The specialist skills of Warrant Officers have traditionally made them indispensable across the Services, but is this rank and role in a state of emergence? Could there be even more value in this cohort as modern conflicts emerge in brand new domains?
This paper is a perspective. It will likely be met with both agreement and disagreement across the ADF workforce. This may range from those who seek comfort in tradition and certainty, to those who seek adventure in review and change; at the very least, we hope it will inform and inspire thinking. Mostly, this paper is intended to start a conversation, even better a debate, across the Services about how we can get the absolute best from our sagacious, highly valuable and sometimes underestimated Warrant Officer resource.
WOFF K. Robertson and WOFF C. Hill
The value proposition of the Australian Warrant Officer is evolving. A new Senior Enlisted capability is emerging that combines Professional Wisdom, Applied Empathy and a Growth Mindset with a burgeoning form of influence-based leadership that embraces diversity and that can rapidly mobilise a workforce. This evolution of Senior Enlisted leadership is responding to both a changing need in the organisation and a recognition that the future of conflict will increasingly include battle in the social sphere. A sphere where the power of people may be as impactful as the power of weapons and where social cohesion, the intellectual edge and most importantly, persistent democracy will prevail beyond the traditional application of absolute violence.
With a backdrop of a burgeoning social dimension in modern warfare, it will be critical that military leadership evolves beyond the traditional ‘directive’ construct of military ways and into the influence sphere, where social identity theory, credibility, education and human teaming will become the primary currency of successful leadership. This kind of leadership is inextricably linked to education and the investment and upskilling of our enlisted cohort. This needs to begin urgently and start with our Senior Enlisted Leaders—the Warrant Officers.
The sparks of socially based warfare have been evident for decades. In early 2022, the world became unexpected observers of Russia’s President Putin unleashing his frustration with the West, through military might, on a defiant Ukraine. In response, key nation states rapidly moved to hobble Russia with all manner of sanctions as others abstained from involvement, seeking to learn, or benefit, from the opportunities revealed by the unanticipated conflict. All are acutely aware that the dimensions of conflict, from the Clausewitzian maxim of absolute violence to the nuanced Sun Tzu-ian game of social chess, are merging and possibly striking a new balance. The character of war is becoming more complex, more global and infinitely more social-centric.
As the war in Europe unfolds, a broad spectrum of social tactics is being increasingly revealed. These tactics include unparalleled information operations, the fight for control of the narrative through deception and plausible deniability, the harnessing of and capitalising on global sympathy, and the rallying of like-minded nation state solidarity through the application of trade sanctions aimed at breaking morale and weakening the will to fight. In addition, we are witnessing a new style of heavy-handed soft power bordering on coercion, the weaponising of social media and the signalling of ‘which side you’re on’ through provision of military equipment—actions all short of entering the fight. So, what is stopping like-minded nation states from entering fight? Could that answer be socially based? Matthew’s biblical assertion that ‘violence begets violence’ echoes now in a metaphorical sense, as contemporary warfare might well be revealing a new form of socially controlled traditional conflict.
It seems likely that future wars will continue to blur the traditional boundaries of statehood, geography, borders, group belonging and time. The dimensions of battle will probably shift to prioritise social sovereignty and these new wars won’t necessarily be won, long term, through the interplay of violence, dominance and control. We are entering a new era of warfare. A cognitive, socially centric, identity based form of warfare. A type of warfare that will change the dimensions of leadership, favour the intellectual edge and demand a more strategic form of collectivism that bonds human diversity at a level above and beyond traditional social settings. This will be a new frontier in a rapidly diversifying workforce and a challenging prospect for any lone future Commander.
In the modern military environment, there have been claims that the Warrant Officer has lost its way. The authors disagree. We assert that the Warrant Officer is undergoing a transformation driven by a shifting organisational need, a social power revolution and an increasing workforce understanding of the synergising effect and mobilising capability of this rank. Through an exploration of the history of the Warrant Officer and an examination of modern skills, knowledge and experience, this paper will argue that a new value proposition is emerging and that the Warrant Officer is, as yet, an untapped potential with a much greater leadership capability than is currently being realised or utilised.
Enter, the contemporary Warrant Officer.
Evolution of the Western Warrant Officer
‘We should learn from history, not let it teach us.’
