Military Advantage

Personnel Managers Weigh How, When to Use New Tools

Naval officers

Personnel managers across the military branches are discussing how, or even if, to use broad new authorities from Congress to modify recruitment and promotion of commissioned officers to meet the rapidly evolving needs of a modern force.

The authorities are in the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law in August. They modernize the 1980 Defense Officer Personnel Management Act principally by adding flexibility and options to the "up-or-out" officer promotion system that the services have relied upon since World War II.

Capitol Hill architects of the reforms note that the new authorities are "permissive," not "prescriptive." That means the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps don't have to use them if service leaders decide they aren't needed or might be too disruptive to service traditions, practices or cultures.

On the other hand, some recently retired military leaders agree with outside manpower analysts and key members of Congress -- which included Senator John McCain, chairman of the armed services committee before his death in August -- that officer management needs some urgent reforms, at least in select areas.

The current "promotion paradigm" for officers, retired Adm. Gary Roughead, former chief of naval operations, complained to senators last year, "bleeds needed technical expertise to fulfill a one-size-fits-all hierarchical promotion model."

Congress has approved seven significant changes to the law governing officer management. It shelved four more controversial provisions the Senate alone had endorsed. Of the seven changes that became law, the three described below are viewed as the most important for modernizing officer management.

More expansive constructive service credit

The military has for years attracted doctors, lawyers and chaplains by granting "constructive credit" for time spent in school to become professionals, offering higher entry-level ranks and credit as years served. A dentist who spent four years in dental school, for example, can enter the military with four years of service credit and the rank of O-3.

The new authority allows constructive credit not only for education, but for work experience too, for active or reserve appointments to critically-needed fields. Rank can be bestowed up through O-6 (colonel or Navy captain) to bring more and different types of experts into officer ranks through lateral entry.

Proponents of the move point to the difficulty of establishing and manning a new U.S. Cyber Command in 2009. Its first four or five commanders were intelligence officers, because there wasn't a "bench" of cybersecurity specialists. Use of constructive credit isn't seen as appropriate for frontline combat units. It is seen as useful perhaps to build out technical expertise required of a space force, or to strengthen critical support missions such acquisition or auditing when growing those skills in officers through normal promotion patterns would take too long.

Temporary Promotion Authority

This expands to the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps the temporary promotion authority that the Navy has used for years to promote nuclear-trained officers and SEALs to lieutenant commander (O-4). The new law expands temporary promotion authority to all services, and for ranks O-3 through O-6 as needed. The experience of the Navy suggests officers temporarily promoted into jobs are on career paths that, by the time they move to new assignments, turn temporary promotions into permanent ones. The new authority allows for temporary promotions to fit more jobs, to standardize use across services and to allow single-rank bumps up through O-6 for specified positions.

Alternative Promotion Authority

Service secretaries now have authority to establish alternative promotion processes for certain competitive categories of officers by suspending traditional up-or-out requirements.

To retain the most qualified officers in select fields, promotion boards can create larger pools of officers for board consideration by suspending below-the-zone, above-the-zone and in-zone distinctions as well as year-group restraints. Officers in these pools could be granted up to five opportunities, versus the two available traditionally, to be promoted to the next higher grade.

The alternative promotion process would be supported by a new term-based continuation process for officers not selected. They could be retained at current rank, in consideration of their special skills, and every three years they would compete for continuation with others in the competitive category. This arrangement selectively modifies, but doesn't end, up-or-out officer management.

Congress took several smaller steps to give the services greater flexibility in shaping their officer corps. It repealed a requirement that candidates for regular commissions not be older than 42. Also, promotion boards can now recommend that officers of particular merit be placed higher on promotion lists than their peers.

Officers also are allowed now, if it's deemed in the best interest of their service, to have their names removed from the consideration of selection boards if a recent career choice or an assignment outside their field makes selection unlikely. Finally, the new legislation gave the services authority to allow officers in certain military specialties to remain on active duty for up to 40 years.

The Navy is said to be most appreciative of the new management tools. The other services are less enthusiastic, but are studying their new powers carefully.

The Senate Armed Services Committee proposed even more sweeping changes. The most controversial would have ended the tradition of promoting officers based on the year they got commissioned.

The committee also wanted to replace the field grade officer strength tables as no longer being effective for setting ceilings on how many officers can be promoted to ranks O-4 through O-6. Senators had argued it's time to group and promote officers based on more narrowly drawn competitive categories and job specialties.

Some services protested this move, and the House ultimately didn't support these two changes.

The Senate committee began two years ago an intense study of how officer management might be modernized in order to adapt more rapidly to shifting missions and new requirements. Overall, staff found the current system to be sound, but in need of new features to enhance effectiveness.

A staff report concluded, for example, that the "up-or-out promotion system had largely been replaced by an unofficial up-or-stay system." Promotion rates to O-4 have climbed steadily, and anyone now attaining the rank of O-4 is able to stay for 20 years to qualify for retirement. The staff also found that the services failed to use or even to understand the flexible features of the 1980 DOPMA law that do allow more efficient promotion processes to respond to changing requirements.

For example, the staff noted that the law grants service secretaries authority to set promotion zones based on evolving needs. And yet, they reported, "most services operate according to a strict 'year group' policy, which only allows officers commissioned in the same calendar year to compete within a promotion zone."

The staff also noted that field grade officer strength tables are rarely adjusted, even though the number of officers they allow in ranks O-4 through O-6 are out of proportion to current force strength. That has lessened the effectiveness of these ceilings to ensure that only the highest quality officers are promoted.

To comment, write Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA, 20120 or email milupdate@aol.com or twitter: @Military_Update.

Military Update columnist Tom Philpott
Tom Philpott has been breaking news for and about military people since 1977. After service in the Coast Guard, and 17 years as a reporter and senior editor with Army Times Publishing Company, Tom launched "Military Update," his syndicated weekly news column, in 1994. "Military Update" features timely news and analysis on issues affecting active duty members, reservists, retirees and their families. Tom's freelance articles have appeared in numerous magazines including The New Yorker, Reader's Digest and Washingtonian.
His critically-acclaimed book, Glory Denied, on the extraordinary ordeal and heroism of Col. Floyd "Jim" Thompson, the longest-held prisoner of war in American history, is available in hardcover and paperback on Amazon.
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