Congress is overhauling the officer promotion system in what former Pentagon personnel officer Brad Carson has called “the most significant reforms we’ve seen since the late 1970’s.” Individual officers will soon feel the far-reaching impact of new options in the way they manage their careers.
A bill virtually guaranteed to pass in Congress will give military promotion boards the discretion to prioritize merit and job performance over raw seniority. The changes will allow officers in some highly competitive technical career paths to remain effective while holding the same rank for much longer periods of time. The present “up or out” system may work for battlefield operations officers, but in the cyber warfare trenches, rigidity leads to career casualties.
Nothing in the pending legislation forces decision makers into a new way of doing things, but it will add flexibility by offering additional opportunities to choose from.
The main points of the modifications begin by abolishing some of the rigid timelines requiring advancement that force some highly skilled officers out of the service totally.
Another way to offset such losses is by allowing “mid-career civilians with high-demand skills” to join the military ranks at an appropriate pay-grade.
Under the proposed changes, civilians can enter up to the O-6 grade which is the equivalent of Colonel for most forces and Captain in the Navy.
Carson is pleased with that particular modification and has looked forward to it for a significant amount of time. “I used to say if (Facebook CEO) Mark Zuckerberg woke up one day and decided to join the Army, the best I could do was make him an O-2.” Zuckerberg would not be happy as a lowly First Lieutenant.
The secretaries in charge of each service branch will soon have the option of creating “an alternative promotion process” custom tailored for certain specialties, especially ones with high competition in the private sector.
The most contentious aspect of the new guidelines concerns seniority. Promotion boards will now have the ability to promote officers who perform exceptionally well, no matter how long they have been in the service.
Mike Barron, director of government relations at the Military Officers Association of America, points out that focusing on skills over seniority “could infuriate mid-career officers who suddenly see younger troops advancing past them based on ‘shades of gray’ in their service record.”
Larry Korb with the Center for American Progress served as assistant secretary of defense for manpower during the Reagan administration. He feels the change away from seniority can be good.
“Why does everyone have to start at the bottom and aim for the very top? Why are we grooming everyone to be chief of naval operations or chief of staff of the Army?”
Leonard Wong, who retired from the Army as an officer and now teaches the course on manpower at the Army War College, agrees with Korb that the time to rethink overall strategy has come.
He is glad, though, to see that the lawmakers who wanted to make the changes “mandatory” were overruled, as allowing them to be adopted voluntarily may be more effective in the long-term.
“Some officers,” Wong notes, “who like the traditional system, may view these changes as unfair and counter to the military’s culture.”
“Because of our egalitarian nature, in the military, we’re always looking to make sure things are fair but it’s hard to be talent management-oriented and yet, treat everyone the same.” It might, Wong continues, “be better for the force and better for the nation to treat certain people differently and this is a step in that direction.”
Wong also mentions that the issue has been debated for many years already. “We talk talent management, and now you’re starting to see it… that’s refreshing.”
One of the most immediate benefits will be a boost in retention. “Now that the 20-year retention carrot is becoming a thing of the past, they will need other ways to keep people if they are to retain both officers and enlists beyond the 12-year mark,” remarks Bill Hatch, who also teaches military personnel and manpower over at California’s Naval Postgraduate School.
Officers in technical fields like cyberwarfare, logistics, and other specialties that are highly in demand will be allowed to stay in the same rank without promotion for up to 40 years of service.
Even opponents of the new system recognize the need for the ability to make exceptions on a case by case basis. “No matter what the process or policy, some officers will not be selected for promotion. It is important to retain the up or out concept for officer management, but there must be some exceptions when the needs of the military will be best served by retaining an officer.”
The directives currently in force date back to the 1980 Defense Officer Personnel Management Act. The revisions of many of the act’s key aspects were included in the annual defense spending bill that just came out of conference committee.
Brad Carson expects the implementation to be gradual. He sees a “slow, measured rollout of the new authorities once the military services craft regulations for the new policies.” The Navy is chomping at the bit to put some of the reforms to good use while the Marine Corps is skeptical of change.
Eventually, along with the money to fund the defense budget, the changes will be enshrined as federal law. However, Mike Barron admits “we may not know all the effects until years down the road.”