Pentagon’s Up-or-Out Reforms the Right Move

Like many other fellow military officers, I waited eagerly Thursday to hear the specifics of Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s proposal to revamp the military promotion system. For me, his announcement comes while I am choosing my next assignment and asking the age old question: Do I want a traditional assignment to stay competitive or a cool one that suits my interests and abilities?

As somebody who started his career in intelligence working undercover for almost four years as double agent against Russian military intelligence, traditional has never been my strong suit. I was excited with the possibility that being a senior technical expert can be a career track for officers just as much as becoming a commanding officer or XO. In a year that has seen new policies on LGBT, pension systems, and maternity and paternity leave, my hopes were set high that real change could be achieved. But would the proposal to re-shape decades old military promotion culture and created the dreaded “up or out” policy deliver?

I decided to ask a UK military colleague what he thought of our current system. I explained to him the up-or-out rules that mandate separating officers not selected for promotion twice. His answer was immediate and direct: “We have no such draconian measures here.”

As a Royal Air Force pilot, he was familiar with the competitive nature that comes in holding a coveted position. The more I learned about the British officer promotion system, the more I believed they have it right. For example, pilots in the RAF can stay in the cockpit their entire career. They may select to not pursue a command path, allowing them to keep flying and even retiring as an OF3/Major, the British designation for O-4. Promotions, he explained, were a “necessary evil” but few were not selected for promotion after their third window. Instead, new officers start “an initial six-year short service commission … which would not be renewed if they were struggling.” It seemed the British have a system that judges officers on being officers and, once they complete six years of service (and by virtue of time and experience, become truly useful), are allowed to continue on playing a crucial and important role in their organization till retirement. Surely, a proven system used by our closest ally would be acceptable to us?

On Thursday, Secretary Carter specified the details on his new policy proclaiming…

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