What Is a Brigadier? And as a GPS User, Why Do I Care?

January 22, 2015  - By
Col. William Cooley, Director, U.S.A.F. Global Positioning Systems Directorate.

Col. William Cooley, Director, U.S.A.F. Global Positioning Systems Directorate.

This is the story we ran in GPS World magazine just moments after the announcement was made that Colonel William Cooley, Ph.D., director of the GPS Directorate, was nominated by President Obama to the U.S. Senate for appointment to the rank of Brigadier General in the United States Air Force (USAF).

Colonel William Cooley, director of the Global Positioning Systems Directorate, has been nominated by President Obama to the Senate for appointment to the rank of brigadier general, United States Air Force, according to an announcement by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. He is the first SPO director in many years to be nominated for general officer rank, according to Don Jewell, GPS World’s contributing editor for defense.

Cooley is currently serving as senior materiel leader and director, Global Positioning Systems Directorate, Air Force Space Command, Los Angeles Air Force Base, California.

“This is a great accomplishment for Bill and for the GPS community,” Jewell said. “We are all certainly very proud of him and his accomplishments and his unflagging support for the PNT community globally.”

“This nomination is an outstanding achievement as it clearly demonstrates continued senior leadership confidence in his ability to lead the men and women in our Air Force. We have been privileged to see that for ourselves here at SMC,” said Samuel A. Greaves, Lieutenant General, USAF, Commander, Space and Missile System Center.

Col. Cooley authored GPS World’s Directions 2015 article on the outlook for GPS in our December issue,What It Takes to Make a Gold Standard.”

So What?

For those of us who have spent our lives as military “brats” and/or as members of the U.S. military, announcements such as this are certainly great news, but we tend to take them in stride, as this is the way promotions to the General Officer ranks have always been announced. However, shortly after this short article appeared, I received numerous emails that, after extending congratulations to Colonel Cooley, tended to fall into specific categories:

  1. So what? Why should I care?
  2. Obviously promotions are a good thing, but why is this one so important?
  3. What is a brigadier general anyway?
  4. The Air Force does not have brigades, so how can he be a brigadier general?
  5. How many different kinds of generals are there, and where does a brigadier general place if you put them in order?

Our editor-in-chief, Alan Cameron, had some of the same questions asked of him, so we thought we would briefly put this announcement in perspective for those of you not steeped in military history and lore. I will concentrate on the USAF, United States Air Force, as this is most pertinent to our discussion concerning Colonel Cooley. I will add links to rank charts and explanations for the other services as well. I will concentrate on the officer ranks for the purpose of this article. Plus, I will highlight Colonel Cooley’s career as an officer in order to make it more personal and easier to relate.

If you are one of those civilians who do not understand the military hierarchy, especially the rank structure, do not feel alone. It was revealed just a few days ago that in our new Congress, only 20 senators (20%) and 89 representatives (20.5%) are veterans, according to the authoritative Vital Statistics on Congress, published by The Brookings Institution. That is down from more than 77% in both houses of Congress after WWII and more than 75% in 1975 toward the end of the Vietnam War. How times have changed.

United States Air Force (USAF) Rank Structure

U.S. Air Force Ranks — Enlisted and Officer, from Lowest to Highest
Pay Grade Rank Abbreviation Classification
E-1 Airman Basic AB Enlisted Airman
E-2 Airman Amn Enlisted Airman
E-3 Airman First Class A1C Enlisted Airman
E-4 Senior Airman SrA Enlisted Airman
E-5 Staff Sergeant SSgt Noncommissioned Officer
E-6 Technical Sergeant TSgt Noncommissioned Officer
E-7 Master Sergeant MSgt Noncommissioned Officer
E-8 Senior Master Sergeant SMSgt Noncommissioned Officer
E-9 Chief Master Sergeant CMSgt Noncommissioned Officer
E-9 Command Chief Master Sergeant CCM Noncommissioned Officer
E-9 Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force CMSAF Noncommissioned Officer (Special)
O-1 Second Lieutenant 2d Lt Commissioned Officer
O-2 First Lieutenant 1st L Commissioned Officer
O-3 Captain Capt Commissioned Officer
O-4 Major Maj Field Officer
O-5 Lieutenant Colonel Lt Co Field Officer
O-6 Colonel Col Field Officer
O-7 Brigadier General Brig General Officer
O-8 Major General Maj G General Officer
O-9 Lieutenant General Lt Ge General Officer
O-10 General Gen General Officer
O-10 General of the Air Force GAF General Officer


