An Insider’s View on Modern Military Advancement

Reader Helen DeWitt writes in with the following description of the U.S. military’s current system of officer promotion, as told to her by an Air Force officer who just returned from Baghdad:

Officers rise through the system without relevance to merit; promotions are based on the length of time the officer has been in the system. (Up to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, anyway — to make Colonel you have to have done more than serve time.) Enlisted men are subject to a completely different rule: you see them studying for months, mastering the contents of a book this thick (makes gesture, thumb and fingers about three inches apart).

To be an officer you must either have been to one of the military academies or to college. Because promotion is not based on merit, smart officers get frustrated and leave for jobs where they can make better money; less able officers have every reason to stay, since incompetence is no impediment to career advancement. Since the effect of the system is to retain the least able, it perpetuates the elimination of the able: the norm is for smart young officers to find themselves reporting not to superiors like themselves (the ablest left early in frustration at the stupidity of the system), but to superiors who a) were not frustrated by the system and b) feel threatened by clever subordinates … And that’s how we get the leadership of our defense services.

The war in Iraq has produced plenty of criticism of military management (see here and here). What do you all know — and have to say — about the system described above? Is it as prevalent as DeWitt relates? Is it as problematic as she assumes? Etc. etc.

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  1. Not-a-DAT says:

    There is, of course, some ways to measure this. One that comes to mind is: when eligible, how many people are selected for promotion?

    To make Specialist (E-4), for example, you must have so much time in the Army, and so much time in the rank of PFC (E-3). Yes, some can make SPC early — it’s called getting a waiver — but that’s actually something that is doled out rather arbitrarily (but sometimes using knowledge as a factor). Additionally, if one has the time in grade and time in service, the Army comes looking for the documented reasoning for why that person have not been promoted to SPC — maybe they are awaiting discimplinary action or failed a PT test (called being flagged). Looking at the numbers for eligible vs promoted for the junior enlisted (E1 to E4) will show numbers near 100% — you have to really have done something to keep from making these ranks, to give the Army a reason to not promote you.

    To make SGT and SSG, you go to a local promotion board — and this is where that whole studying thing comes into play. Yes, there is a time in service and a time in grade requirement, too, but really, you have to “pass the board” and make the promotion list, and to then wait for their to be a vacancy on the rolls of the Big Army’s numbers before you get promoted. Yes, one can “pass the board” and be considered promotable, but linger and linger for a long time before being promoted. To look at these numbers, I suspect that you’d find high numbers for those who have the time in grade and time in service requirements met, and who have “pass the board”. But actually getting promoted, as I mentioned, means having a slow on the Army’s big books that needs to be filled, and thus those numbers would be lower. Supply and demand.

    For NCO’s, after that, it’s a centrally managed promotion selection — supply and demand. No studying, no quiz. Performance and potential, and how many are needed (by job speciality) for selction for promotion. If the Army is expanding — as it is these days, across the board — I would expect to see higher numbers that we saw in, say, the mid 1990′s, during the draw-down.

    I would offer, for the officers, that trends and patterns for promotion are all wonky these days (yes, that’s a technical term). Current senior officers (LTC and up) are all Gulf War vets, guys who were in when the Army went through the belt-tightening after Desert Storm. Theu survived the RIF, and they survived a time when selection for promotion to CPT and to MAJ was, at times, below 60% (and lower). Selection for promotion is screwy — they Army first decides how many slots at the higher rank need to be filled, and then they look amongst those who have the time in rank (i.e. eligible), and finds the top number of those folks. Need 400 more MAJ’s? Go find the best 400 eligible CPT’s, and pick then. Then, in batches, work from that list of 400 and promote them over the coming year. Not amongst the 400? Better luck next year. Passed over a couple of times? Well, back in the day, that would mean you’d be washed out — seperated from the Army — but, well, that’s gauche today. Retain but do not promote, is the current buzz phrase.

    When they go looking for the, say, top 400 eligible CPT’s to promote to MAJ, yes, your merits do count. The issue of just how much is counts varies from time to time. For those senior folks today, who faced low selection rates to MAJ (back in the day), it mattered a whole bunch — making MAJ was a huge hurdle. In contrast, when I was picked up for MAJ about 2 years ago, the selection rate was almost 100% — I am not kidding when I say that, literally, six guys who were eligible CPT’s were not selected. The need for folsk to promote to MAJ almost exceeded the number of those eligible for consideration for selection for promotion (say that three times fast). What does that do for our self-esteem? Well, I know I’m better than six guys (or gals), who I assume had gotten a DUI, or were awaiting prison time at Leavenworth, or who had been sleeping with the general’s daughter and been caught (or his son, for that matter).

    Looking at the numbers for officers today, I suspect, would show that most everyone who have the time in grade requirements (at least through LTC, maybe through COL) and who hasn’t been caught doing something seriously wrong, or who hasn’t decided to punch out and head to civilian life, is getting promotion.

    But the raw numbers are there. Someone just needs to cull them and filter them some.

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  2. Not-a-DAT says:

    There is, of course, some ways to measure this. One that comes to mind is: when eligible, how many people are selected for promotion?

