One of the least understood ranks in the U.S. armed forces is that of warrant officer (WO). Their small number and inconsistent employment between and within the military services add to the confusion over their roles. The number of WOs has dropped to historical lows in the Navy—they currently make up less than 0.5% of personnel, the smallest cohort of the services. It is arguable whether the decline of the Navy's WO corps is a natural evolution or the result of inconsistent policy going back several decades.
Warrant officers were highlighted again in 2002, when a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report looked comprehensively at their functions in the military services. The report concluded in general that their use in all services could be expanded and could be an effective personnel management tool for improved retention and skill matching. And how well does this broad finding apply in today's Navy?
Navy WOs traditionally have served as officer specialists who perform difficult technical duties in specific occupational areas that require both expertise and leadership authority. They formerly were imbedded in the personnel structure of the Navy and went to sea on all ships, providing a core of technical expertise that did not diminish as they advanced in rank. General line officers move quickly into leadership positions as they advance in rank and usually lose detailed technical skills as management duties take over. Warrants typically have successive tours within their specialties. Although their duties are limited in scope compared to other officer categories, repetitive assignments make them more proficient and valuable with each succeeding assignment.
The demise of WOs has not been uniform in all services. A strong case can be made that other services have been more effective than the Navy in their utilization. In other maritime services, for example, WO functions are expanding. More than 4% of Coast Guard personnel are warrants—a large number that can be attributed to the unique history of the Coast Guard and its missions. Many of its WOs are sationkeepers, a role assigned to civilians in charge of lifesaving stations in the pre-Coast Guard Life Saving Service. Warrant officer leadership dominates the Army's maritime program. Its huge fleet ranges from small watercraft and harbor tugs to the 4,199-ton Besson landing support vessel commanded by a WO.
Warrant officers are the only ranks not used in all services. The Air Force has none; the Navy does not have the WO-1 grade and has used WO-5, the highest grade, only since 2002. Each service uses WOs in widely varying roles, and has unique accession and career paths. The Army recruits them directly into its aviation branch and trains them as pilots. Other Army tracks include mid-career entry for operational specialties, including maritime transportation billets.
Officer Structure Boards
Much of the confusion over the proper function of the WO can be traced to several studies of the structure of the naval officer corps following World War II. The Smoot Board of 1951 was one of the first postwar studies of Navy rank structure—specifically, the role of the various classes of officers. World War II had left a legacy of multiple classes of officers, including regular line officers, a large cadre of temporary line officers, and regular and temporary WOs. Concluding there was no role for WOs, the board recommended that accessions be ended and the existing ranks be eliminated through normal retirement. The newly created limited duty officer (LDO) program was deemed to be the appropriate means of commissioning highly qualified enlisted personnel. In 1953, the Grefnell Board again examined naval officer structure, but did not recommend that WOs be eliminated. With only minor recommendations on the structure of the WO corps, it essentially repudiated the Smoot Board's call to eliminate WOs. At the same time, a clear distinction in the roles of warrant officers and LDOs was not specified.
In 1958, the creation of the senior ranks E-8 and E-9 expanded enlisted promotions and reopened the WO controversy. The following year, the Williams Board recommended the Navy follow the Air Force's lead and eliminate WOs together with creation of the senior and master chief petty officer ranks. The Navy moved quickly to implement that recommendation. By 1962, its WO end strength was 2,111, less than half of the 4,953 WOs serving in 1959. In the same period, Navy LDOs increased from 2,463 to 7,084.
In 1963, the Settle Board revisited these issues and found the WO void was detrimental to the Navy. The board rejected the view that the need for WOs had been squeezed out by the senior enlisted ranks and the expanding LDO program of technically proficient junior officer. It deemed that greater technical sophistication of ships required an expansion of the WO program, rather than gradual elimination. The findings included recommendations for:
- Revitalizing the Navy's WO program and concurrently reducing LDOs
- Recognizing WOs rather than the enlisted ranks, as the primary source for the LDO program
- Establishing WO billets on small and large ships—in effect returning them to their roles a century earlier
Much of the confusion over the use of WOs derives from the fundamental debate over LDOs, which, after World War II, evolved from a large cadre of temporary line officers to a permanent and distinct career path. Were the new LDOs to have the same tasks as the temporary line officers who came before them-or were they a separate class of officer? One reason given for the creation of the permanent LDO career designator was to allow for advancement and promotion of those officers without competing directly with general line officers, who typically had much different education and training backgrounds. The Grefnell Board attempted to deal with this ambiguity. It sent a questionnaire to the fleet asking whether the term "limited duty" was appropriate to that class of officers. The answers it received were contradictory. What seemed unanswered was whether the LDO program was created out of a need for career progression of the best enlisted performers or for specialized technical leadership. That confusion has spilled over into the recurring debate on the role of warrant officers even today.
Why Increase WOs?
Broad expansion of technical responsibilities has taken place in the naval officer corps. As junior officers increasingly oversee technical tasks, the role of senior enlisted leaders is diminished—as is the niche for warrants. The result, however, is that many commissioned officers are overburdened and insufficiently attentive to their other duties, including care of their sailors. Warrant officers could reverse this undesirable trend by helping to rebalance leadership and management duties in the fleet. They would not supplant LDOs, who take on more general officer duties as they advance; or duplicate the work of senior enlisted personnel, who assume increasing administrative and leadership duties as they advance. According to the Navy's description of differences among its chief petty officers, WOs, and LDOs, only warrants are tasked with remaining as "technical experts" throughout their careers. Expansion of the WO ranks would enable the Navy to assign them as the core technical leaders afloat and ashore, thereby permitting commissioned officers to focus primarily on warfighting duties.
The CBO report considered several options for an expanded use of warrant officers, including early selection to WO as a recruiting strategy to give top technical performers a path to leadership early in their careers. This would be counter to current Navy policy, which accepts applicants with 12-24 years of service. The alternative is the common pattern of highly trained enlisted personnel failing to reenlist, only to be hired by contractors for similar positions at higher salaries—and higher cost to the Navy. An early career WO track is a small variation on one of the suggestions of the Settle Board, whereby warrants could fill the role of certain civilian "tech reps." Converting some of these positions to uniformed billets would improve integration with the fleet and retain human capital that the Navy has invested much in already.
Retention of the most highly trained sailors is a perpetual issue that affects readiness and personnel costs. The CBO report indicated that, compared to the other services, Navy warrant officers are less likely to retire shortly after reaching 20 years of service. The WO program provides a unique tool for retaining technical expertise that would otherwise be forced out by high-year tenure limitations for enlisted careers or attenuated by assignment to less technical line officer billets.
A stronger, expanded WO corps would permit the Navy to put more of them in essential technical leadership positions and free commissioned line officers for senior leadership tasks—a potential not fully realized today because of rapidly growing technical responsibilities. The recruiting advantages and increased flexibility offered to the officer personnel system would more than compensate for any added costs.
Chief Briem is mobilized and serving with Military Sealift Command Central in Bahrain.