Janet Wolfenbarger, Air Force’s First Female Four Star, Takes Material Command

In March, Janet Wolfenbarger became the first female four-star general in Air Force history. Now, she's assumed command of all Air Force weapons programs.

In March, Janet Wolfenbarger became the first female four-star general in Air Force history. Now, she’s assumed command of all Air Force weapons programs.

Business Insider (“The Future Of All Air Force Weapons Programs Are Now Under The Command Of This One Woman“):

Meet the woman responsible for making sure all of the Air Force’s weapons are ready for war.

General Janet Wolfenbarger is blowing away any hint of the military’s fabled glass ceiling.

First, she became the first female four-star general in Air Force history.

Now she’s taken the top position of Air Force Material Command (AFMC), which has one simple vision: “War-winning capabilities — on time, on cost.”

In addition to an impressive list of past positions — such as directing the B-2 bomber program and monitoring the F-22 Raptor — she has a graduate degree from MIT in aeronautics and astronautics.

A bit more of her background from the Air Force’s official site from back in March (“First Air Force female four-star general confirmed“):

The Senate confirmed Air Force Lt. Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger for promotion March 26, making her the first female four-star general in Air Force history.

Wolfenbarger currently serves as the military deputy in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition here and she is one of four female lieutenant generals in the Air Force.

“This is an historic occasion for the Air Force,” said Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley. “General Wolfenbarger’s 32 years of service, highlighted by extraordinary leadership and devotion to duty, make her exceptionally qualified for this senior position and to serve as the next commander of Air Force Materiel Command.”

“I am honored to have been confirmed by the Senate for promotion to the rank of General and to serve as commander of Air Force Materiel Command. Until I take command of AFMC, I will continue to focus on the important Air Force acquisition work here at the Pentagon,” said Wolfenbarger.

Wolfenbarger, a native of Beavercreek, Ohio, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1980 after graduating in the first class with female cadets at the Air Force Academy.

She also holds a graduate degree in aeronautics and astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.

The general has held several positions in the F-22 System Program Office at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio; served as the F-22 lead program element monitor at the Pentagon, and was the B-2 System program director for the Aeronautical Systems Center, Wright-Patterson AFB.

She commanded ASC’s C-17 Systems Group, Mobility Systems Wing and was the service’s director of the Air Force Acquisition Center of Excellence at the Pentagon, then served as director of the Headquarters AFMC Intelligence and Requirements Directorate, Wright-Patterson AFB.  Prior to her current assignment, Wolfenbarger was the vice commander of Air Force Materiel Command, Wright-Patterson AFB.

Obviously, a very impressive career. What jumped out at me, though, is that she was commissioned in 1980. That’s eight years before me. My cohorts that remain in the Army are all bird colonels.  Making four-star rank after a mere 32 years is meteoric; doing so as a support officer is virtually unheard of.

Her Wikipedia entry, which I presume is based on some official bio somewhere, lists her assignment and promotion history:

US-O10 insignia.svg General March 26, 2012
US-O9 insignia.svg Lieutenant General December 3, 2009
US-O8 insignia.svg Major General June 26, 2009
US-O7 insignia.svg Brigadier General February 1, 2006
US-O6 insignia.svg Colonel September 1, 1998
US-O5 insignia.svg Lieutenant Colonel June 1, 1993
US-O4 insignia.svg Major January 1, 1990
US-O3 insignia.svg Captain May 28, 1984
US-O2 insignia.svg First Lieutenant May 28, 1982
US-O1 insignia.svg Second Lieutenant May 28, 1980

She made lieutenant colonel thirteen years out of the academy?! In a peacetime Air Force?! That’s absurdly fast; it was customary in the late 1980s for it to take twelve years to pin on major. Even with a couple of below-the-zone promotions, that’s some achievement. Her promotions then slowed to a more normal pace, pinning on her first star a little less than 26 years into her career. But then another star in 3 years and yet another less than 6 months later!

Again, I have no reason to think she’s anything other than a superstar. Being part of that trailblazing class in 1980 sure as hell wasn’t easy. And she’s got a masters in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT, so I assume she’s smart as hell. Still, four-star generals aren’t exactly a weak peer group. How did she rise through the ranks so fast as a non-rated officer?

Even Ann Dunwoody, the Army’s first woman four-star–and, indeed, the first female four-star in US military history–took 33 years. Interestingly, she had the equivalent position, commanding the Army Material Command.

For comparison, Colin Powell–whose rise was also unusually fast–took 31 years to reach four-star rank. But he was an infantry officer who jumped through the early ranks at a rapid clip during the Vietnam War. Martin Dempsey, the current Chairman, took 34 years. But, again, he was a combat arms officer.

FILED UNDER: Gender Issues, Military Affairs, Quick Takes
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    That should read “First FEMALE Four Star General.”

    It would appear she made O-3 two years below the zone, which is a sign of an up and coming superstar. Didn’t hurt that she’s a Zoomie.

    I worked with the current Army G-2 when she was a major 16 years ago. Now she’s a 3 star.

    Man, I’m getting too old.

  2. superdestroyer says:

    What is amazing is the very early promotion to lt col when the air force was downsizing. I wonder how many other officers were forced out of the Air Force in order to help the fast risers.

    Logistics is the one place where a four star billet exists and that women can be given all of the positions.

  3. DC Loser says:

    No kidding. I was one of those ‘forced out’ during that time when the first post-Cold War cuts came. Not that I regretted it and I took the money and ran.