The USAF officer rank structure is similar for all the services, except that the USAF no longer has warrant officers. Please allow me to answer upfront the most frequent question from audiences where I am asked about senior military rank: “If a major outranks a lieutenant, then why does a lieutenant general outrank a major general?” It sounds strange, but understand that the designation of lieutenant general historically, since the Middle Ages, was held by the second in command on the battlefield, who was normally subordinate to a captain general, which is a term and rank no longer in use today. Clear as mud, right? These designations have been around for hundreds of years and are really pretty simple once you take the time to learn them.


If we look at Colonel Cooley‘s dates of promotion, you will see how long he spent in each grade — grades are depicted numerically 0-1 through 0-10 and ranks are spelled out. An 0-1 is a second lieutenant, etc. Colonel Cooley is currently a field grade officer, what some informally call a full-bird colonel. The insignia for a colonel is an eagle, and the grade is 0-6. Colonel Cooley has been nominated to be a senior officer, general officer (GO), an 0-7 or brigadier general (Brig Gen), which is designated by a single star. Don’t let all the nomenclature confuse you. Colonel Cooley is about to become a Brig Gen, or BG as it is sometimes referred to, and that is a feather in his cap as well as for GPS, the directorate and SMC. As Martha Stewart is fond of saying, “It’s a good thing.”

Colonel Cooley’s Effective Dates of Promotion

  • Second Lieutenant May 19, 1988
  • First Lieutenant June 19, 1990
  • Captain June 19, 1992
  • Major Oct. 1, 1999
  • Lieutenant Colonel March 1, 2004
  • Colonel Sept. 1, 2007
  • Nomination to be a Brigadier General January 2015

Just as in the civilian world, typically as you climb up the ladder of rank, your responsibilities increase. In the military, typically you become more of a generalist, and you are looked to more for your leadership abilities than your specific technical or educational abilities. Although it all comes together in a package, when you are promoted to the General Officer ranks. The senior leadership in the USAF considers the whole man when deciding who will lead the airmen of the future. Everyone in the USAF is an airman, in that they serve in the United States Air Force, and then they are designated by their rank.

Colonel Cooley has been in the USAF for almost 27 years and could conceivably remain for another seven years or so. Most GOs retire at about 55 years of age. The only reason this number is nebulous is that as a general officer, you serve at the convenience of the president of the United States, and he can ask you to leave the service or retire at his pleasure, or he can ask you to remain, just as CEOs do in corporate life and careers. Except in this case, the asking or directing is being accomplished by the highest-ranking leader in our government and the U.S. military, the president of the United States fulfilling his role as the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Colonel Cooley’s Education

Another major factor in military life is education, although in recent years — primarily during the last 10 years we have been at war —several military leaders have tried to downplay that facet of military preparedness, which I personally think is a mistake. Those who argue for not considering education as a key element for promotion point out that leadership, especially during war time, is key, and leading and inspiring men and women is more important than academic degrees. Without a doubt, leadership qualities are important, but how does an education disqualify anyone from being a leader? It does not; just the opposite is true, because in today’s increasingly technically oriented world, I maintain that both qualities are critically important in our leaders. I would much rather follow a Harvard-educated president with a law degree from Columbia than I would an unemployed felonious house painter. This is a history test! Did you pass? Now, let’s take a look at Colonel Cooley’s rather impressive educational background.

