Document created: 25 July 01
Air University Review, May-June 1981


Chief Master Sergeant Loyd W. McBride

Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the noncommissioned officer (NCO) does not have the same authority as the commissioned officer. Principally, noncommissioned officers do not have authority to punish personnel under their supervision. Punishment is administered only through the use of Article 15 or courts-martial. Since NCOs have no punitive authority, what actions can they take to ensure discipline among their people? These questions will be answered as we consider the need for discipline in the military.

I will focus on the NCO’s role in dealing with discipline problems. If preventive techniques fail, NCOs should be aware of methods available to them for correcting subordinates when their behavior impairs mission accomplishment. Indeed, the NCO plays an important role in influencing punishment when it is necessary in achieving mission readiness.

Discipline can best be defined as "a state of training, resulting in orderly conduct." This "state of training" must be achieved and maintained during peacetime so that our forces will be prepared for wartime contingencies. It is too late to prepare for war once war has started, which is sometimes a difficult concept for lesser experienced NCOs to accept. Often the feeling is, "We are a technical force; technicians do not need the same state of disciplined readiness as combat soldiers." This feeling perhaps fosters a false assumption that Air Force members will not be expected to fight during wartime; instead, we will maintain a support role (i.e., aircraft maintenance, supply, personnel, etc.). The questions then become "Is it necessary for Air Force people to maintain a high state of readiness? Is it really necessary to be disciplined for war?" These questions must be answered by all NCOs who are ultimately responsible for achieving success in peacetime readiness as well as in actual warfare. History shows us that we cannot leave this state of readiness to pure chance; we must prepare for any emergency.

Discipline, of course, is vital. Rudyard Kipling recognized this need for discipline when he had one of his Tommy Atkinses explain:

We was rotten `for we started—
we was never disciplined:
We made it out a favor—
if an order was obeyed.
Yes, every little drummer `ad `is rights
and wrongs to mind,
So we had to pay for teaching—
an’ we paid!

General George Patton, a strong disciplinarian who was equally as adamant about preparedness, told his commanders if they did not enforce and maintain perfect discipline, they were potential murderers. He went on to say ". . .that is a blunt way of putting it, but war is blunt, and war is what we must all prepare for." General Robert E. Lee, one of the greatest military leaders of all time, was equally firm when it came to discipline. He wanted his soldiers to understand that, in addition to efficiency, discipline guaranteed a soldier’s safety; that if his forces did not prepare themselves for war when they had a chance, they would pay dearly.

The Air Force, recognizing the need for discipline, published AFR 30-1, Air Force Standards, in which four types of discipline are identified: task, group, imposed, and self.

Task discipline is defined as how well we meet the challenges of the job. First, we must recognize that the job is important, and how well we perform will influence the effectiveness of our work section and our unit. Task discipline requires a strong sense of responsibility in performing our jobs to the best of our abilities, volunteering for the tough jobs, and working overtime, if necessary, to accomplish our mission as it relates to the Air Force mission.

Group discipline means teamwork. Since most Air Force jobs require that several people work effectively as a team, group discipline is very important. Just as we must have a sense of responsibility to our job, we should also have a sense of group responsibility and effective team membership. We must "pull our own weight," and at times we may have to deny some personal preferences for the good of our work section, unit, or group.

Imposed discipline is known as enforced obedience to legal orders and regulations. It is absolutely essential in combat or in emergencies when there is no time to explain or discuss an order. Most Air Force training teaches us to carry out orders quickly and efficiently. During peacetime, a continuation of this type of discipline provides the structure and good order necessary throughout the organization to accomplish the mission or a task, regardless of the situation.

Self-discipline is a willing and instinctive sense of responsibility that leads us to do whatever needs to be done. Getting to work on time, knowing all aspects of the job, setting priorities, and denying some personal preferences for more important values or duties are all measures of self-discipline. Far above our acceptance of imposed discipline, self-discipline reflects our personal commitment and sense of duty.1

Often we emphasize one type of discipline at the expense of another. For instance, we allow ourselves to become so task disciplined that we fail to recognize the necessity for discipline of other types. The ultimate solution for the NCO is to create an environment where the necessity for imposed discipline is minimized or eliminated, but this is not always possible. Therefore, we must understand how to impose discipline when it is clearly indicated.

Three general approaches can be taken in dealing with discipline: the preventive approach, the corrective approach, and the punitive approach.2 Initial consideration should be given to the preventive approach because it is logically first and is positive and constructive in its development. The preventive approach includes understanding human behavior, using good management and leadership techniques, setting the examples, and enforcing the standards. These are not all-inclusive; however, they represent the majority of preventive techniques to discipline problems. There are numerous lessons in dealing with preventive techniques, and most of our NCOs fully understand these techniques for preventing discipline problems. Organizations usually have a few people who do not respond to preventive techniques, which leads us to the next approach in dealing with discipline problems: correcting the individual who has not responded to the preventive techniques.

The NCO supervisor is limited in his use of preventive and corrective approaches, since only officer commanders can use the punitive approach. This fact alone creates the undeniable necessity for NCOs to understand and employ fully the corrective actions available to them.

The first action available to NCOs for correcting individuals who have not responded to preventive techniques is the verbal reprimand. Verbal reprimands should be given only for performance or conduct and should never leave an individual feeling personally attacked. In other words, individuals should be reprimanded for unacceptable behavior not personality. A memorandum for record should be kept to be used for later action, if necessary.

The second corrective action is the documented counseling. The documented counseling does not have to follow any prescribed format; in fact, most major air commands have their own forms. Individuals reviewing subsequent case files will have a better understanding of the situation if they include the following items: a statement of the problem, a discussion of the problem, a joint solution to the problem, and personal observations. This documented counseling should be filed in a general correspondence folder, marked specifically with the action included in the folder (i.e., disciplinary action).

