BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa — Armies worldwide are working to redefine the roles of noncommissioned officers. Senior NCO leaders from around the globe are discussing and debating such issues here this week.
Representatives from about 20 countries are attending the International Warrant Officers Conference Feb. 6-10 at Tempe Military Base here. Many nations use the term "warrant officer" to describe senior NCOs, roughly equivalent to grades E-7 to E-9 in U.S. military services.
Canadian Air Force Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Gilbert explained Feb. 6 that the role of senior NCOs is evolving from strictly tactical applications into the strategic level in Canada's forces. For example, NCOs are now being called on to provide input into strategic planning and policy development, he said.
"NCOs are all about leading people," he said. "But senior NCOs are beginning to be partners in leading the institution."
He pointed to the U.S. Defense Department's recent appointment of Army Command Sgt. Maj. William Gainey as senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as an example of militaries relying more on the judgment of and advice from top enlisted troops. Gainey advises JCS Chairman Marine Gen. Peter Pace on a variety of issues.
Gilbert said he believes NCOs' well-earned "reputation as professionals, experts, doers and achievers" is bringing about a change from "problem solvers to problem seekers."
"The traditional role of the officer planning and the noncommissioned officer executing is evolving," he said.
South African Warrant Officer 1 Dick Walker, warrant officer of the joint support division of the South African National Defense Force, said he believes today's senior NCOs are "stuck somewhere between the traditional role and where we will be in the future."
He noted different competencies are called for in NCOs operating on the tactical level and those performing duties at the strategic level. The challenge facing modern armies is to bridge the gap and to develop and train to those new competencies.
Not all representatives at the conference agreed that NCO roles are changing to the same degree.
"Do we want 'mission creep' into the officer side of things?" Warrant Officer Class 1 Kevin Vann, regimental sergeant major of Australia's Land Command, asked Feb. 6. "Are we talking about planning day-to-day operations in the barracks, or are we talking of planning strategic operations?"
In a presentation to the conference Feb. 7, Vann explained the Australian army teaches senior NCOs to have operational awareness and to interpret and issue orders as necessary within their duties. "But we are not training our [senior NCOs] to be budding generals," he said.
Gilbert said NCOs are not taking over strategic planning from the officer corps but are providing valuable input to the process.
"We have to tap into all our intellectual assets," he said. "We're all doing more with less all the time."
Gainey explained that the U.S. military works to teach strategic awareness to enlisted leaders at all levels, beginning with corporals.
"Strategic is understanding the overview of what everyone needs to do, not just their part," he said.
Recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular, are helping junior leaders understand their role from a strategic standpoint, he said. In modern combat operations, junior mid-grade NCOs are commanding missions and must have operational awareness of how their part of the mission fits into an overall operation.
Army Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Bartelle, senior enlisted leader for U.S. European Command, said he believes this shift is part of an evolution of roles within U.S. forces. Bartelle and Gainey are representing the United States at the conference.
"Considering we're going more toward a technologically based military, we've got less personnel, we've got more responsibilities given to personnel at much [more] junior levels," he said. "So we're provided with more of an opportunity to be more of a strategic partner with our bosses to ensure mission accomplishment."
Bartelle described it as another aspect of transformation.
"Transformation is not just equipment," he said. "It's the way we conduct business; it's doctrinal. We have to make sure that we provide the right doctrine approach in the production of our senior noncommissioned officers to make sure that they're prepared for higher positions."