Defense wants officer managing change

By Tom Philpott

The Defense Department has asked Congress for authority to test new promotion, pay and retirement policies on four small communities of officers, the results of which could lead to a “revolution” in officer career management, said David S. C. Chu, the Pentagon’s top manpower official.

The officer management experiments would involve all Army foreign area officers, about 1,000 total; several hundred Navy acquisition professionals; and a few thousand Navy “restricted line” engineering duty officers, both those involved with ships or submarines and those in aviation.

Chu, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, told a Senate subcommittee that the authorities sought could prove powerful for finding better ways to recruit, develop and promote officers.

“It will not change things next year, except for those few officers,” Chu said. “But it will, I will argue, have a dramatic, profound effect on what we will all learn together five (or) 10 years from now — and I think, will produce the next revolution in officer personnel management.’’

Chu compared the proposed officer experiments to demonstration programs for managing Navy civilian employees at China Lake laboratories in California, which began in 1980. Those evolved over many years into the new National Security Personnel System, which Congress enacted in 2003 and which will be phased in for all DoD civilians, starting with 60,000 in July.

The officer initiatives could be included as part of the 2006 defense authorization bill. But first the armed services committees have to accept the notion of waiving all current laws and regulations governing officer personnel management, even if only for several thousand officers.

Bill Carr, acting deputy under secretary of defense for military personnel policy, conceded the committees “aren’t in love with any of this.”

But unless Congress trusts the department to experiment with new management techniques, Carr said, their effectiveness can’t be proven, and efforts to transform the officer corps to be more cost effective and professionally satisfying can’t proceed.

“It is, in essence, an opportunity for us to be more agile, to be more responsive to officers, for them to have greater options, but above all for us to find out what works so we can put it in law and proliferate it,” Carr said.

The most powerful advocate for change is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a critic of the “up-or-out” officer promotion system. The military adopted the system in 1947 and hates to give up. Up-or-out was designed to keep the officer corps young and vigorous, and allow only the most qualified to reach the upper ranks. It replaced a strict seniority system that had left much deadwood in the senior ranks of the U.S. military as World War II began.

Under up-or-out, officers stand for promotion at set points in their careers and the percentage promotion opportunity is well known. If passed over twice for the next higher rank, officers are discharged or retired.

Rumsfeld says up-or-out is too rigid and wasteful, as it forces out many expensively trained and still capable officers. His staff commissioned the think tank, RAND, to develop alternatives to up-or-out. The RAND report, “New Paths to Success: Determining Career Alternative for Field-Grade Officer,” serves as a blueprint for demonstrations DoD wants to run.

One key feature of the Army foreign area officer test will be ending up-or-out so that FAOs who are twice passed over can remain in service as long as their skills are in demand, Carr said. Up-or-out is especially inefficient for FAOs who don’t begin their specialty training until they are captains and become FAO as new majors, after immersion in the language and culture of a foreign country. They serve typically as military attaches, military-political officers, on intelligence staffs or as security assistance officers.

Though enormously effective in their niche, Carr said, FAOs see promotion opportunity pinched by rigid grade structure requirements. Few gain the rank of colonel and many, because of up-or-out, must retire while their skills are still in great demand.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: