Many people are confused when career US military officers complain about the "up or out" career system. Organizations cannot promote everyone to the ranks of Vice President (e.g. General officer), so most civilian careers stall in the middle management ranks. While these "passed-over" employees are disappointed, they continue to work and gain experience until they retire in their 60s. This was the case in the US military until the end of World War II, which left a huge surplus of officers. As a result, Congress enacted laws to cut careers short by retiring older officers to trim the force.
The basics of these laws (known as DOMPA) require that O-3s (officers at level three, Army, Air Force and Marine Corps Captains and Navy Lieutenants) be considered for promotion after 10 years in service, and require that around 20% are "passed-over" and denied promotion. They are given another chance the following year, and then discharged if passed-over again. Over 98% of officers who fail promotion the first time fail again the next year. At the 15-year mark, O-4s go through this process, and 30% must be passed-over and retired. At the 20-year mark, O-5s are reviewed, yet only 50% can be promoted while the rest are retired. An O-6 is allowed to serve 30 years, then must retire unless he is one of the few chosen to become a General or Admiral. This seems like a simple advancement system, but causes tremendous problems as it forces out most career officers in their early 40s.
Take a group of 100 career-minded O-3s who were commissioned at age 22. DOPMA requires that 20 are "passed-over" for O-4 and discharged after around ten years of service, or age 32. Of the 80 promoted to O-4, DOPMA requires that 24 (30%) be passed-over for O-5 promotion five years later, and retired after 20-years of service at 42 years of age. That leaves 56 of the original 100 O-3s still in this game of musical chairs. Even the 56 that make O-5 have a limited career as DOPMA requires 28 of them (50%) be passed-over at the 20-year mark for O-6 and retired at 44 years of age. Thus, 72 of 100 career minded junior military officers will eventually be forced out of the service around age 40. This causes intense stress and unhealthy competition as officers worry that one mistake or abusive boss will end their career. They will not starve on their retirement pay, but this is a time when they have children in college and a mortgage to pay. They can find civilian work, but it is difficult to start a new career in their 40s.
"Up or Out" DOPMA Career Path
Age - current fate under DOPMA
22 - 100 officers commissioned
32 - 20 O-3s discharged, 80 promoted to O-4
42 - 24 O-4s retired, 56 promoted to O-5
44 - 28 O-5s retired,* 28 promoted to O-6
52 - 26 O-6s retired, 2 promoted to General
*some "twice passed over" O-5s are allowed to serve longer for manpower reasons, but the official DOPMA guideline is first selection opportunity for O-6 at the 20-year mark, the second a year later, and if still unsuccessful they should retire the following year. Keep in mind that DOPMA provides broad guidelines that allows each service some flexibility.
In summary, DOPMA requires a that 72% of O-3s will eventually be forced out in middle-age and must find a new career. This is stressful as most military skills have no direct civilian counterpart, and many civilian employers think these officers were forced out because of poor performance. Even those promoted to O-6 can only serve to 30 years and must retire at age 52 because only two will be promoted to General.
Some may argue that DOPMA is retained to provide a large pool of "retired" officers to rapidly expand the armed forces upon mobilization. However, the reserve force has ample officers for mobilization, and the civilian world has very capable leaders who can fill mid-ranking officer slots, as was done during World War II. What are truly needed for a larger military are junior officers, who can be produced during the years delay needed to build new equipment and form new units. Pruning 20% of O-3s during promotion to O-4 remains a good idea to force out poor performers, however, career officers need a tenure type full career plan after ten years of service. The current system is like the game of musical chairs in which large numbers of officers are forced out every few years as fellow officers shove them aside. This produces a paranoid officer corps skilled at avoiding blame and evading problems as they focus their attention on the limited number chairs for when the music stops and selection board convenes.
