Proposed Updates to Military Promotions Need OK from Congress: Carter


Defense Secretary Ashton Carter proposed sweeping changes Thursday to long-standing personnel practices for uniformed and civilian personnel system, including reform of the "up-or-out" promotion standards for officers.

Most of the proposals would require approval from Congress, which is even more gridlocked than usual in an election year. Even so, Carter said "we're pleased with the positive support we've seen" from the Capitol Hill leadership for his so-called Force Of The Future initiative aimed at modernizing the Pentagon's bureaucracy.

The secretary also said he was seeking to make the proposed changes permanent to avoid temporary pilot programs in an effort to give personnel more stability in planning their careers.

He summed up one of the major changes that does not need congressional approval this way -- "no more paper forms" for recruiting and enlisting

"Enlistment alone requires processing 70 to 80 million pieces of paper every year," Carter said. "That's slow, expensive, and inefficient. So over the next five years, we're going to move to an all-digital system."

In a lengthy address in the Pentagon's courtyard, the secretary said he needed help from Congress to revise the 1980 Defense Officer Personnel Management Act to implement many of the changes he was proposing.

"Many of you are familiar with 'up-or-out,' the term for our current system," Carter told the audience that included at least two service secretaries and two members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "This system serves us well, but that doesn't mean it can't be improved."

He said, "'up-or-out' isn't broken -- in fact, it's an essential and highly successful system -- but it's also not perfect. Most of the time, and for most of our people, it works well. The problem, however, is that DoD can't take a one-size-fits-all approach."

The current promotion system for officers "can lead to a particular assignment going to the most senior person on the list, even if someone else a bit lower down would be more effective in the job," Carter said.

"It also means that high-performing officers who get selected for promotion a year or two ahead of theirs peers often have to wait in line behind everyone else more senior -- sometimes for a year or more -- which prevents putting their talent to use as soon as it may be needed. It's counter-productive," he said.

Carter said he was seeking from Congress a relaxation of the strict timelines that dictate how long an officer can stay in one rank before promotion to the next to avoid penalizing officers who decide to pursue graduate degrees or take "non-traditional" career paths. He recommended allowing the services to defer promotion boards for such officers.

Carter cited the example of Army Lt. Joseph Riley to bolster his argument for more flexibility in the "up-or-out" system.

Riley was a Rhodes Scholar and the nation's top ROTC cadet in 2013, but "because he spent two years at Oxford instead of holding the typical military jobs expected of the Army's junior officers, the system almost didn't promote him, and in fact was on track to separate him from the military entirely" until the Army intervened on his behalf, Carter said.

"We can't have a system that inadvertently almost kicks out a Rhodes Scholar just because the calendar tells us to," he said. "A Ph.D., a Masters, or another experience or form of advanced training doesn't make for a diverted warrior -- it makes for a smarter warrior."

Carter sought to portray many of the proposed changes as coming from the services themselves, rather than the Pentagon's bureaucracy, to give them a better chance in Congress.

He said Lt. Riley was on the way out of the service before Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley intervened. He credited Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Nicholson for another proposal that would allow the services to adjust the "so-called lineal numbers of officers" to balance merit against seniority.

Right now, the existing legislation "limits how many personnel are allowed for each rank, so officers selected for promotion have to wait for an opening in the rank above them before they can actually get promoted," Carter said.

"So that's why we're seeking to change DOPMA to let the services adjust lineal numbers based on superior performance. It's a key part of good talent management," he said.

A third change Carter was seeking involved what the Pentagon calls "lateral entry" -- the term for how the military now inducts doctors, lawyers and chaplains at ranks commensurate with their skills and experience.

Carter said he wants the ability to bring in civilians with top skills in such fields as cyber, science and other technical areas at officers' ranks without going through the usual training.

"So in those situations, when perhaps a network defense or encryption expert from a tech company feels a call to serve, and is willing to contribute to our mission as a reservist or on active-duty, we need a way to harness their expertise and put it to use," Carter said. "We may not be able to offer as much money as the private-sector, but we can offer one of the noblest of missions."

On the civilian side, Carter said he was seeking authority from Congress to hire directly out of college, "and make no mistake -- this is going to be huge. I can't emphasize that enough."

Currently, when a Pentagon recruiter meets a student well-suited for a particular job, the student is referred to the USAJOBS website, Carter said. That can lead to 90 days of paperwork, not counting a possible security clearance, he said. To speed the process, Carter said he wanted the authority to make a tentative job offer to a recruit immediately.

Carter was also calling on Congress to approve six weeks of paid maternity and paternity leave for civilian personnel. "Parental leave is fully paid for military personnel, and the same should be true for their civilian colleagues," he said.

In a background briefing after Carter spoke, a senior Defense Department official said that negotiations were already underway with Congress on the proposals. Without identifying them, the official said that "senior members are supportive."

The official said that Carter's address was "probably the end of the road for legislative proposals" coming out of the Pentagon this year," though he wouldn't rule out that the secretary might come up with more personnel ideas that don't require congressional approval.

--Richard Sisk can be reached at

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