Military Commissioned Officer Promotions

Promotion Times and Promotion Rates for Promotions to O-2 through O-10

Officers assigned to the Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Louisville (SSN 724) render honors during a change of command ceremony at Naval Station Pearl Harbor.. Photo courtesy U.S. Navy; photo by: Chief Mass Communication Specialist Josh Thompson

Promotions among the officer corps in the military start off typically as automatic by simply putting in time in rate and meeting the standard.  You have to really do something horrible to not meet the typical "heartbeat" promotions from O-1 to O-3.  Driving under the influence, committing a felony, failing training programs, or not meeting the minimum standards of the military can be one of a few things can prevent you from being promoted.

Changes in authorizations, losses and promotions to the next higher grade create fluctuations in both the time in service (TIS) and time in grade (TIG) for each of the military services. However, DOD requires that promotion opportunities for commissioned officers be (approximately) the same for all of the services, when possible, within constraints of available promotion positions.

The below chart shows the point where commissioned officers (in any of the services) can expect to be promoted (assuming they are selected for promotion), based upon their time-in-service. Minimum time-in-grade for promotion is established by federal law (10 U.S.C.) and is also shown in the chart below.

Promote to:

Time in Service

Minimum Time in Grade Required by Law

Promotion Opportunity

0-2

18 months

18 months

Fully qualified (nearly 100 percent)

0-3

4 years

2 years

Fully qualified (nearly 100 percent)

0-4

10 years

3 years

Best qualified (80 percent)

0-5

16 years

3 years

Best qualified (70 percent)

0-6

22 years

3 years

Best qualified (50 percent)

Commissioned officers are recommended for promotion by their commanders, and are selected by centralize (service-wide) promotion boards, who make promotion determinations based upon the officers' promotion records.

There are basically three promotion opportunities: Below-the-Zone, In-the-Zone, and Above-the-Zone.

Below-the-Zone only applies for promotion to the rank of O-4 to O-6. One year before they would be eligible for In-the-Zone consideration, up to 10 percent of those recommended can be promoted Below-the-Zone.

Most promotions occur In-the-Zone. Those not selected In-the-Zone have one more chance, a year later -- Above-the-Zone (the selection rate for Above-the-Zone is *extremely small* -- around 3 percent). Those "passed over" Above-the-Zone must separate or retire (if eligible for retirement).

The two most significant factors in an officer's promotion records are their fitness report(s) and level of responsibility in their current and past assignments.  A negative or mediocre fitness report can result in being "passed over." Lack of current or previous assignments that had significant degrees of responsibility can also result in not being selected.

Line Numbers

Once selected for promotion by the promotion board, not all officers are promoted at the same time. Instead, officers are assigned a "line number." Each month, the service releases the line numbers of officers to be promoted during the month.

This ensures a smooth promotion flow throughout the year following the promotion board.

Line numbers are determined using the following criteria:

  • Date of Rank in their current grade
  • Date of Rank in their previous grade
  • Total Active Federal Commissioned Service Date
  • Commissioning Source:  Service Academy, ROTC, OCS
  • Total Federal Commissioned Service Date (which would include Guard/Reserve time)
  • Regular Officer over Reserve Officer
  • Date of Birth
  • Reverse social security number, with the lowest number taking precedence

Active duty officer personnel by broad occupational group and branch of military, and Coast Guard, May 2015

Officer

Army

Air Force

Coast Guard

Marine Corps

Navy

Total officer personnel in each occupational group

Occupational group

Combat Specialty 

22,865

3,799

65

4,388

6,402

37,519

Engineering, Science, and Technical 

24,353

15,227

215

4,261

10,631

54,687

Executive, Administrative, and Managerial 

13,763

6,716

220

2,516

7,105

30,320

Healthcare 

12,052

9,046

0

 

6,805

27,903

Human Resource Development

2,933

1,588

154

706

3,587

8,968

Media and Public Affairs 

326

300

16

190

264

1,096

Protective Service 

3,215

1,010

70

409

1,053

5,757

Support Service 

1,705

746

12

42

966

3,471

Transportation 

12,550

18,543

586

6,048

10,724

48,451

Non-occupation or unspecified coded personnel

2,155

4,174

7,114

2,432

7,090

22,965

Total officer personnel for each military branch and Coast Guard

95,917

61,149

8,452

20,992

54,627

241,137

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Defense, Defense Manpower Data Center

 

Reserve vs. Regular Officers

What is the difference between a "Reserve Officer" and a "Regular Officer"? Being a Reserve Officer does not mean the officer is serving in the Reserves. Previously, graduates of the service academies were commissioned as Regular Officers, while those commissioned under ROTC or Officer Candidate School (called Officer Training School in the Air Force), were commissioned as Reserve Officers, who then "competed" later during their careers to be appointed as Regular Officers.

