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Major Changes Due for Officer Career Paths in Latest NDAA

Capt. Jeff Heames, director of operations and training at Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC), smiles as his sons affix captain’s shoulder boards to his uniform during his promotion ceremony on board Naval Base San Diego. US Navy photo

The most significant changes in nearly 40 years to Navy officer promotions and retention have cleared Congress and are awaiting President Donald Trump’s signature.

The NDAA, which the Senate approved this week after a House vote last month, contains a myriad of authorizations for the Pentagon, including long-sought changes to the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA).

Once signed into law, the Navy will be authorized to commission new officers with vital skills at higher ranks than before, allow officers who do not promote to continue serving and make it easier for officers to take breaks from service.

Top Navy officials believe such changes are important to retain the best leaders. Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer, for example, has often mentioned DOPMA changes as being an integral part of a variety of broader reforms to Navy operations.

DOPMA was cited by Spencer when discussing a strategic review of Navy operations he ordered following last summer’s pair of deadly collisions involving two guided-missile destroyers and commercial ships. Speaking at the USNI Defense Forum in December, Spencer said the review was “still forthcoming, but we are looking at everything – and I do mean everything: from DOPMA, to Fleet Forces structure, to Goldwater-Nichols (Act of 1986, which streamlined military command).”

Passed in 1980, DOPMA sets a rigid structure of year-groups for the ranks of ensign to captain (O-1 to O-6), which organizes officers in each year-group by the date they were commissioned instead of by merit. DOPMA also established the “up-or-out” system, forcing retirement of officers who are not selected for promotion.

The push to reform DOPMA dates back to at least 2014, when Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran, then the chief of naval personnel, was working with Congress to consider updating the law. Moran, in a USNI News article, cited the policy requiring officers to either promote or leave active duty service — the “up-or-out system” — as being particularly rigid and worth reconsidering.

Once signed into law, the NDAA offers Navy and other service leaders new flexibility in promoting and retaining officers by authorizing changes such as those Moran discussed in 2015. Navy officials told USNI News the pending authorities, once signed into law, will:

  • Allow the Navy to offer new commissions up to the rank of captain (O-6) if warranted by civilian experience or other high-demand skills. The hope is individuals who have acquired skills and leadership roles in the civilian sector, especially highly sought-after cyber skills, would be encouraged to join the Navy if they could enter at a rank similar to positions they would be leaving.
  • Allow officers to take breaks in active duty service by easing the transfer to and from both the reserve community and civilian workplace. By allowing such transfers, the Navy hopes to retain officers who want to pursue private sector opportunities, advance their education or even start a family, but would like to return to active duty after a few years. The Navy has already established sabbaticals from service on a limited basis.
  • Allow Navy promotion boards to reorder officer selections based on merit, as opposed to the current system which orders promotions based on date of initial commissioning. Navy officials told USNI News the plan is for boards to reorder a subset of officers who have demonstrated particularly high merit and then rank the rest of a selection based on seniority, as has been the case.
  • Allow officers who do not screen for promotion or who are passed over repeatedly to serve longer periods of time if their skills are determined to be vital for Navy operations. In many Navy communities, failure to promote at the 0-4 level or below results in separation from the service. Though the NDAA authorization applies to officers who fail to promote up to the O-8 flag rank, Navy officials told USNI News the Navy intends to limit the scope of this provision to officers between the ranks of O-2 and O-6.

Since the NDAA has not yet been signed into law by the president, Navy officials declined to comment on the newly passed legislation at the time of posting. But leaders have been very vocal in the past about the need to reform DOPMA.

A long-standing complaint of DOPMA was its rigid guidelines. The Navy has had some flexibility with retaining enlisted sailors who do not promote, but “DOPMA gives us no choice on the officer side,” Vice Adm. Robert Burke, chief of naval personnel, said in May at the Sea Air Space 2018 Expo. “The only alternative on the officer side, with DOPMA, is to get out. Is that what we want?”

Burke continued pressing the point his predecessor Moran had been making years earlier, about how subtle congressional changes would significantly improve the ability of service branches to retain officers.

“We can accomplish this through relatively modest adjustments to the current officer personnel management framework while maintaining core Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA) attributes,” Burke said during a February testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

In May, Burke said the Navy preferred a system allowing officers to promote up and stay, or move into the reserve force but be allowed to quickly return to active duty if needed. He even suggested it would be worth allowing officers to leave the service entirely but make it relatively easy for them to rejoin the Navy at a later date, especially if in the interim they acquired new skills or valuable civilian workplace experience.

“We don’t see up-and-out as being the core,” Burke said in May.