The rank of Warrant Officer has both deep roots and an extensive history. The rank is believed to be one of the oldest ranks in Western military systems dating back to medieval England and the burgeoning of organised navies, commanded by noblemen. In this period, the rank was synonymous with technical expertise, experience and influence with the ship’s captain. The Warrant Officer was not, however, commissioned by the monarch and did not meet the officer prerequisite of gentry or being ‘gentlemen’. Nevertheless, these experienced specialists became indispensable to both their captains and the less experienced officers and were rewarded with the special designation of a ‘Warrant’. The rank designation was intended to distinguish these—at the time, men—from regular sailors while not contravening the strict social class system prevalent at the time. 
The earliest indications of the Western Army Warrant Officer can be traced back to the French Army and Napoleon Bonaparte in late 1700 CE. Napoleon is believed to have utilised soldiers with this rank as his key communicators between commissioned officers and rank and file. In the United States, the first recorded Navy ‘Warrant’ was issued to a man called John Beriman on 23 December 1775. The rank was appointed by the Naval Committee and gave John Beriman full power to execute the Office of Boatswain or Deck Boss, ‘agreeable to the rules and regulations of the sea service, and such orders as you may receive from your superior officers’. Through the 1800s, the roles of the Naval Warrant Officers grew beyond the permanent ship roles of boatswain, gunner and carpenter to include navigators, surgeons, chaplains and pursers. Captains were also permitted to grant lower grade Warrants for the master-at-arms, sailmaker, caulker, armourer, rope-maker and cook. All were tradesmen, all were vital to the functioning of a warship and all were technical specialists. 
In the British Army, the introduction of the Warrant Officer rank can be traced to 1879 when appointment by Warrant was introduced, not only to identify technical specialists but to recognise those viewed as indispensable to the ‘integrity and consistency of discipline and training within the Army’. In the US Army, the rank first appeared in 1901, however, the official birthday of the US Army Warrant Officer is recorded as 09 July 1918, when the rank was formalised, through an act of Congress, for the new Army Mine Planter Service Warrant Officer corps of the Coast Artillery Corps at Fort Monroe.
Of note, the first two female US Army Warrant Officers were appointed in 1926. Their names were Jen Doble and Olive Hoskins. Both were field clerks with 20 years of Army service and both were likely to have been subject matter experts. Unfortunately, after they retired, it would be over a decade before any further female Warrant Officers were appointed. 
In the US Air Force, the rank began as a legacy from the Army’s Aviation Warrant Officer. Prior to becoming an independent Air Force, the Army Air Corps included enlisted pilots called ‘Flying Sergeants’ who were promoted to Staff Sergeant upon receipt of their wings. As World War II progressed, however, concerns began to emerge about authority lines becoming blurred through the intermixing of enlisted and commissioned aircrew. This potentially placed commissioned officers in positions where they may be taking orders from an enlisted pilot and, as a consequence, the rank of ‘Flight Officer’ was created.
The Flight Officer rank was paid as a Warrant Officer, and while it nicely solved the problem of tension between authority and the class system, the rank did not survive beyond World War II. The US Air Force did inherit the rank of Warrant Officer when it gained independence from Army, but subsequently saw no use for the rank and phased it out. Interestingly, the US re-established the Warrant Officer rank in 1949 and began employing its Warrants as helicopter pilots in 1951. This practice continues today. An example of such a pilot was Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr who intervened in the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War, when a group of rogue US soldiers began killing civilians.
While the majority of Commonwealth countries draw their military heritage from the British, many global militaries operate an enlisted rank structure for which the highest rank can range from Master Sergeant to Sergeant Major to Warrant Officer. In addition, a number of global militaries operate an internal enlisted structure in which the highest enlisted rank can have different roles, ie the Warrant Officer could be a technical specialist or a morale and discipline specialist. Singapore, for example, has six levels of Warrant Officer with varied but predominantly technical roles, while Russia has only one. Similarly, the most senior enlisted rank in the Indonesia Armed Forces is the ‘Sersan mayor’, while Papua New Guinea has the Warrant Officer Class 1 across all three services. Finally, in the US, the enlisted ranks top out at Sergeant Major, Master Chief or Master Sergeant, and the Warrant Officer is included in the commissioned ranks.
In Australia, the rank of Warrant Officer was extremely rare in the early days of the Australian Navy and Army. In the Army, the rank was predominantly seen in the Australian Instructional Corps. This posting was considered to be the pinnacle of a Warrant Officer’s career and where the rank was both respected and revered by all other ranks. During the inter-war period, these Army Warrant Officers conducted the bulk of the force training and force administration and were considered the backbone of the small Australian force. It is in these early Australian stories that the first hints of a more nuanced use of the Warrant Officer rank are observed.