Being a Regular officer means a better chance of being promoted, protects against RIFs (reduction in force), and allows an officer to serve longer.

These days, all officers (including Academy graduates) are initially commissioned as Reserve Officers, and compete among themselves for appointment to regular officer at the time they are considered for promotion to major (O-4). Major-selects who also win appointment to Regular status receive the advantages of being a Regular Officer. This means:

By law, Regular Officers promoted to lieutenant colonel (O-5) may serve for 28 active commissioned years, while those promoted to colonel (O-6) may stay for 30 active commissioned years-unless earlier retired by other provisions of law. By policy, Reserve Officers are limited to 20-years of military service; this may be extended as needed to meet specific service requirements.

Regular Officers may not be involuntarily released from active duty because of a reduction in the size of the officer force. Reserve Officers however, serve at the discretion of the Secretary of the service and may be involuntarily released at any time if the manning ceiling warrants.

Because of Regular Officers' greater tenure, they have some advantage over Reserve Officers. The military must obtain a return on a training investment and; therefore, requires officers to serve a certain period of time after the training is completed. Reserve Officers who have limited retention may not be able to complete the required period of service. Thus, Reserve Officers may be ineligible for training, whereas, Regular Officers with the prospect of greater tenure are eligible.

General Officer Promotions

The promotions to general officer (also known as "Flag Officer") are more politically determined. General officers are nominated for promotion by the President of the United States, and confirmed by the Senate.  General Officers (Flag Officers) are those in the pay grades of O-7 through O-10. Fewer than one percent of career officers will ever be promoted to Flag Rank.

  • O-7 - One Star. Brigadier General. Rear Admiral (Lower Half) in the Navy/Coast Guard
  • O-8 - Two Stars. Major General. Rear Admiral (Upper Half) in the Navy/Coast Guard
  • O-9 - Three Stars. Lieutenant General. Vice Admiral in the Navy/Coast Guard
  • O-10 - Four Stars. General. Admiral in the Navy/Coast Guard

The services hold in-service promotion boards to recommend officers for general officer promotion to the President. When vacancies occur (a general officer gets promoted or retires), the President nominates officers to be promoted from these lists (with advice from the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the applicable service, and the Service Chief of Staff/Commandant).

Like the other commissioned officer ranks, Congress limits the number of General Officers that can serve on active duty.

Current Number of Active Duty General and Flag Officers As of December 2015

Grade

Army

Navy

Marine Corps

Air Force

TOTAL

General/Admiral

12

10

4

12

38

Lieutenant General/Vice Admiral

50

35

17

43

145

Major General/Rear Admiral

124

62

26

91

303

Brigadier General /Rear Admiral (Lower Half)

133

110

36

131

410

TOTAL

319

217

83

277

896

Source: Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs.

To be promoted to O-7, an officer must first complete a full tour in a Joint-Duty-Assignment (this is an assignment to a unit that is comprised of members from two or more of the services). This requirement can be waived, in some instances (10 USC, Sec 619a).

The mandatory retirement age for all general officers is 62 (this can be deferred to age 64 in some cases). Under the law (10 USC, Sec 635), an officer who has been promoted to O-7, but is not on the recommended list to O-8, must retire five years after promotion to O-7, or 30 years of active duty service, whichever is later.

An O-8 must retire five years after being promoted to O-8, or 35 years of service, whichever is greater (10 USC, Sec 636).

The Secretary of the Service Concerned (ie, Secretary of the Army, Secretary of the Navy, Secretary of the Air Force) or the President of the United States, can defer the above mandatory retirements, up until the time that the officer reaches the age of 62 (10 USC, Sec 637).

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