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Research Summary

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Research Questions

  1. What challenges does the USSF face with GO promotions because of its structure and statutory requirements?
  2. What insights from the executive selection processes in the private sector and other military services would help the USSF improve its GO promotion process?
  3. What are the pros and cons of pursuing statutory changes and incorporating conventional assignment flexibilities?

Unlike the other military services, which have been around longer and have larger populations, the U.S. Space Force (USSF) faces unique challenges with developing and promoting its general officer (GO) ranks. In this report, the authors define the ideal characteristics of the USSF's GO promotion process, analyze the executive selection process in other military services and the private sector, draw insights from subject-matter-expert interviews, and use a simulation analysis to evaluate the options that the USSF could pursue to address these challenges. The authors worked with senior leaders in the USSF to enumerate a set of desired characteristics for an ideal promotion system and conducted semistructured interviews with personnel who were likely to have insights on aspects of the USSF's problems. The results of the authors' simulation model of the USSF GO promotion system enabled them to characterize the system based on its ability to fill vacancies, expected selectivity, and resulting promotion rates.

Key Findings

  • The USSF faces three main challenges in managing its GO corps: (1) having enough viable candidates to allow for a measure of selectivity, (2) aligning the competencies of selected officers with those who are vacating their positions, and (3) meeting statutory constraints for promotion board membership and selection rates.
  • The USSF could often encounter circumstances in which the number of O-8 (major general) vacancies equals or exceeds the number of eligible O-7 (brigadier general) candidates. Multigrade promotions at major general (including O-6s, or colonels, as candidates for promotion to O-8) could increase selectivity for O-8 positions that require competencies that few O-7 positions require. The Judge Advocate General's Corps and Chaplain Corps both offer a precedent.
  • The USSF will need to exercise rigorous workforce planning to anticipate future retirements and promotions and then use the planning results to provide guidance to promotion boards regarding specific competency requirements.
  • Incorporating USSF Senior Executive Service (SES) personnel on selection boards could allow promotion boards to be held more frequently if sufficient officers are unavailable and could increase the diversity of perspectives and demographics on promotion boards.
  • Some changes, such as expanding promotion board eligibility, removing selection rate caps, or authorizing multigrade promotions, require changes in statute.
  • Conventional assignment flexibilities — e.g., grade substitution, frocking (or awarding officers the next grade and title before formal promotion can take place), cross-functional utilization, shifting position to SES, and recalling retired officers to active duty — can be used to mitigate the promotion system's limitations.


  • The USSF should provide comprehensive minimum and maximum competency guidance to O-7 and O-8 promotion boards that is based not only on expected vacancies but also on the overall succession planning.
  • The USSF should propose legislative changes for three additional flexibilities: (1) a request for the 95-percent cap on the selection rate to apply to the total number of eligible officers rather than those on their first promotion look, (2) the ability to use members of the SES as selection board members, and (3) the authority to consider O-6s (colonels) for promotion to O-8.
  • The USSF should employ all available conventional assignment flexibilities to address challenges in aligning personnel with promotions. Such flexibilities include conferring GO authorities to capable SESs, frocking, and recalling retired GOs to active duty.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by the USSF Deputy Chief of Space Operations for Human Capital (USSF/S1) and conducted within the Workforce, Development, and Health Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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