The Military's Officer Promotion System May See Major Shake-Up

U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Karl Tinson assists his father, Robert C. Tinson, pin his new rank to his cover in the Pentagon, Arlington, Va., Feb. 1, 2016. (U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Samantha K. Draughon)
U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Karl Tinson assists his father, Robert C. Tinson, pin his new rank to his cover in the Pentagon, Arlington, Va., Feb. 1, 2016. (U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Samantha K. Draughon)

The sometimes-rigid officer promotion system could see major shake-ups after Congress approved a series of reforms offering more flexible career paths -- changes experts say were long overdue.

The 2019 defense authorization bill, passed by the Senate on Wednesday, paves the way for more officers to join the military at higher ranks, a promotion system based on merit over seniority, and an end to some up-or-out rules that prematurely end some careers.

The changes could upend sections of the 1980 Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, or DOPMA, which standardized personnel management for the officer corps across the military branches.

Many of those rules date back to World War II, and the branches will be freed to move their promotion systems into the 21st century, said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former assistant secretary of defense for manpower, reserve affairs, installations and logistics.

"Now if you have someone with a particular skill you want to keep, but he or she says, 'I don't want to wait four years to be a commander' or whatever it might be -- and you really need the person -- you can promote them more rapidly," Korb said.

The changes, first reported by Military Times, include:

  • The ability for high-performing officers to be promoted ahead of their peers, regardless of time in grade.
  • The chance for civilians with certain skills to enter the military up to the grade of O-6.
  • The removal of predetermined officer-promotion timelines, known as up-or-out rules.
  • The chance for officers in grades O-2 and above to extend their careers out to 40 years of service.

Congress isn't mandating that the services implement the changes, which Blaise Misztal, director of national security at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said is the right approach. The Bipartisan Policy Center issued a report last year about the military's future force that included several recommendations similar to the personnel reforms passed by Congress this week.

"It allows the services to figure out and implement those changes that are best suited to their particular missions," Misztal said. "The types of skills, and therefore career paths, that the Air Force or a new Space Force might require are obviously different from those of the Army or Marine Corps."

A Changing Workforce

Military leaders have long pushed for more career flexibility. Former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus wanted to give more sailors and Marines the chance to pause their careers to pursue an education or start a family. And former Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Brad Carson wanted to offer troops targeted pay raises to reward the military's best and brightest.

As warfare gets more technical and millennials search for flexible career paths, the newly authorized reforms will be imperative, Misztal said. Gone are the days of working for one company your entire life. Young people expect a more varied career path, and this helps the military fall in line with what young people are looking for, he said.

"Particularly in technical fields where competition with the private sector might be fiercest," he said. "The flexibility to bring officers in at higher ranks, promote them faster, or not promote them -- and thereby keep them focused on missions in which they excel and not at a desk that they aren't interested in -- will give the military greater access to the talent it needs."

Up-or-out rules create a one-size-fits-all military career, Misztal added. That might've been effective when previous generations commanded untrained troops, but today's reality is different.

Korb agrees. You don't need every officer to be on a path to become the next Air Force chief of staff or Marine Corps commandant, he said. But you do need the flexibility to keep the right people in the right jobs. Up-or-out rules don't always allow for that.

"You're essentially throwing people out that you really want to keep," he said. "... Any job outside the military, you can stay in the same job as long as you're effective. You don't have to become the president of the company."

As the military competes against the private sector for in-demand personnel, such as those in cyber fields, it's important to give officers a chance to attain a depth of expertise, said retired Army Col. George Reed, a professor and leadership expert at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs.

"I think this definitely has potential for helping retain high performers," said Reed, who served as the Army War College's director of command and leadership studies. "In a system that highly values seniority and time in grade, there are some high-performing people who are stifled in that system who have a lot of potential."

A Cultural Shift

Any change in the military comes with a degree of resistance, and overhauling officer promotions won't be exempt from that, Reed said.

Enlisted troops might have to get used to having newly commissioned colonels commanding them. While there are benefits to recruiting those officers or ditching up-or-out rules, Reed said one can't underestimate the changes all of that will have on the officer corps' culture.

"Everybody in the military has traditionally been focused either on their next level of responsibility or exit from the force -- without exception," he said. "The up-or-out policy has served us well to a certain degree and has certainly produced extraordinary generalists -- those who have an awful lot of experience across a broad range of assignments. There is goodness in that."

On the flip side, though, Misztal said the new policies could allow more officers to do what they love instead of what they need to do to get promoted. That could keep more pilots flying, for example, rather than "riding a desk," he said, which could help with retention in some of those in-demand fields.

The Navy and Air Force might be more likely to embrace some of these moves for their more technical fields, Korb said, while soldiers and Marines resist. That kind of flexibility isn't necessarily a bad thing, he said. But if the new policies are a big success, the services slower to embrace the changes might need to be pushed into adopting them.

Just as a one-size-fits-all approach for officers' careers isn't always appropriate, Reed said that's true of the services too.

"The military is not monolithic," he said. "The Special Forces community is different than medical as a community. Bringing people in at very high ranks may work very well for cyber as we try to get people with skills, but that likely wouldn't work well at all in a conventional infantry or special operations unit."

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @ginaaharkins.

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