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Research Questions

  1. What are the useful features of APA?
  2. What are the U.S. Air Force's promotion policy objectives?
  3. How well are policy objectives met by APA?

The Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act established an alternative authority for conducting the promotion of officers in designated competitive categories. This legislation grew out of an interest in making military officer management more compatible with the expectations of contemporary workforces while meeting the needs of a modern force. The earlier and still-relevant Defense Officer Personnel Management Act standardizes the conventional overall framework for managing the careers of officers. The authors examine whether a shift from the conventional promotion construct to alternative promotion authority (APA) would be beneficial to the U.S. Air Force and how such a shift would be implemented to minimize negative effects on officers and the force. Many familiar policies under the conventional authority concerning promotion timing and opportunity either do not apply or apply in different ways to promotions under the alternative authority.

The authors use simulation modeling to estimate the effects of various policy scenarios under conventional and alternative promotion processes for officers. In addition, they examine two related policy options — merit sequencing and lineal zone management — and the role they play in differentiating promotion timing under either conventional or APA.

Key Findings

APA has useful features but also drawbacks

  • Alternative promotion processes remove the potential stigma of nonselection for promotion, making promotion consideration less stressful.
  • Officers have the latitude to pursue unconventional career paths.
  • A significant drawback is the limited capacity to hasten the advancement of high-potential officers.
  • The administrative processes required to implement, and potentially back out of, the APA framework are complex and burdensome.

A range of policy considerations can be used to evaluate promotion policy options

  • Promotion policy affects human capital management at an individual level (e.g., performance motivation and retention) and at a collective level (e.g., having personnel inventories by experience levels, occupational distributions, and other special competency requirements).
  • Three of the most important policy objectives are accommodating varying career development paths, providing predictable promotion timing and opportunity, and advancing and retaining the highest-potential officers.

The ability to meet policy objectives is mixed

  • The predictability of promotion timing is largely preserved under APA.
  • APA would accommodate the key objective of varying career development paths, but it would do so only marginally better than conventional promotion authorities and policies.
  • Merit sequencing and lineal promotion zone management are also useful policy alternatives, but when used in tandem, they produce undesirable effects.


  • Use caution in moving toward APA.
  • If a decision is made to implement APA despite its limitations, then start with a test case. Choose a single development category or a subset of an officer development category in order to better appreciate the implementation process and the officer management outcomes.
  • Retain merit sequencing as a feature of field-grade officer promotions under either the conventional or APA, because merit sequencing of promotion lists modestly rewards high performance.
  • Avoid the use of lineal zone management in conjunction with merit sequencing, because it can yield unmerited fast or slow promotions for some officers and detract from a desired linkage between performance and rewards.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was sponsored by the Deputy Director of Force Management Policy (AF/A1P) and conducted by the Workforce, Development, and Health Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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