  4. DC Loser says:

    The Space Operations area is one of the other areas there were opened to women in that 80s. Missile operations were opened to women in the late 80s. Now pretty much all operational slots are opened to females.

  5. legion says:

    It’s not too ridiculous for the times… Some time back (early 2000s?) the AF flatly eliminated below-the-zone promotions to Major specifically because they were getting too many people who fast-tracked like this… once you’ve got a BTZ slot, you tend to get looked at for the same at future ranks, so if you pin on O-4 at 7 or 8 years instead of 10, you often pinned on LTC around 11, and then you get a crop of bird Colonels who only have 15-16 years’ in, and that’s just not enough experience to do an O-6 job, no matter how good you basic skills are.

  6. speakyourmind says:

    Oh for heaven’s sake, just say it James, you think she rose so fast because she’s a woman, and it’s all the PC-brigade at work, and the woman obviously doesn’t deserve it. Especially because she was never in a combat unit (but hey, you don’t think woman should be in combat unit anyway, so sucks for them). All this “oh I wonder” bla bla bla is not fooling anyone.

  7. speakyourmind says:

    @superdestroyer: You mean how many men were forced out to cater for all those undeserving women, right? You guys are not fooling anyone here, just say what you actually think. The bitterness and jealousy is shining through clearly for everyone to see anyway, just SAY IT.

  8. Scott says:

    @DC Loser: Four years to Capt (O-3) is standard and almost automatic. It wasn’t two years below the zone. Promotion to major (O-4) is about 1 or two below the zone. Here is the official biography: http://www.af.mil/information/bios/bio.asp?bioID=8209

  9. DC Loser says:

    @Scott – It was a typo. I meant to O-4. There is no BTZ promotion to O-3.

    @speakyourmind – I didn’t get the impression they were saying that because she’s a woman. I was coming up on O-4 at that time and it was the rare bird that got a two year BTZ when everybody else was scrambling to just keep their jobs during the drawdown, man or woman.

  10. James Joyner says:

    @speakyourmind: @DC Loser: No, I’m honestly saying that it’s an unusually fast track, especially for a logistician. She made four-star rank faster than the frigging Chairman of the Joint Chiefs!

    Do I think she got special consideration because she’s a woman? Possibly. Three years ago, there had never been a female four-star. Now, we’ve had two. And it took making the Material Commands four-star slots, apparently.

    On the other hand, there’s no evidence of which I’m aware that the military is fast tracking women generally. Trying to ensure women get promoted in comparable numbers as men? Sure. But not at faster rates.

    His being black doubtless helped Colin Powell back in the day. He was an unusually junior four-star when he got selected for CJCS. But his rise wasn’t otherwise unusually speedy when one considers the zippy promotions for combat arms officers who survived Vietnam. He cut several years off at the front end–making major and lieutenant colonel early–and then progressed at a normal rate for an outstanding officer.

    But, again, the current CJCS took 34 years to pin on his fourth star. This woman beat him by three years, while in a path usually not conducive to fast promotion.

  11. John D'Geek says:

    @James Joyner: @Scott: When I was in ROTC (late 80’s), Major was “standard” at 8 years (they wanted to keep their Pilots in as long as possible). Light Colonel was “before 20″ (20-Yr Majors were forced out — sorry,”retired”); typically not before 16.

    Her early O-4, combined with her “Air Force Academy” heritage — was definitely what rocketed her. Notice that her O-5 was at 13 years — which is “about right” relative to when she got Major. Once you hit “Colonel”, all bets were off. The first star was the hardest to pin on; after that, things got faster.

    Oh, and it’s been said but — Air Force Academy. That got you fast promotions right there. ROTC was definitely considered “one notch lower”, sorta “second class military”. It was a very well known AF cultural bias (which I seriously doubt has changed much).

  12. Tillman says:


    The bitterness and jealousy is shining through clearly for everyone to see anyway, just SAY IT.

    That she’s a woman probably played some part in it, yes, but guessing by the comparisons to Colin Powell and Martin Dempsey, I think it has to do more with that MIT degree and past performance. Or maybe I’m just falling for a signaling trap, but then again, I’m not the one promoting her.

  13. Richard Gardner says:

    When I saw this I decided to compare it to the USAF fast-track I am aware of, the late MGEN Robert Linhard (died of a heart attack in 1996 at 49). As a MGEN he was being spoken of as possibly the first non-pilot CSAF (he was a missileer). I attended several meetings @ Stratcom where he was present and he was very much big picture and clear (I was in the audience, not a participant – and Navy, not USAF). The man was brilliant, and served as a (personal) adviser to President Reagan on Nuclear Arms Control (probably knew all the background on what really happened at Reykjavik and involved in all of it – massive policy wonk). I worked with USAF folks who had worked for him and I never heard a bad word about him from them. It was a shock to the USAF (missile community particularly) when he died.

    Second Lieutenant Apr 23, 1969 (had a Masters already so next promotion was automatically a year early early)
    First Lieutenant Jun 5, 1970
    Captain Dec 5, 1971
    Major May 1, 1977
    Lieutenant Colonel Dec 1, 1979
    Colonel Oct 1, 1982 [Basically making O-6 in 13-14 years]
    Brigadier General Sep 1, 1989 – Yes, 20 year point [I’ll leave it to someone else to tell that story, Presidential involvement, wouldn’t have happened for another couple of years otherwise, but would have happened regardless, big USAF pissed off]
    Major General Jul 2, 1992

    I can’t compare General Wolfenberger’s abilities to Linhard as I’ve never heard of her before. But the USAF has had a fast-track promotion policy – though the early promoted usually languish until their peers catch up.