The third corrective action NCOs can take is the letter of admonishment/reprimand. Administrative reprimands and admonitions are management tools available to commanders, supervisors, and other superiors to instruct and reprove subordinates for departing from acceptable norms of performance, conduct, or bearing. There is no prescribed format for writing this letter. A reprimand is more severe than an admonition and carries a strong implication of official censure. The letter of admonition should be written when no unfavorable information file (UIF) is necessary, although either the letter of admonition or reprimand can be placed in the individual’s UIF. The letter of admonition may also be filed in the same manner as the documented counseling. However, since the letter of reprimand is more severe than a letter of admonition, it should be forwarded through the individual’s commander to the consolidated base personnel office (CBPO) for inclusion in the individual’s UIF. Supervisors can write a letter of reprimand, but only commanders can forward it to the CBPO for placement in the UIF.3

Now that we have looked at some of the preventive and corrective approaches NCOs can use in dealing with discipline problems, let us look at our role in affecting the punitive action either through Article 15s or courts-martial.

When corrective approaches have failed or when breaches of discipline are so severe that punishment is necessary to maintain morale and ensure discipline among subordinates, then Article 15 action becomes appropriate. Since the NCO’s role in punishment is somewhat limited (i.e., generating the statement of facts and then recommending action to the commander), it should be evident that the quality of these actions will determine whether the outcome is satisfactory to the enlisted manager. Matching the punishment to the offense is essential if true rehabilitation is the goal. More important, there is a relationship among the types of offenses and the punishments that will best correct the behavior. Therefore, the more effective NCOs employ this relationship in their influencing of commanders.

Breaches of standards can most often be divided into three broad, convenient types: liberty, status, and property. A look at the nature of the violation and the matching punishment for each is in order.

Liberty in the military environment is the right to act in a manner of one’s own choosing within the restraints of regulation and good order and discipline. We are free privately to do "our own thing" as long as we never lose our sense of duty. Failure to go, absent without leave (AWOL), or continued tardiness are examples of violations by individuals who do not understand the full meaning of personal liberty. What punishments match these offenses? Extra duty, restriction, and correctional custody all punish as well as psychologically teach the value of liberty to the individual.

Status very often is discussed in terms relative to a high standing or prestige; with rank so goes not only a certain amount of privilege but also a responsibility for ever-increasing professionalism. Disrespect of a superior, insubordination, or failure to perform in a manner commensurate with rank, position, or skill level are examples of status violations. These individuals have not yet become able to accept the responsibility inherent in their position. The obvious punishment is to change the status. A reduction in rank, the vacating of NCO status, or any of the various reductions treat the cause of this problem. If the rehabilitation phase is successful, one can be assured that not only the offender but all other personnel in the unit will get the message on the importance of understanding AFR 39-6, The Enlisted Force Organization.

Property in today’s environment of tight funds must be protected vigorously. However, the kicked-in door, torn pool table top, or willfully broken piece of equipment still occurs in the Air Force. The individuals involved in such incidents do not value property. The form of punishment taken should be addressed by forfeiture of pay. Not only does this reinforce the value of government property but it gets the replacement impact in hard currency right down to the individual’s level. Some might say a property-type offense is often a violation of status, and they are often correct. Some overlap in the categories exist, but forfeiture best suits the violation in this case.

Forfeitures as a catchall punishment are punishments frequently misused because of their relative ease of administration. The paperwork is prepared at unit level when the Article 15 action is completed and then passed on to finance. The computer does the rest automatically and invisibly. This ease unfortunately often leads to the use of forfeiture when it is not the most applicable course of action. If the logic of matching the punishment to the offense is sound, commanders should be advised by their senior NCOs not to overuse or mismatch forfeitures. The influencing role of the NCO in Article 15 action at the unit level cannot be overemphasized.

The court-martial, more severe in nature, is used when an individual refuses the Article 15 or when the commander determines that the breach of discipline is so severe that the Article 15 is inappropriate for punishment. The NCO’s role in the imposition of punishment by court-martial is essentially the same as in Article 15 actions. Also, an NCO may be used as a witness or on a court-martial when enlisted personnel are being tried.

The last and final action is administrative discharge action under the provisions of AFR 39-10 or AFM 39-12. These procedures are too complex to address in this article. However, it should be pointed out that if all the preceding preventive, corrective, and punitive actions have not disciplined the individual, then discharge is the next step. The documentation contained in the discharge action will be essentially the same (documented counseling, letters of admonishment) that the NCO supervisor created during the corrective approach to discipline. The recommendation of the discharge board will be based primarily on how well used the preventive, corrective, and punitive approaches to discipline were. The role of the NCO cannot be taken lightly.

Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy
Gunter Air Force Station, Alabama


1. AFR 30-1, Air Force Standards, Section D, 30 September 1977, pp. 37-39.

2. Military Law, Chapter 3, Air University, Air Force ROTC, May l978, p. 11.

3. AFR 35-32, Unfavorable Information Files (UIFs), Control Rosters, Administrative Reprimands and Admonitions, Section C, 22 September 1975, pp. 6-11.


Chief Master Sergeant Loyd W. McBride (B.A., Park College) is Director of Administration, USAF Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy, Gunter AFS, Alabama. Prior assignments include materiel facilities supervisor, Phu Cat AB, Republic of Vietnam; service division Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB; and instructor at Air Force Communications Service NCO Academy, Richards-Gebaur AFB. Chief McBride is a graduate of AFCS NCO Academy and Senior NCO Academy.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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