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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.

  • pismopal

    Skilled personnel should be paid commensurate with their expertise and experience but no officer should wear O6 boards who was not once an Ensign.
    Just my E5 opinion.

    • Norman S Pearce

      Lots of officers make O-6 without serving as Ensigns, they just tend to be specialists such as chaplains, JAGs and doctors. This seems to me to be just expanding the scope of such appointments to other specialized fields for officers who will not command anything outside of a narrow specialist unit, if indeed they are allowed to command anything.

      I’m more interested to see the modification of the “up or out” system as I have long felt it created a tremendous waste of talent. One size does not fit all, and the rules for promotion for combat commanders do not need to be the same as those for technical specialists.

      • pismopal

        I was meant to be specific about the subject. LDOs are not line officers, medical officers are not line officers, lawyers are not line officers. Line officers command people in wars, or in peace they command those who fight them and fight themselves.

    • Beowulfsfriend

      Yeah, a chief can ignore an Ensign. Old E5.

    • NavySubNuke

      As Norman said it depends on what flavor of officer you are talking about – line officers I agree with you. But when you start including the restricted line folks it is a different story. Doctors have been this way for a long time – they enter as O3s. Having a cyber security specialist join later in their career at a higher rank than O1 just makes sense. Especially if they won’t ever be in the chain of command for any ship or boat they might attach to since they aren’t a line officer.

      • proudrino

        Doctors (also JAGS and Chaplains) are staff corps not restricted line. Restricted line, including all of the Information Warfare designators, don’t have command-at-sea as a career milestone but there are career milestones. How is a pushbutton officer prepared for these milestones without the requiste fundamentals that come from coming up through the ranks? IMO, it is much better to bring an officer in as an Ensign and let them do an operational tour BEFORE doing a lateral transfer to a designator like IP.

    • USNVO

      While I generally agree with you, it is hard to form an opinion without seeing the policy that comes from the legal authority. Each circumstance is unique and a blanket policy is rarely correct at all times. William Knudsen was directly commissioned a LGEN in WWII and the nation was well served by that.

  • scotfahey

    When you look at the Laws that the Service must follow, many such rules were funded for the constitutional Max of Two Years, and maybe renewed., maybe not. Some rules date back to needs, that have not been around Since
    Douglas MacArthur was a Captain and requested a transfer to Washington, D.C
    Maybe before. The USA is in need of understanding the mission, then building a force to meet that need

  • Brian Smith

    With regards to aviators in particular, there is always a subset of the group that would actually prefer to ‘remain operational’, so to speak, and not promote above 0-3 on a hard ‘up or out’ schedule. The return of a modified aviation LDO program could work as follows: as a ‘shelter’ for officers wishing to remain at their current rank and fly, although it need not be a permanent change of designator. If they wanted to get back into the promotion mix and command track at a later time, they could submit a package to go before a board for reinstatement to the unrestricted line. Furthermore, an LDO program would provide a place to retain officers who failed to promote under the revisions mentioned in the article. These, however, would not be eligible for a return to the unrestricted line career/promotion path. They would finish out their service as LDO’s.

    • Joseph Dadi

      Really good points. You get to the heart that many technical jobs (like aviation) are manned by people that just want to do the job, not run the place.

    • proudrino

      The only nit I have to pick with your plan is the idea that an officer would be able to opt back into the promotion mix. NO! That’s the scheme the Air Force just announced. Why let officers fly until its no longer fun (or they age out) and then allow them to opt back into leadership track assignments? It is a slap in the face of those of their peers who took the necessary but un-fun assignments while these officers “remained operational.”

      • James B.

        If an officer had stepped off the command track to remain a flying LT, they would still be an LT when they applied for reinstatement, so they would have to go through the same unpleasant jobs as everyone else. I don’t foresee envy from those officers “burdened” with promotion to command positions.

        However, it would be a big issue for Big Navy personnel management. The officer structure of the Navy is built on the rigidity of DOPMA: every promotion board is influenced by the number and type of officers needed at the next level. In top-heavy communities that already have high attrition, the Navy cannot afford to let anyone off the command track, or they won’t have enough commanders to go around.

      • Brian Smith

        Like James B. outlines, at the time an LDO opted back into the promotion mix, they would still be at the rank they went LDO at. So they would not be exempted from the disassociated sea tours, staff tours, Pentagon duty, and other turds that lead to command. Consider also that an LDO who was an O-3 for 12 years or so before opting back on the command track would be VERY experienced in their community, a SME in their warfare specialty, and probably highly qualified to command. The only drawback is that they really would be the ‘old man’ when they took command, but the same is already true for Mustang officers. Maybe that extra seasoning wouldn’t be so bad. In addition, an ‘out’ like the LDO program for passed over aviators would, perhaps, serve to make 0-4 NOT the most dreaded rank/years in an aviator’s career- you’d see more people doing the ‘right’ thing rather than the ‘career’ thing. Officers wouldn’t have to sweat that ‘notch’ where they’ve opted to stay for 20 but might not make it.

  • NavySubNuke

    It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I wonder if folks who were forced into the Reserves by not screening for O4 twice will be able to cross back into active duty under this or if the provisions to allow folks back in won’t apply to those who didn’t screen then.
    The funny thing is how many of those folks go on to do great in the reserves and make O4 and even O5/O6 despite not being selected twice on active duty. That is the best example I can think of of why up or out had to go.

  • Michael D. Woods

    “Major changes”–ha-ha, very clever. More seriously, though, I’m suspicious of the services’ ability to assess merit. With the rapid rotation of seniors and subordinates, the quiet, competent officer is too often ignored in favor of the noisy or over-confident self-promoter, especially when evaluated by someone who attained senior status as a self-promoter himself. I’ve seen this enough to believe it, though it’s thirty years ago now. During my observation of reserves, where the guys really knew each other, this didn’t happen so much. Second, if you must bring in people laterally, at least not into the line. We who think of ourselves as military and naval professionals want to recognize each other. Marines, who constitute a single corps, would have to think of some way to distinguish each other.

  • proudrino

    I question the credibility that pushbutton O-6s will have within the military ranks. There are better ways to attract these people without making a farce out of the commissioning system. The only exception to the above would be those commissioned into the medical staff corps where credibility comes from ability to practice medicine. For those in the URL and RL communities- not so much.

  • publius_maximus_III

    Need to adopt a “Peter Principle Minus One” approach: promotion to one level below the level of incompetence, then allowed to remain there on active duty until retirement. Just one little hitch…

  • James Bowen

    At face value this looks like a big improvement over the system DOPMA established. Under that rigid year group system, potential as a warfighter/warleader has had almost nothing to do with how officers were selected for promotion.

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