Cover: Department of the Air Force Officer Talent Management Reforms

Department of the Air Force Officer Talent Management Reforms

Implications for Career Field Health and Demographic Diversity

Published Jul 27, 2021

by Matthew Walsh, David Schulker, Nelson Lim, Albert A. Robbert, Raymond E. Conley, John S. Crown, Christopher E. Maerzluft


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Research Question

  1. How will interdependent policy changes affect outcomes of the personnel system?

The Department of the Air Force is revamping the way it manages officer development and promotion. As part of this overhaul, the Line of the Air Force (LAF)—a single developmental category (DevCat) accounting for more than 80 percent of officers and 40 career fields—is being split into six separate DevCats. New personnel management flexibilities, introduced by the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, are also being introduced. The purpose of these changes is to enable the identification, development, and rewarding of talent at all stages of an officer's career.

The motivations behind these personnel policy changes are clear. However, given the complexity of officer development and promotion management, it is difficult to fully anticipate the effects of these changes. To help decisionmakers evaluate the utility and implications of new personnel policies, the authors built a strategic tool called the Air Force Personnel Policy Simulation Tool (PPST) to simulate the effects of new personnel policies on career field health and demographic diversity. This tool can help ensure that Air Force policy changes will further stated goals; identify potentially adverse consequences of personnel policy changes on career fields and demographic groups; and if needed, develop mitigating courses of action.

Key Findings

  • Splitting the LAF might reduce selection rates for career fields that historically received more promotions and increase selection rates for those that historically received fewer promotions. Changes in selection rates, in turn, could change inventory sizes.
  • Because female and minority officers are overrepresented in career fields that have historically received fewer promotions, splitting the LAF could increase diversity at the ranks of O-5 and O-6.
  • Eliminating below-the-promotion-zone (BPZ) selections may cause officers to reach O-5 and O-6 with more years of service on average and to serve for fewer years at those grades. This, in turn, would mean that more annual separations would occur at O-5 and O-6 and that more promotions would be needed to maintain grade strength.
  • Simulation results indicated that white female officers are expected to receive the highest percentage of BPZ selections after splitting the LAF. Consequently, the effects of replacing BPZ with merit-based sequencing may have a negative effect that is more pronounced for white female officers than for officers in other demographic categories.
  • For officers to become competitive for promotion after first being passed, they would need to complete additional career development experiences that are both visible to promotion boards and treated as significant growth signals.


  • Carefully monitor implementation of these reforms to ensure that they address intended goals.
  • Use a strategic tool such as the one PAF developed to ensure that policy changes will advance stated goals; to identify potentially adverse effects of personnel policy changes on career fields and demographic groups; and, if needed, to develop mitigating courses of action.

Research conducted by

This research was commissioned by the Director of Force Development, Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower, Personnel, and Services and conducted within the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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