Small Wars Journal

Why the American Army Should Increase its Warrant Officers

Mon, 02/04/2019 - 1:58am

Why the American Army Should Increase its Warrant Officers

Michael Gladius

Warrant officers exist primarily for highly-specialized, technical roles in the US Military. As the Army modernizes, however, their role ought to increase beyond simple numeric expansion. Enhancing the role of warrant officers at the expense of commissioned officers will cement America’s existing advantages and improve our leadership hierarchy and command system.

An American Way of War

The American way of war was first established during the Civil War. By 1865, the Union had become skilled at power projection over continental distances (the distance between Washington DC and New Orleans is around 1000 miles, similar to the distance between Berlin and Moscow), using modern logistics to sustain their armies. While the Eastern Theater was famous for its battles, campaigns in the Western Theater targeted the Confederacy’s resource-rich heartland: Grant seized half of the Confederacy’s iron-producing facilities during 1862 in Tennessee, cut the Mississippi River at Vicksburg in 1863, and then sent Sherman to capture Atlanta, a critical rail hub and industrial city, in 1864. These strategic victories crippled the Confederacy’s ability to fight, and by the end of the war leadership on both sides was evenly matched. Junior officers on both sides were regularly encouraged to take the initiative down to the company level, and politically-connected generals were removed. Under both Grant and Lee, command became more and more decentralized.

This tradition continues to today. America not only can project power across the globe but regards the ability to fight two wars simultaneously as a baseline. Since most of America’s competitors and adversaries are located outside of our hemisphere, virtually all American wars are fought by Expeditionary Forces; this in turn requires a greater emphasis on logistics. Our army is technologically cutting-edge, and since warrant officers are technical specialists, it is only natural to assume that their role would increase as the military modernizes. Likewise, logistics requires a large number of specialists and technicians, and their proportion of warrant officers can also be expected to increase.

The exception to this tradition is in the Army’s centralized command structure. During America’s pre-WWII expansion, the Army took inspiration from industry, which was hierarchical, centralized, and relied on scientific (micro)management. This made sense at the time, as the army was being built from scratch, but re-decentralization did not occur over the following decades. An attempt was made in the 1980s by the military reform movement to decentralize command, but this has not yet been fully realized. A large part of this is due to the Army’s large logistical footprint: logistics and combat units require different forms of leadership. If the proportion of officers to enlisted is identical in both combat and logistical units, then having more logistical than combat units will produce a higher percentage of officers who never see combat. Assume equal opportunity for promotion, and leaders like General Mattis will always be the minority.

The military reform movement in the 1980s frequently cited the German Army of WWII as an ideal army with a decentralized command and an almost one-dimensional emphasis on mobility and maneuvers. However, the German Army had poor logistics, and could barely support its armies in Russia and North Africa. The Germans also placed logistics, administration, and support units largely under the control of enlisted and NCOs, which meant that their best and brightest had no incentive to join or stay.[i]

The Warrant Officer Solution

If the American Army replaced commissioned officers with warrant officers in non-combat units, then both problems would be resolved with a change of hats. Nobody would be fired: existing commissioned officers would be demoted as appropriate, and they would carry their authority down with them. For gifted leaders, offers of commissions can be retained as a reward and/or incentive on a case-by-case basis. Since warrant officers outrank all enlisted, there will be some level of prestige still left in these non-combat leadership roles. Warrant officers are perfect for career-minded soldiers, and particularly careerists, who overwhelmingly flock to high-ranking positions in logistics and administration.

Based on psychology, we know that careerists and career-minded soldiers overwhelmingly have the Meyers-Briggs Personalities ISTJ/ESTJ.[ii] These personalities are associated with in-group loyalty (i.e., building cohesive teams through mutual trust), strict accountability, by-the-book behavior, and skill with checklists. Men with these personality traits overwhelmingly prefer to deal with the concrete, rather than the abstract. As a result, the best place for them is almost always on the front line, where they can lead from the front or directly support those who do. This may initially seem counterintuitive, but even men who prefer to follow the book will be able to see firsthand when to follow it and when to disregard it (i.e., disciplined initiative and prudent risk) if they are leading from the front. Keeping these men in lower ranks also prevents micromanagement, especially from the rear. Higher-ranking officers, as per mission orders, ought to be concerned with the ends, rather than the means (unless the means contradict the desired end, at which point they must intervene). Men who love checklists are generally the wrong man for the job. By that same logic, junior officers entrusted with decision-making on-site are more concerned with the means and their details. This position is therefore more suitable. Lastly, these career soldiers are the ones who stay with the Army when there is no war to fight and the adventure-seekers go elsewhere. Keeping these men in front-line positions is better than placing them behind desks. Placing warrant officers in charge of non-combat units (and reducing personnel rotations) will effectively turn careerists from a liability into an asset.

With a higher demand for warrant officers, and a correspondingly lower demand for commissioned officers, the Army can afford to be more selective when promoting men to higher commands. In order to effectively decentralize America’s command system, the Army needs a strong cadre of lower-ranking officers/NCOs with lots of experience. The army can incentivize its personnel to remain in the lower ranks by separating rank and pay grade. Under the current system, soldiers are promoted or fired at regular intervals; rank and pay grade are one and the same. This has the advantage of regularly cleaning house and establishing seniority but can also lead to a conveyer-belt approach to leadership training.

A better system would be to separate rank and pay grade, and to offer soldiers, at each interval, a choice of gaining one or the other. Soldiers who remain at the same rank will be paid more and acquire seniority, while those who rise through the ranks will reset to O-1/W-1/E-1 pay each time they enter a new rank. The benefits of seniority are thus retained, but only between men with similar rank and responsibilities. Men who are in it for the money will be disincentivized from rising through the ranks, and men who aspire to high ranks must sacrifice their pay for many years, while also being subjected to more rigorous selection.


Warrant officers are more suitable to lead non-combat positions than commissioned officers. They are beneficial to career soldiers, encourage decentralization and discourage micromanagement, and the necessary reforms are easy to implement. Commissioned officers would benefit by the reduction in their numbers, and their renewed focus on combat. Lastly, this move would perfectly match Army tradition: America’s first warrant officers, introduced in 1896, were none other than the Army’s clerks.

End Notes

[i] Martin Van Creveld describes the institutional organization of both German and American Armies in his 1982 book ‘Fighting Power’

[ii] Dr. David Keirsey’s work in this field is an excellent resource:


Categories: US Army

About the Author(s)

Michael Gladius is the pseudonym for a budding commentator in the fields of military history and theory. His goal is to blend the lessons of history, principles of human behavior, and practical wisdom in order to draw upon a wide array of factors for optimized solutions and problem-solving. He is currently studying in Europe.