed differently, if we are to become joint leaders.

Excellence in All We Do.  One misconception that will not serve the Air Force well going forward is the idea that a small portion of our force goes off to fight, and the bulk of the force is a support function which supports that fight. In the future, the ubiquitous place of cyber is obvious, and this is creating a battleground that will likely become kinetic before too long. Space is already a contested arena and could rapidly become a battleground. Beyond combat arms, the language of operational level of war is logistics, and we need a cadre who applies the risk-acceptant attitude of operators to contested supply chains. We need engineers who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, taking calculated risks in light of operational objectives. We need administrative forces who troubleshoot the war, moving people or money around the battlespace to accelerate key efforts. This future force will be one where stereotypes about operations and support forces will make no sense, and we must therefore hold the entirety of the force to a demanding standard focused on the core of what they do.  To quote Will Durant, “We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.”

For this reason, I propose that every ‘tribe’ should have a course so difficult on the way in that they have to fight to earn their right to enter the tribe. Pilots can claim a commercial license on the other side of their wings, and I believe that each tribe could have a similar claim that would allow them to wear their badge with the pride that comes with knowing that someone is amongst the best in the world at what they do. The cybersecurity field offers a number of credentials that we could force-feed our Lieutenants. Engineers can claim the status of Professional Engineer emerging from training if our entry course was challenging enough. Logistics and Program Management have extensive professional certifications, not to mention the classic MBA degree.  In this way, every Air Force officer would undergo a crucible experience, where they discovered their own limits and learned how to push past them as part of a team, and which allows them to claim a status as an elite craftsman in their own unique field of expertise.

This would present a manning problem, as it would likely induce a washout rate across the board. I would offer that we could use predictive analytics to anticipate what might be a good fit for a given cadet – the cadet would track wherever their performance supports, but if they wash out, the Air Force would offer them the track for which they had the highest propensity. If they can’t make it through that course, then they may not be a good fit for our service. This would logically lead to professional follow-ons in these tracks, perhaps a PhD in the case of an engineer, or an elite consultancy internship (such as McKinsey) in the case of a personnelist.

To challenge our status quo, I’d imagine a world where Air Force ‘Combat Accelerators’ are the most sought after institutional architects in the world, where the Lieutenants who can survive being force-fed an Masters of Business Administration (MBA) during their initial qualification course go on to troubleshoot finance and personnel problems in war and peace. Their cadre would be so Congressionally well-regarded that those who pass that qualification earn the right to waive a wide number of regulations under broad authorities, and so well known in the business world that McKinsey seeks out these airmen sight unseen. These men and women are eagerly sought by Combatant Commanders as ‘fixers,’ known for finding a way to get the mission done, no matter what, anytime and anywhere.


And in that world, I might imagine a pilot qualified cadet had his sights set on becoming one of these accelerators, but washing out of their qualification course, is offered pilot training. Succeeding there, and falling in love with aviation, that flyer goes on to do great things in a future air war. Yet, when they become a general officer, he remembers with some degree of humility that he couldn’t make it through his first choice, and shows respect to those who could, just as they show respect to him for what he did in the air fight. This is a mature service, an elite service, a technical service, a combat service. It is a service of leaders and warriors, and it is a service where the needs of the future fight make us peers and comrades, where all are held to the same standard of excellence and all are equally fixed on the needs of the fight. This is the service I believe we need.

Once again, our Air Service has a generational opportunity to re-script our service by changing the incentive structures of competitive categories.  Doing so changes a tremendous amount of paperwork, including the significance of stratifications and other measures of scarcity.  Building around the CSAF’s ‘big rocks,’ we can build a service focused on combat, made of elite technical peers, that produces excellent leaders.  The tools of game theory and ‘gene pools’ can enable future warriors gain the tools and instincts to navigate the future of warfare.  Let us, then, build that world.

Dave Blair is a U.S. Air Force officer and is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy. He holds a PhD and a Masters degree from Georgetown, and a Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School.

 The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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