Forcing out dedicated and expensively trained officers halfway through their working life is demoralizing, wasteful, and stupid. For example, the US military spends around two million dollars to fully train a pilot, then he requires several years of flying to be considered proficient. Nevertheless, shortages of experienced pilots are common because DOPMA requires that most pilots be discharged in their early 40s. As a result, many young pilots leave the service after their six-year obligation for airline work rather than face a job search in their 40s.
Fighter pilots must be in great physical shape to withstand vigorous maneuvers, and few men in their 40s exercise enough to meet that challenge. However, fighter pilots are a small fraction of flying slots. Civilian airline pilots have an FAA mandated retirement age of 65. Meanwhile, Air Force pilots flying transports are forced to retire in their 40s, then the Air Force must spend millions of dollars to recruit and train replacements. This is nuts! This is not only pilots, most officer positions require years of experience and professional schooling, then they are retired when fully trained. The simple solution is to allow anyone promoted to O-4 to serve until age 60 so long as his performance is satisfactory. However, that would result in a huge surplus of officers. Therefore, six steps are required to allow this transition over the next two decades.
1) Cut the number of new officers commissioned by 30%.
The first step is to reduce the inflow of new officers by trimming ROTC programs and eliminating various enlisted commissioning programs that weaken the enlisted force. This will slow officer manpower intake to allow full careers, and immediately save manpower and expenses from the recruiting, training, and schooling of new officers. For example, if officers are allowed to serve full careers, fewer will be needed as replacements. If an army requires 1000 officers who serve 20 years and then retire, 50 new officers are needed each year. However, if those officers serve 40 years, then only 25 new officers are needed each year. The number of retired officers are halved as well, so retirement costs are much less.
2) Allow enlisted men grade E-7 and above to serve until age 56.
If an enlisted man is healthy and fit, he should be allowed to serve until age 60, which was the standard prior to World War II. The life expectancy of men has increased by six years since then as modern medicine improved health care, so even a retirement age of 65 is reasonable. However, today's enlisted are forced to retire at arbitrary limits. E-9s must retire after 30 years of service, even though most are just 49 years old and have been selected as the very best enlisted personnel. E-7s and E-8s also advanced near the top of the enlisted ranks, yet they are forced to retire in their mid-40s; the limit varies by service.
Each year, thousands of dedicated and highly skilled senior enlisted personnel are literally kicked out, because of an old law. If a senior enlisted is fit, motivated, and performing well, why force him to retire, especially since this costs the service money to recruit and train a replacement? The only objection is that allowing senior enlisted to stay in service for a full career will slow promotions for younger enlisted, back to pre-World War II levels. However, this will result in a more experienced enlisted force that will be satisfied knowing they can serve a longer, full career. Here is a detailed article on this idea.
Allowing enlisted men to serve until longer fits neatly with proposal #1-- fewer junior officers. For example, positions such as an infantry weapons platoon commander are better filled by an E-8 with 20 years of experience rather than an O-2 to one year of experience. The military services can identify thousands of positions that can filled by retaining experienced senior enlisted in uniform longer rather than using newly trained junior officers.
3) Officers passed-over for promotion to O-5 and O-6 will not be considered for promotion again until four years later.
DOPMA requires that officers passed-over for promotion remain "in the zone" and are allowed another chance for promotion the following year. While this seems fair, tough competition for promotion makes those passed-over lepers, and over 98% are passed-over again. Since they may get just one additional performance evaluation in their record book before their second chance, it's rare to be selected "above the zone." Allowing passed-over officers to remain in the service and in the zone for promotion for years will cause a tremendous paperwork burden as they are reviewed for promotion each year.
This burden is lessened if officers did not come up for promotion again until four years after being passed-over. They will have a far better opportunity during their second chance with four more years of experience and several more performance evaluations. Any poor evaluation that hurt them four years prior will seem less important to the board. In addition, manpower requirements change over time; World War II happened within four years. They may have been passed-over because of an overage in their specialty at the time, which has since become a shortage. The passed-over stigma will still hurt, but chances for promotion are better if allowed four more years to prove themselves.
4) Officers are allowed three chances for promotion to O-5 and O-6.
