Cover: Building an Officer Corps for the Future

Building an Officer Corps for the Future

Published 2004

by Harry J. Thie, Roger Allen Brown

Research Brief

In recent years, the military and its officer requirements have changed rapidly. In the early 1980s, active forces and, consequently, the officer corps expanded; after the fall of the Berlin Wall, both were cut. The existing officer management system did not handle well either growth or reduction. To accomplish the latter, Congress had to authorize temporary measures that voided major tenets of the existing management system, such as those dealing with career tenure. Clearly neither the existing system nor the temporary measures are adequate for future officer management.

Responding to congressional direction, the secretary of defense asked RAND's National Defense Research Institute (NDRI) to review officer management systems for use in the post-drawdown era. Specific consideration was to be given to

  • regulating flows into, within, and out of the officer corps
  • encouraging longer careers to be the rule rather than the exception
  • adjusting "up-or-out" features
  • developing career advancement patterns that encourage longer careers
  • reducing turnover and increasing stability.

To address the issues raised by Congress, NDRI researchers designed a number of alternative career management systems and evaluated them, identifying aspects of officer career management that merit special consideration in any effort to alter the current system.

Alternative Officer Management Systems

The researchers concluded that two binary choices shape the fundamental nature of the career management system. These choices determine where in the organization people can enter and on what basis they leave. People can enter the system either at the bottom or at any point along the career path. They may then leave at either their own choice (natural attrition) or that of the organization (forced attrition). The combination of these choices determines the career flows available. For example, the military currently has an "up-or-out" structure that employs entry at the bottom and forced attrition (although today, most departures are voluntary). Many organizations use an "up-and-stay" structure that allows natural attrition throughout. Other organizations emphasize an "in-and-out" structure that allows entry at any point in the experience profile. A "mixed" structure combines entry and attrition at different segments in a career.

The NDRI team identified four key personnel functions that operate within career flow structures: accessing, developing, promoting, and transitioning. Decisions about how these functions are implemented within a given flow structure can make for very different management systems. For example, in an up-or-out structure, decisions about promotion timing and opportunity can radically alter the composition of the officer corps.

NDRI staff designed five alternative officer management systems that vary in personnel functions and the career flow structures that govern those functions. Most alternatives feature entry at the beginning of careers. In some alternatives, personnel could enter after they had developed skills in a civilian setting. Skill groups could be managed separately.[1] Promotion would generally occur as necessary to meet grade requirements. In some alternatives, officers would be considered for promotion for periods of five years, which would allow some officers to be promoted quickly, but all would remain competitive for promotion for the entire period. Higher-ranking officers not promoted would remain on duty in some alternatives but would be separated in others, as is the practice now. The point at which officers could leave with a reduced or full retirement annuity was varied to support different maximum career lengths. Some alternatives would provide outplacement services and incentives to leave; others would not.


NDRI staff determined that any effective officer management system must meet several primary criteria. First, it must provide enough officers at the proper grades. It must also attract and develop officers so that they have adequate ability and experience to meet the needs of the services, commands, and agencies that use them. An officer management system must foster careers that provide satisfaction and opportunity in exchange for commitment. Finally, it must be flexible enough to adapt to changes in the size and composition of the officer corps.

NDRI researchers determined that any of the combinations of personnel functions and career flow structures in the five alternatives could meet the demand for numbers, grades, and skills of officers, but the several career flow structures have different strengths and weaknesses. Some do not satisfy the criteria for experience or for career satisfaction. Others provide flexibility as forces increase or decrease but diminish military experience and career satisfaction. Although no single alternative satisfies all the evaluation criteria, varying personnel policies and allowing different career flow structures to operate at different career points could satisfy all criteria.


Guiding Observations

Although the national security strategy and the particular objectives of the various services will dictate choices about which features would be best included in an officer management system, the following observations may help guide those choices.

Accessing. Individuals could enter the officer corps from many sources, including from the enlisted ranks, ROTC, and the service academies. While military acculturation before entry is necessary, the degree could vary by skill group as it does now. For example, officers in the line or in technical specialist groups need more military acculturation; those in support or professional groups need less.

