Cover: Officer Career Management

Officer Career Management

Steps Toward Modernization in the 2018 and 2019 National Defense Authorization Acts

Published Mar 25, 2019

by Albert A. Robbert, Katherine L. Kidder, Caitlin Lee, Agnes Gereben Schaefer, William H. Waggy II


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Research Question

  1. What are the perspectives of service secretariat, military, and reserve staffs on the current policies for regular and reserve officer career management, including current practices pertaining to promotions, tenure, talent management, and active/reserve component permeability?

Section 572 of the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) called for the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the secretaries of the military departments, to provide two reports on policies for regular and reserve officer career management. The reports are intended to provide perspectives on the body of statutory provisions commonly referred to as the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA) and the Reserve Officer Personnel Management Act (ROPMA). The first report addressed the sequencing of promotion lists. The second report encompassed 15 additional promotion or career management issues. Sections 501 through 507 of the fiscal year 2019 NDAA enacted some of the provisions explored in the 2018 reporting requirements and required further reporting on a new promotion-related flexibility.

The director of Officer and Enlisted Personnel Management within the Office of the Secretary of Defense asked RAND for assistance in obtaining perspectives from service secretariat, military, and reserve staffs on the issues to be covered in the various reports required by the 2018 legislation, organizing the perspectives, and providing additional information or analysis helpful in informing potential statutory or policy changes. The authors of this report summarize that work and also outline related statutory changes introduced in the 2019 legislation.

Key Findings

The military departments believe that DOPMA and ROPMA continue to provide an effective framework for managing the careers of officers in core warfighting communities

  • Service representatives indicated that DOPMA/ROPMA promotion structures and tenure management policies still work well.
  • The services have devised standardized career paths that develop tactically proficient leaders and account for facets of DOPMA/ROPMA that constrain professional development models.
  • Representatives agreed that there are benefits to active/reserve component permeability but also identified several barriers, including the current scrolling process.

Where change is needed, it is primarily to accommodate needs in low-density occupations, foster the pursuit of unconventional but useful career paths, or permit an earlier shift of more promising officers from tactical to strategic skill development

  • Service representatives conveyed a willingness to depart from the emphasis on standardization promulgated by DOPMA/ROPMA and shift toward greater differentiation of career management approaches across the services and for different needs within each of the services.
  • Openness to new officer career management flexibilities appears to be married to a strong sense that implementation should be at the discretion of service secretaries.
  • Secretarial discretion allows the services to tailor their approaches to specific needs and to allow gradual adoption of new flexibilities as their longer-range consequences become better understood.

The phenomenon that most clearly signals a need for new flexibilities is the employment of military personnel in offensive cyber warfare

  • There is a perception that conventional career management approaches may not yield the human capital needed for success in this mission set.


  • The services should search for innovative ways to take advantage of existing and emerging flexibilities.
  • Legislators could provide service secretaries with the latitude to adapt innovatively to their current and future challenges.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted by the Forces and Resources Policy Center within RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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