    To make Specialist (E-4), for example, you must have so much time in the Army, and so much time in the rank of PFC (E-3). Yes, some can make SPC early — it’s called getting a waiver — but that’s actually something that is doled out rather arbitrarily (but sometimes using knowledge as a factor). Additionally, if one has the time in grade and time in service, the Army comes looking for the documented reasoning for why that person have not been promoted to SPC — maybe they are awaiting discimplinary action or failed a PT test (called being flagged). Looking at the numbers for eligible vs promoted for the junior enlisted (E1 to E4) will show numbers near 100% — you have to really have done something to keep from making these ranks, to give the Army a reason to not promote you.

    To make SGT and SSG, you go to a local promotion board — and this is where that whole studying thing comes into play. Yes, there is a time in service and a time in grade requirement, too, but really, you have to “pass the board” and make the promotion list, and to then wait for their to be a vacancy on the rolls of the Big Army’s numbers before you get promoted. Yes, one can “pass the board” and be considered promotable, but linger and linger for a long time before being promoted. To look at these numbers, I suspect that you’d find high numbers for those who have the time in grade and time in service requirements met, and who have “pass the board”. But actually getting promoted, as I mentioned, means having a slow on the Army’s big books that needs to be filled, and thus those numbers would be lower. Supply and demand.

    For NCO’s, after that, it’s a centrally managed promotion selection — supply and demand. No studying, no quiz. Performance and potential, and how many are needed (by job speciality) for selction for promotion. If the Army is expanding — as it is these days, across the board — I would expect to see higher numbers that we saw in, say, the mid 1990′s, during the draw-down.

    I would offer, for the officers, that trends and patterns for promotion are all wonky these days (yes, that’s a technical term). Current senior officers (LTC and up) are all Gulf War vets, guys who were in when the Army went through the belt-tightening after Desert Storm. Theu survived the RIF, and they survived a time when selection for promotion to CPT and to MAJ was, at times, below 60% (and lower). Selection for promotion is screwy — they Army first decides how many slots at the higher rank need to be filled, and then they look amongst those who have the time in rank (i.e. eligible), and finds the top number of those folks. Need 400 more MAJ’s? Go find the best 400 eligible CPT’s, and pick then. Then, in batches, work from that list of 400 and promote them over the coming year. Not amongst the 400? Better luck next year. Passed over a couple of times? Well, back in the day, that would mean you’d be washed out — seperated from the Army — but, well, that’s gauche today. Retain but do not promote, is the current buzz phrase.

    When they go looking for the, say, top 400 eligible CPT’s to promote to MAJ, yes, your merits do count. The issue of just how much is counts varies from time to time. For those senior folks today, who faced low selection rates to MAJ (back in the day), it mattered a whole bunch — making MAJ was a huge hurdle. In contrast, when I was picked up for MAJ about 2 years ago, the selection rate was almost 100% — I am not kidding when I say that, literally, six guys who were eligible CPT’s were not selected. The need for folsk to promote to MAJ almost exceeded the number of those eligible for consideration for selection for promotion (say that three times fast). What does that do for our self-esteem? Well, I know I’m better than six guys (or gals), who I assume had gotten a DUI, or were awaiting prison time at Leavenworth, or who had been sleeping with the general’s daughter and been caught (or his son, for that matter).

    Looking at the numbers for officers today, I suspect, would show that most everyone who have the time in grade requirements (at least through LTC, maybe through COL) and who hasn’t been caught doing something seriously wrong, or who hasn’t decided to punch out and head to civilian life, is getting promotion.

    But the raw numbers are there. Someone just needs to cull them and filter them some.

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  3. Junior Officer in Iraq says:

    I am a junior Army officer currently serving in Iraq. Let me say that I am very proud to be serving and I love the Army.

    However, I largely agree with this post. The current Army promotion system does not allow for any waivers for early promotion of high performing young officers. A good young officer will be promoted at exactly the same pace as a lackluster junior officer. Merit does not factor one iota into promotions from 2nd to 1st Lieutenant and from 1st Lieutenant to Captain. It is only based on time in service.

    At exactly 18 months for active (and 24 for Reserves) you will be promoted, no matter how high or low you perform (unless you do something really bad like a DUI).

    I was ranked by my Battalion Commander as the top 2nd Lieutenant in the Battalion, but it did not help me get promoted faster. Lieutenants who had received official letters of reprimand or who had been relieved of their positions still got promoted before I did. Why? Because they reached the required time before I did, and time is the only factor for jr. officer promotions.

    I think that this does drive some (certainly not all) high performing officers out of the military, and it rewards low performing officers who are guaranteed promotion at least thru major.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  4. Junior Officer in Iraq says:

    I am a junior Army officer currently serving in Iraq. Let me say that I am very proud to be serving and I love the Army.

    However, I largely agree with this post. The current Army promotion system does not allow for any waivers for early promotion of high performing young officers. A good young officer will be promoted at exactly the same pace as a lackluster junior officer. Merit does not factor one iota into promotions from 2nd to 1st Lieutenant and from 1st Lieutenant to Captain. It is only based on time in service.

    At exactly 18 months for active (and 24 for Reserves) you will be promoted, no matter how high or low you perform (unless you do something really bad like a DUI).

    I was ranked by my Battalion Commander as the top 2nd Lieutenant in the Battalion, but it did not help me get promoted faster. Lieutenants who had received official letters of reprimand or who had been relieved of their positions still got promoted before I did. Why? Because they reached the required time before I did, and time is the only factor for jr. officer promotions.

    I think that this does drive some (certainly not all) high performing officers out of the military, and it rewards low performing officers who are guaranteed promotion at least thru major.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0