The first reference to the rank of Warrant Officer in the Australian Air Force appears in Air Ministry Order A. 426 of 1928. The order sought to replace the legacy Army rank of Sergeant Major with the rank of Warrant Officer to enable broader promotion of Air Force senior enlisted specialists across different trades. The Air Board approved the use of the term in 1936, and in 1937 Air Force Regulation 553 was amended to reflect the change. Authority to introduce the rank of Warrant Officer to the Air Force was finally granted by the Minister in 1939 and thus the journey of the Australian Air Force Warrant Officer began.
To date, the most modern Western iteration of the Warrant Officer has been the US Space Warrant Officer. Between 24 November and 01 December 1991, Thomas J Hennen was struck into the history books as the first Warrant Officer Astronaut. Hennen was deployed on NASA’s Orbiter Atlantis as a Payload Specialist and completed 109 orbits of the Earth. While this event was highly progressive in terms of challenging the class-lock of the enlisted cohort, it was also a return to the past where the rank was defined by its highly technical, highly specialised and highly experienced nature.
The Contemporary Australian Warrant Officer – Value Proposition
As demonstrated by the brief history above, the rank and role of the Warrant Officer has through time been a revolving door of redefinition, always returning to the ‘last known good’ of technical specialist with demonstrable commitment to service and the wisdom of time and experience. Little consideration, however, has been given to the social influence and workforce mobilisation potential of this capability. Warrant Officers possess not only skills gained from achieving the pinnacle of technical mastery but the credibility of the lived enlisted journey and the respect that comes from being a Commanders loyal and trusted advisor. The Warrant Officer, then, occupies the ‘space between enlisted personnel and commissioned officers, blurring the lines between both’ and ensures that each understands and has a voice to the other.
These unique social skills prime the contemporary Warrant Officer as a key influencer, communicator, truth-teller and harmoniser. As the enlisted progress through the ranks, technical expertise evolves into operational acumen then strategic understanding. Combine this social identity with credibility, custodianship of military tradition and mastery of Service Values and Behaviours and a potent ‘influencer’ emerges. Add this capability to a teaming mindset in a Command or Executive team and a powerful leadership synergy occurs, a leadership synergy with the representation, credibility and influence to cohere and mobilise a diverse workforce against even a difficult organisational mission set or goal. A leadership synergy fit for a burgeoning social character of war.
The voice of the enlisted
First and foremost, the contemporary Warrant Officer is the voice of the Enlisted. While Warrant Officers are rarely the authors of policy, they are significant influencers. Matters of welfare, inclusion, equality, fairness and entitlement are typically raised, argued and doggedly pursued by the Warrant Officer on behalf of the workforce. These battles are often fought without flare or fanfare, and can be thankless tasks that often go unnoticed by the wider workforce. These battles continue regardless, and by walking with one foot in both the worlds - Enlisted and Officer - the contemporary Warrant Officer becomes an expert in managing the fragile balance of trust through fluency in both languages.
The Senior Enlisted Leader has traditionally held responsibility for advocating, if not providing, professional and personal development of both the enlisted and junior officer. Over time this role has seen a significant transferral onto established training systems. The contemporary Warrant Officer has never been more perfectly positioned to guide, contribute to and facilitate ongoing professional development of the enlisted and junior officer cohorts. As detailed in the early Australian Army Warrant Officer history above, the training and development role heralded this responsibility as an absolute duty that the ‘respected and revered’ Warrant Officer at the ‘pinnacle’ of their career should give back to the workforce. It is highly likely that this early role and function provided a significant contribution to the success and preservation of Australian forces in the South West Pacific during World War II. One of the key pillars of military adaptation is the strength of its training institutions—a reimagining of how the contemporary Warrant Officer can value add to this function, in the contemporary context, is ripe for conversation.
‘The contemporary Warrant Officer commands nothing but influences everything’
The contemporary Warrant Officer is the practical application of Command Intent. No longer simply the technical specialist with experience and commitment, the contemporary Warrant Officer has emerged as an influence practitioner versed in mobilising an increasingly diverse workforce. Through engagement with the Joint Professional Military Education Continuum, the contemporary Warrant Officer will become more fluent in the strategic environment. Couple this with existing operational acumen and the Warrant Officer becomes an excellent and unique fount of knowledge, experience and workforce understanding and influence, from which a Commander can achieve higher quality and more effective command decisions.
‘A Commander enters the room and the environment changes immediately. The Warrant Officer is the environment, the eyes and ears, the seeker of the truth and the illuminator of blind spots for the Commander.’