  • 1988 Bachelor of Science, Mechanical Engineering, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, N.Y.
  • 1990 Master of Science, Mechanical Engineering, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, N.M.
  • 1995 Squadron Officer School, Maxwell AFB, Ala.
  • 1997 Doctor of Philosophy, Engineering Physics, Air Force Institute of Technology, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio
  • 2003 Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB, Ala. (Distinguished Graduate & No. 2 in class)
  • 2007 National War College, Fort Lesley J. McNair, Washington, D.C.
  • 2008 Program Managers Course, Defense Systems Management College, Fort Belvoir, Va.
  • 2009 Senior Manager Course in National Security, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
  • 2009 Executive Program Managers Course, Defense Systems Management College, Fort Belvoir, Va.
  • 2011 USAF Enterprise Leadership Seminar, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

I mention education here primarily because it is so critical, and it is evident that Colonel Cooley is one of those well-educated leaders who continually seek to improve themselves. All war-time education aspersions aside, it is one of the obvious reasons he has been nominated to be a general officer. Statistics show that only 0.23% of all officers will be promoted to the rank of brigadier general — roughly 1/5 of 1% — and that only 1.76% of officers in the USAF have Ph.Ds.

Having said that, the USAF is also the most educated officer corps of all the services, with 36% having bachelor’s degrees, 49% having master’s degrees, 1.76% having Ph.D.s and 10.32% having professional degrees such as MDs and JDs (2.92% didn’t respond). If you are adding in your head, you will see this adds up to 100%, because having a college degree is a requirement to be a commissioned officer in the USAF. So you see, education does matter, and is a core concept for the entire USAF officer corps. This is not true of all services.

Location, Location, Location

As in corporate life, certain jobs and positions in the military prepare an individual to be a general officer. Usually these jobs are well known. Being a successful squadron, group and/or wing commander certainly prepares you to be competitive for a general officer nomination. In effect, this can mean that you command anywhere from 50 to 5,000 personnel, and how well you execute your command and accomplish your mission usually determines how competitive you will be for increased rank and responsibility.

I mention this only because Colonel Cooley had to overcome what can only be described as a handicap as his position as wing commander of the GPS Wing, which was then redesignated as a directorate, at which time he became director of the GPS Directorate. This position, although critically important to the success of the GPS mission, has not exactly been a breeding ground for general officer nominations.Indeed, it has usually been perceived as a final or retirement assignment for most of the colonels assigned there. I can only remember four other colonels in the last 40 years, and I have known them all, that went on to become general officers. Several of the colonels have gone on to higher positions in the government as civilians, but only four prior to Bill have actually made general officer rank.


Allow me point out what should be obvious by now. Unlike corporate America, every aspect of the senior military officer’s life is open to public scrutiny and review. They literally live in glass houses. As you have seen, where we were educated, how much money we make, when we made each promotion — to the day, and where we were assigned is open for anyone to view. The life of a senior military officer is indeed an open book, and that can be both good and bad. On the plus side, smart junior officers learn from that openness and prepare for their future accordingly. If things go wrong, however, there is no place to hide.

Personal Life

Now for a personal comment: I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with Colonel William Cooley, whom I affectionately refer to as Wild Bill, for several years, both at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) at Los Angeles Air Force Base. I can honestly say I have been impressed. He has a great sense of honor and integrity and is obviously well educated. He engenders respect from his peers and subordinates alike, because when he is engaged with you in a discussion, you have his undivided attention. He makes you feel as if you are the only person in the room and your opinion is the only one that matters. Once you realize that, it makes you want to ensure what you are saying is absolutely correct and worthwhile.

It is a trait shared by many great leaders, and Wild Bill practices it daily. It is indeed a trait or a talent that I wish more of our leaders would/could employ. That is not to say that Bill, especially the engineer and Ph.D. part of his personality, will not question you, argue with you or disagree with you, but he will never disparage you or your opinion, and that is but one of the key traits, along with his great sense of humor, that makes Colonel Cooley a great leader. Most importantly, it engenders loyalty among his peers and subordinates alike. I hope there will be many more stars in his future.

