Cover: Championing the Agile Air Force Officer Career

Championing the Agile Air Force Officer Career

Examining the Potential Use of New Career Management Flexibilities

Published Jul 30, 2021

by Miriam Matthews, John A. Ausink, Shirley M. Ross, Matthew Walsh, Albert A. Robbert, John S. Crown, David Schulker, Philip Armour, Irina A. Chindea, Emily Hoch, et al.


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Research Questions

  1. What are the potential consequences to the Air Force officer workforce if selected management flexibilities listed in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act are implemented?
  2. What are Air Force officers' opinions regarding the usefulness of selected career flexibilities in certain career fields?

Human resource management practices that limit career flexibility, neglect and underuse individual talents, and fail to consider employee motivations might hinder the military services' abilities to effectively manage their human capital. The fiscal year (FY) 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) authorized new options for officer career management that the military services can choose to implement. The authors of this report examined the potential utility of five of the new flexibilities (Sections 501, 502, 504, 505, and 507 of the NDAA) for improving the management of Air Force human capital. Results showed that most of the options examined have the potential to be useful in many career fields, and officers are open to their use. In addition, new officer management flexibilities might permit more-tailored career development for individuals and also allow greater diversity in how Air Force officers advance in different career fields. However, there is variation among career fields in how the options would best be implemented.

Key Findings

Allowing lateral entries at higher ranks might be effective in decreasing deficits for field grade officers in some career fields

  • Airmen who were interviewed were generally positive about this flexibility, although some expressed concern about lateral-entry candidates meeting physical requirements.

Merit-based timing can accelerate promotions to higher ranks and — in some cases — produce promotion results similar to those achieved using below-the-zone promotions

  • The majority of interviewees in all career fields had positive views about this flexibility. Officers reported believing that the current promotion system is outdated or arbitrary and that this new flexibility would incentivize individuals to perform better. The most frequently expressed concern centered on how individuals would be rated and ranked by promotion boards..

The flexibility to opt out of promotion board consideration could help encourage risk-taking in seeking assignments

  • The most commonly discussed reasons why this flexibility might be useful were that it would allow a person to remain in a job to improve their skills and it would allow individuals to decide when they are ready for promotion.

If promotion rates are made equal across the competitive categories, establishing such categories will increase promotion rates for some career fields and decrease them in others

  • The application of different flexibilities, such as merit-based promotion timing, moderates these effects. The majority of interviewees supported the implementation of new competitive categories and this corresponding flexibility.


  • If the Air Force allows accessions of individuals older than 42 years of age and enhances constructive credit, it will need to determine whether there is a supply of available candidates for career fields of interest and what additional military training individuals might need when they join. Interviewees indicated that the Air Force would need to restrict command authority among those who joined the Air Force under this flexibility, modify the promotion process for these individuals, or require that they receive training on military life and responsibilities.
  • If the Air Force allows officers of particular merit to be placed higher on a promotion list, then clear communication about what constitutes higher merit will be necessary for successful implementation. If merit-based promotion timing is used in conjunction with current below-the-zone promotion practices, the number of individuals promoted to colonel with fewer than 20 years of service could increase and alter the distribution of career fields at higher grades.
  • If officers are allowed to opt out of promotion board consideration, then implementation will require the development of opt-out criteria, a process to approve opt-out requests, timelines for opt-out decisions, and a potential adjustment in promotion rates to maintain promotion numbers.
  • If alternative promotion paths for officers in particular competitive categories are implemented, the Air Force will need to carefully monitor officer career development across the categories, including promotion results..

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by the Director of Military Force Management Policy, Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower, Personnel and Services, Headquarters U.S. Air Force and conducted by the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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