Ideally, all officers promoted to O-4 should be allowed to serve until age 60. Since the US military spends considerable sums to train officers, it should encourage them to remain in uniform as long as possible, and not force them out in their early 40s where they earn retirement pay and free medical care for doing nothing. Unfortunately, adopting this idea will cause of huge surplus of mid-ranking officers for 20 years until the reduced inflow new officers allows full careers up to age 60.
An intermediate step is needed to allow O-4s and O-5s to remain in service a few years longer. The best method is to allow three chances for promotion, with the system of falling "in zone" for promotion only every four years, as described in proposal #3. This means that twice passed-over O-4s who must retire after 20 years today, could serve up to 24 years even after failing promotion at the 15-year, 19-year, and 23-year marks. Most twice passed-over O-5s must retire after 22 years today. They would see a big increase as they could serve almost 30 years even if passed-over three times, at the 20, 24, and 28-year marks. This assumes that passed-over officers have performed satisfactorily, otherwise the same selection board that passed them over for promotion may select them for early retirement.
This intermediate step is not ideal, but better than the current system. Keep in mind that passed-over officers can still retire after 20 years of service if they choose. As fewer junior officers enter service and become O-4s and O-5s two decades from now, then the number of four-year promotion chances can be gradually increased until all O-4s and above can serve until age 60. Thus, a career Major may be passed-over for promotion six times before age 60. However, if he doing a great job running a recruiting station in St. Louis, why retire him? It will become common for older passed-over officers to be assigned slow-track support assignments so that the younger fast-track career officers can remain in the operating forces. The experience level and knowledge in many activities will soar as some older O-4s, O-5s, and O-6s remain in the same assignment for over a decade.
5)O-6s may serve beyond 30-years of service until age 56.
Today's O-6s must retire after 30 years of service, regardless of age. So an officer who does not enter the military until age 28 is allowed to serve to age 58, while those commissioned at age 22 are forced to retire at age 52 because, that's the way an old law was written. An officer's retirement benefits cannot increase past 75% of basic pay after 30 years of service. However, most O-6s would prefer to stay in uniform a few more years rather than looking for a new career in their early 50s. This will save the US military many millions of dollars as hundreds of O-6s forgo a few years of retired pay by remaining in uniform.
O-6s should be allowed to serve until age 60, but this would cause a large surplus of O-6s for 30 years until the reduced inflow of new officers reduces the number of middle ranking officers by 2040. Meanwhile, a modest change to allow O-6s to serve until age 56 will be appreciated by all and save a great deal of money. Of course, some O-6s may lose their fitness to serve as the grow older, yet that is already an issue today. Therefore, annual O-7 selection boards should retire any O-6 unfit for service.
Transitioning to "Up or Stay"
The chart below shows three plans. The first one in green is today's system under DOPMA that has been discussed above. The second is a 2020 goal shown in black that begins to correct the problem of "up or out" where the intake of new officers is cut 30%, while passed-over O-4s and O-5s are allowed three chances for promotion (rather than one today) every four years (rather than one year later today). O-6s can serve until age 56. The third column in blue is the goal for 2040, where selection boards consider career officers for promotion every four years, allowing O-4s and above the chance to serve until age 60, unless poor performance or manpower overages require early retirement. Note that fewer officers are promoted each year as officers serve longer careers.
The basic idea is to allow career officers to eventually serve until age 60, if they perform satisfactorily. Note that fewer officers are promoted each year although the selection rate remains the same as DOPMA because passed-over officers remain in uniform much longer. There will be some manpower turmoil as this plan is implemented. Reducing the annual inflow of officers by 30% will free thousands of personnel in the officer recruiting and training pipeline. This will eventually cut the number of retired officers by 30%, who will collect retirement pay fewer years since they remain longer in the service. In addition, unhealthy competition among officers to remain in uniform will decrease. The US military can save billions of dollars annually and correct this serious problem by replacing "up or out" with "up or stay."
Carlton Meyer editor@G2mil.com