The contemporary Warrant Officer is a Commander’s primary communications broker who provides context and clarity on workforce issues to the Commander while translating and operationalising a Commander’s intent to the workforce. The contemporary Warrant Officer communicates through the courage of their convictions and imbues the trust necessary to accurately gauge the morale and welfare of the workforce. As a communications broker, the contemporary Warrant Officer is afforded the privilege of frank and fearless conversations up, down and across the Chain of Command. While the contemporary Warrant Officer understands that they are not the decision makers and do not have Command Authority, they are trusted insiders and experienced advisers who steward inclusivity, honesty and the enlisted context in support of command and organisational decision making.
‘In this age, I don’t care how tactically or operationally brilliant you are, if you cannot create harmony—even vicious harmony—on the battlefield based on trust across service lines, across coalition and national lines and across civilian/military lines, you need to go home, because your leadership is obsolete.’
General James Mattis
The contemporary Warrant Officer is a highly effective team builder who is well versed in Defence Values and Behaviours and matters of ethical leadership, morale and workforce wellbeing. Through service experience and their military education learning journey, the contemporary Warrant Officer will hold a functional understanding of the Joint, Interdepartmental and Multinational environments and the situational leadership skills necessary to harness and harmonise a diverse workplace. Workplace culture—values and behaviours—are a crucial foundation for the psychological safety, morale and harmony of any organisation that relies on human performance to achieve its goal. The contemporary Warrant Officer is the exemplar of values and behaviours, the guardian of tradition and discipline, and often a traveller of the journey from ego to humility and all the stops along the way. Through experience, the contemporary Warrant Officer is a key adviser in the art of building—and at times adjusting—organisational culture.
The contemporary Warrant Officer is also emerging in a new capacity in the welfare space. The emotionally intelligent and socially adept Warrant Officer has long provided welfare support to those in crisis. Command and being a Commander can be as lonely as being the ‘digger’ in a world of trouble and the contemporary Warrant Officer is rapidly filling that lonely space with the new role of ‘objective companion’, a concept of professional companionship that seeks to ensure the welfare of a Commander or Executive Team for the purpose of achieving higher work performance.
The objective companion is a synergy of trust and social skills that include the experience to observe and identify welfare anomalies, being a trusted insider and having the privilege and access for open and honest conversation. The contemporary Warrant Officer is emerging in this sophisticated support role, providing a welfare pulse check to ensure the Commander and their Executives are feeling and functioning at the top of their game. In a social-centric Defence future, this role will become critical for successful Mission Command and excellence in decision making.
The Future is Now
The nuances of an emerging capability were evident in the early stories of the Warrant Officer’s role. In an attempt to avoid the revolving door of technical specialist, the Warrant Officer is undergoing a metamorphosis, a slow evolution from a highly prized but limited and outmoded role to generalist culture practitioner with the experience, knowledge and influence to both assure and mobilise a highly technical, highly diverse workforce. There is a growing recognition that the contemporary Warrant Officer is an untapped potential for potent force multiplication. Recognition that reaching the rank may not be the end of the journey but the beginning of a new journey, a more strategic leadership journey.
As contemporary Warrant Officers embrace a culture of career-long learning and seize the reins of organisational culture, they will forge a modern identity that will bring sophistication to the role and offer an even greater value proposition to Defence. This evolution will prime the contemporary Warrant Officer for a changing character of war and see them emerge as a powerful leadership asset to the ADF at all workforce levels.
Enter, the contemporary Warrant Officer.
Ken Robertson, OAM, is the Warrant Officer Joint Operations (WOJOPS) at Joint Operations Command with responsibility to Commander Joint Operations as the Command Senior Enlisted Leader. He has served in a range of operational and training E-9 appointments including multiple overseas deployments to Afghanistan and the Middle East region. Twitter: @WOJOPS_Aust
Tina (Christine) Hill is currently the Warrant Officer, Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) at the Australian Defence College with responsibility for Enlisted JPME including acting as Directing Staff on the Joint Warrant Officer Course. Warrant Officer Hill has served on deployment in Afghanistan, completed Australian Command and Staff Course and served as the Group Warrant Officer for Air Force Training Group.
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27 Phillips, A 2000, Darwin’s Worms: On Life Stories and Death Stories, Reprint Edition, Basic Books, New York, NY.
29 ‘Objective companion’ or ‘objective companionship’ refers to the concept of professional companionship that emerges between the Commander and the Warrant Officer as a consequence of spending significant amounts of time together. The companionship is objective because it relates to observable behaviour and is purposefully devoid of emotion or personal prejudice. In a Command Team, the ‘objective companion’ seeks to ensure the welfare of the other for the purpose of achieving the greater good such as successful work performance, mission command or excellence in decision making.