That’s Why!

Now you know why Colonel Cooley being nominated to be a Brigadier General is so important, and why it is specifically important for the GPS Directorate, as it gives future directors hope, and why it is important to us as GPS users — there is now another general officer and leader that understands GPS and can defend it when necessary from all the naysayers and pseudo-political wannabe subject matter experts I wrote about last month. Colonel Cooley is the real deal. I know I sleep better at night knowing there are leaders like Brigadier General Select William (Wild Bill) Cooley standing watch. Aim high!

What Is Don Reading?

I won’t go into the gory details but I had major heart surgery recently and just a week or so before Christmas I was contentedly settled in my Colorado mountain home with the snow swirling outside amid sub zero temperatures. Inside the fireplace was roaring and I was comfortably ensconced in my favorite leather chair just wishing for a good book to read when what should arrive in the mail but The Elbe Resolution, the latest creation and continuing World War I and World War II saga by Dr. Lloyd Holm.

You may remember his first book, The Ledgerbegan with the famous and recently celebrated 100th Anniversary of the Christmas Truce of WWI.


I wrote about Dr. Holm’s wonderful first book, back in August 2013 and I have been anxiously awaiting the sequel ever since. The second volume continues the same story line in fine fashion and I can truly say that, just like the first book, I could not put it down. What a wonderful read.

It is painstakingly accurate historically and linguistically, while the characters, many of who carry over from the first book, are all absolutely believable and captivating. The story is alternatingly heart-warming and heartbreaking as you are caught up in the drama and pathos of World War II.

The best news is that the story continues, and now I have the opportunity to anxiously await the third volume!

An artist's impression from The Illustrated London News of January 9, 1915: "British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce..."

An artist’s impression from The Illustrated London News of January 9, 1915: “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce…” Photo: The Illustrated London News

Author Dr. Lloyd Holm.

Author Dr. Lloyd Holm.

Whatever you do, please find a copy of this book today and settle in for a great read. You will not be disappointed.

And while you are reading, note how many times the primary issue that many of our soldiers, sailors and airmen faced during the two world wars was figuring out where they were and where the enemy was located. It was almost a full-time job. What they would have given for a GPS!








This article is tagged with , , and posted in Defense

About the Author: Don Jewell

Don Jewell served 30 years in the United States Air Force, as an aviator and a space subject-matter expert. Don’s involvement with GPS and other critical space systems began with their inception, either as a test system evaluator or user. He served two command assignments at Schriever AFB, the home of GPS, and retired as Deputy Chief Scientist for Air Force Space Command. Don also served as a Politico Military Affairs Officer during the Reagan administration, working with 32 foreign embassies and serving as a Foreign Disclosure Officer making critical export control decisions concerning sophisticated military hardware and software. After retiring from the USAF, Don served seven years as the senior space marketer and subject-matter expert for two of the largest government contractors dealing in space software and hardware. Don currently serves on two independent GPS review teams he helped found, and on three independent assessment teams at the Institute for Defense Analyses, dealing with critical issues for the U.S. government. Don has served on numerous Air Force and Defense Scientific Advisory Boards. He writes and speaks extensively on technical issues concerning the U.S. government. Don earned his Bachelor’s degree and MBA; the Ph.D. is in progress.

2 Comments on "What Is a Brigadier? And as a GPS User, Why Do I Care?"

Trackback | Comments RSS Feed

Inbound Links

  1. Latest GPS News | Top Ten King | January 25, 2015
  1. Steve Alonso says:

    All of this is interesting but the underlying question is what is the GPS Directorate billet? Is it an O-6 (colonel) or O-7 (Brig Gen)? The higher the billet, the more importance the service places on the position. Prior COs were O-6 as I recall so if the billet is being made O-7, that indicates USAF recognizes the increasing importance of GPS. In any case, a good omen.