Saturday, December 19, 2009

Skipping a Grade

Pending confirmation by the Senate, Air Force Brigadier General Richard C. Harding is set to achieve something rare in the military--or perhaps we should say something that was once rare in our armed forces.

Once approved by the Senate (a mere formality at this point), Harding will become the next Judge Advocate General of the Air Force, and be promoted two grades, to Lieutenant General. In other words, he'll earn his second and third stars at the same time, and advance two ranks at his pin-on ceremony.

As Air Force Times explains, Harding's unusual promotion is the result of a grade change for his new job. In 2008, Congress mandated that the service's top attorneys be three-star generals. At the time, the USAF only had two legal officers at the two-star level; one of them (Major General Jack Rives) was elevated to lieutenant general. With the projected retirement of Rives and his deputy, Major General Charles Dunlap, the Air Force had to dip into the ranks of one-star JAG officers to find a replacement.

And, oddly enough, this isn't the first time an Air Force officer has catapulted two grades in the flag ranks. Last year, Colonel Kimberly Siniscalchi was promoted to Major General for her new job as Assistant Surgeon General for Nursing Services and Force Development.

Call us old-fashioned, but we've always believed this type of promotion should be limited to the most pressing circumstances (read: wartime), and given to individuals of exceptional merit and ability. No slam against Generals Harding, Rives or Siniscalchi, but their resume hardly compares to that of an Army Air Corps officer, who advanced from Lieutenant Colonel to Brigadier General in 1942.

This individual was an aviation pioneer who led the development of instrument flying. After joining the Army during World War I, he found time to earn both a Master's and Doctorate in Aeronautics from M.I.T. He was also an accomplished air racer, winning all of the major competitions of his day. As a Major in the reserves, he was also instrumental in planning the wartime production of aircraft, work that helped secure victory during World War II.

Recalled to active duty (and promoted to Lieutenant Colonel) after Pearl Harbor, the officer volunteered to plan--and lead--a retaliatory attack against Japan. In April 1942, with American fortunes at a low ebb, he led a squadron of B-25 bombers on a raid against Japan. The medium bombers were launched from an aircraft carrier, a feat that most experts deemed impossible. But the resourceful Lieutenant Colonel found a way to take off from the deck of a carrier, and trained his crews for the mission in minimum time. For his efforts, this individual received the Congressional Medal of Honor and was advanced to Brigadier General.

By now, most of you have guessed the name of this airpower legend--Jimmy Doolittle. He went on to command Eighth Air Force in Europe, leading campaigns that smashed the Luftwaffe. General Doolittle retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1959, but he continued to serve his country in various capacities for years. Jimmy Doolittle was promoted to full general (on the retired list) by an act of Congress in 1988. General Doolittle died in 1993, at the age of 96.

Those are the achievements of someone who deserved to skip a grade in his military career. By comparison, the bureaucratic requirements that dictated the recent promotions are no substitute for merit. The Air Force managed to function for more than 50 years with its senior JAG in the rank of Major General; surely, the service could have survived with a two-star in the Lieutenant General billet until enough qualified candidates could compete for the promotion.

It's also worth remembering that the service has long operated with a "one up or down" rule in the lower ranks, meaning that most billets can be filled by someone one grade higher (or lower) than the desired rank. We understand that the requirements are different in command billets and the flag ranks. But we still argue that a two-grade advancement should be limited to individuals with the accomplishments of a Jimmy Doolittle. Sad to say, but the Air Force hasn't produced one of those in many, many years.


Ed Rasimus said...

The JAG and the Medical Corps are specialty components and should not be confused with "line" officers. The officers of these specialty components hold commissions but are not in the chain of command of operational forces. The fact that you pin eagles or stars on their shoulders makes them no more a military officer than when Jocelyn Elder donned the "uniform" of Surgeon General. They would be much more appropriately frocked with bureaucratic designations like GS-45 to denote a pay scale and administrative pecking order.

It is a throwback to a period when someone believed that they must wear a uniform to be involved in a military courtroom or hospital. It is a time long past and the practice should be corrected.

Andrewdb said...

Wearing the uniform also puts them under military jurisdiction (ie, UCMJ, etc).

I would point out that this is part of the price for the dispute between the Bush DOD GC and the TJAGs. Congress promoted the TJAGs to they would have more clout, but the bench isn't that deep in the several JAG Corps.

John said...

One more comment on Major Rasimus' idea that doctors shouldn't be military officers. For years I heard the same grousing and bitching about pilots not needing to be officers. The Air Force still thinks you need to be a commissioned officer to fly a drone from a desk in Nevada. But as far as doctors go, look at how much trouble the State Department is having putting their highly paid GS-45s or whatever into places they don't want to go. How many civilian employee doctors are we going to be able to rotate in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan over the next 10 years? I know several military doctors - my son is one of them. Some are indeed not cut out to be line officers, but many of them already have been in command positions before going to medical school and have proven themselves capable of leading in combat if the need arises.

Unknown said...

Dunlap wrote two published stories during the Clinton years that fictionally projected what he saw as trends in civil military relations. His fictional projection culminated in a military takeover, led by an AF general, of the federal govt. Might his authorship of these stories killed his chance for the top JAG position? Hard to believe the stories endeared him to the the top brass.