Developing. In the future, officers' qualifications should relate more to their skills and experience than to their ability to be promoted. Separate career paths could be provided for skilled individuals not on command tracks. Lateral moves to different duties and responsibilities could sustain interest and motivate those who have reached advancement plateaus.

Promoting. Because people develop at different rates, faster and slower career pacing could serve both military and individual needs. Longer promotion periods could accommodate both. Combining long promotion periods with fast-track promotions would allow for stable promotions, longer careers, and rapid advancement of officers who develop more quickly. Extending the promotion periods would not increase the number of promotions but would enable more people to be eligible longer, thereby creating an incentive to stay in the service. This measure would reduce the relationship among age, grade, and length of service, because merit would play a greater role in promotion and seniority a lesser one.

Transitioning. Longer careers—for example, 30 to 35 years—appear to benefit both the services and the individual officers. Many mechanisms could be used to guide the continuation or exit of officers. Vesting could encourage junior officers to remain beyond entry commitments, then induce voluntary separation after limited careers. Outplacement and exit payments could provide incentives for early exit when necessary for force reduction. Longer careers could be encouraged by annuities payable immediately after 30 or 35 years of service.

Congress-Mandated Areas

Our observations on the specific areas Congress requested for analysis are as follows:

Regulating flows. The best features of all career flow structures could be used at different points in an officer management system. For example, forced early attrition (from the up-or-out structure) appears useful both to provide sufficient junior officers to the reserves and to limit the numbers of officers who serve in long careers. Five and ten years after entry, only those with skills or experience needed in the future would be retained. Those not selected for careers would leave active service. After the 5- and 10-year selection points, natural attrition could determine exit (as in the up-and-stay structure). Entry at the beginning of a career should be the norm. However, some room could be made for lateral entry (as in the in-and-out structure), especially by those in the reserves, those with prior military service, or those with support or professional skills.

Encouraging longer careers to be the rule. Our research shows that a specific retirement age need not apply to all officers. Individuals could be measured against their potential for continued service. Longer careers do not appear to cost significantly more or less than shorter careers, as long as size and grade requirements remain constant. However, increased pay and retirement costs can be traded off against decreased accession and training costs. These trade-offs suggest that it is possible to design a future officer career system based on effectiveness considerations because costs of different concepts are roughly comparable. However, cost becomes particularly important when choosing among options that vary force requirements, because size and grade content then change.

Adjusting up-or-out features. In our view, organizational objectives are key to adjusting up-or-out features. Up-or-out was instituted in 1947 to obtain a young and vigorous officer corps. Subsequently, the objective of increasing promotions was added. Any adjustments to the up-or-out features should be based on future objectives for forcing attrition. It seems unlikely that career management objectives of 40 or even 20 years ago will be correct for officer careers in the next century.

Developing stable career advancement patterns that encourage longer careers. Combining fast-track promotions with longer promotion eligibility allows for more stability in advancement while increasing variance in time of service. Longer zones allow more people to remain eligible longer and therefore to stay in the service longer. This approach also provides a larger pool from which to draw if needs for officers with particular qualifications change over time. Fast-track promotions also allow officers who develop more quickly to advance faster.

Reducing turnover and increasing stability. Our analysis suggests that turnover can and should be tailored to accomplish institutional goals and that uniform turnover rates across all grades may be unwise. It is possible to cause turnover when it is needed and to create stability in the ranges where it is needed. High turnover early in a career system could accomplish multiple objectives such as preserving accession institutions, meeting grade-experience requirements, and providing personnel for the reserves. However, in all skills, once career status is gained, there could be much greater stability than is now the case. Use of an up-and-stay structure once an officer achieves career status would allow greater turnover early and more stability later and may serve the requirements of the military services and the needs of officers.


  • [1] Skill groups include the (1) line group, whose skills focus on combat and other specifically military operations; (2) the specialist group, which has technical skills such as engineering; (3) the support group, whose skills are analogous to those of civilian white collar workers such as accountants; and (4) the professional group, whose skills include medicine, law, and religion.

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