A West Point graduate with management experience and high-tech know-how, Army Lt. Col. Ron Offutt has the kind of skills the military pays billions to attract and keep.
Yet despite a solid 20-year record, when Offutt was passed over twice for promotion, the military's "up or out" personnel system left no choice: He had to leave the Army he loved. Five years ago, Offutt went to work for a high-tech defense contractor--where he supervises about 50 people building computerized training systems sold to the military.
Offutt doesn't think this makes a lot of sense. Nor does Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. He's called for a fundamental rethinking of this promotion system as a central part of his sweeping overhaul of the U.S. military.
"Up or out" was designed in the early days of the Cold War to provide a young, rapidly renewed labor force for a military that might at any moment have to mobilize millions for war. But in these days, in an era of push-button warfare, only 10% of military personnel are trigger-pullers, and what the services desperately need are people with technical skills, management aptitude and maturity.
Rumsfeld points out the irony: While the military is spending generously to recruit and keep young talent, the system is jettisoning experienced and skilled men and women along with the underperformers. He says it is "mindless" to get rid of people who are "at the top of their game" and is exploring whether to permit more of them to stay longer at their current rank.
Changing this tradition would have wide ramifications for a system that has been a core part of American military culture for half a century. Yet "if he pulls it off, this could be the legacy they remember him for," says retired Rear Adm. Kendell M. Pease, who was formerly the Navy's chief information officer.
And Rumsfeld may be able to do just that. While the existing system has support, there is also a growing appetite in the military and Congress for reform, driven in part by the military's continuing hunger for talent.
To be sure, military leaders believe they had compelling reasons for setting up the system as they did. When Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall began reorganizing the military in 1939, promotion was based entirely on seniority, and no one moved ahead unless a superior was promoted, died or retired.
Marshall found warriors in late middle age who had been in the same rank for decades. Even a promising young Army officer named Dwight D. Eisenhower was required to remain an Army captain for 20 years--more than three times the typical period today.
Eisenhower Pitches Plan to Congress
After World War II, it was Eisenhower who went to Congress with the controversial idea of a system that would continually evaluate officers and enlisted personnel for promotions and cull the ones who weren't suited for higher rank.
The system rewarded those who had acquired key training and experience at each rank. Especially at the higher ranks, officers and enlisted personnel who wanted to get ahead had to use their time carefully to accumulate the right experiences and training--much as Eagle Scouts accumulate merit badges.
Officers now are considered for promotion every three to five years and enlisted personnel more frequently. At higher ranks, the number of openings declines and competition grows fiercer.
Last year, for example, the Air Force promoted about half of senior airmen to staff sergeant but only 14% to chief master sergeant, the highest enlisted rank. Almost 90% of captains made it to major, but only 45% made it to colonel, and only 2% to brigadier general.
Those who are passed over twice by a promotion board are, technically, required to leave, though committees called "continuation boards" can permit some personnel to stay on for additional years at their last rank.
Decisions of promotion boards are often fraught with controversy, since they have to judge competing candidates with very similar performance records, and have only limited time and information with which to do it.
Retired Navy Capt. Larry Seaquist recalled how, as commanding officer of the battleship Iowa, he had to judge promotions of five subordinate commanders. It was often not hard to discern who was most and least capable, Seaquist said, but "it was very tough to decide who was No. 4 from No. 3. And careers were on the line."
In the last several years, as the military has struggled to meet recruitment goals, the services have made more and more adjustments to try to keep people with valued skills.
They've increased promotion rates. As recently as 1996, the Air Force was promoting only 17% of senior airmen. This year it will be about 51%.
Nevertheless, there are many stories of candidates with valued skills being asked to leave before they wanted to.
'I Was in the Great, Gray Middle'
Army Maj. David Key, 42, spent about a decade as an artillery officer, then was trained by the Army in computers and information technology. He got a master's degree in computer science and was chosen for the honor of teaching in his new specialty at West Point.
But he was passed over twice for promotion, in 1997 and 1998. He doesn't know exactly why, since the reasons are never spelled out to candidates. The Army had to choose from among 10 candidates for every six slots, and "I was in the great, gray middle," said Key, who is serving at Ft. Sill, Okla.
A continuation board allowed Key to stay on for two years, but this year he was told, to his disappointment, that he would have to leave.
In February, an Army official sent him a letter saying that he would be able to stay on longer. But by then, he said, he was too far into planning his new civilian life to turn back.
Key says he has known Army IT specialists who have doubled their salaries immediately by taking civilian jobs. He says he expects to initially increase his compensation by at least 10% to 15%, though he still regrets having to give up his uniform.
Though "this wasn't the way I intended to end my career," he says, "I had a good career and the Army treated me well.'
The current system puts at a disadvantage people in technical specialties that are considered distant from the military's core mission of combat arms.
Marine Col. Nolan Schmidt, for example, is a procurement specialist whose skills were so prized by the Corps that three years ago he was made program manager of the Corps' MV-22 Osprey aircraft program, its highest weapon priority. But Schmidt was passed over and had to retire this month because, according to a spokesman, Marines in that specialty rarely get promoted to brigadier general.
Many other personnel leave the military before they are passed over because they assume their odds of promotion are not great.
Retired Coast Guard Capt. Bud Schneeweis was in charge of 500 people as the head of recruiting, a specialty that has become increasingly vital in recent years.
Yet Schneeweis says he retired in April knowing that he wasn't likely to make it to admiral because recruiting is "out of the mainstream" and the odds were against him being picked for one of the small number of admiral slots.
Analysts point out that, while the system purges underperformers, most of those who are not promoted are officially rated as fully qualified, though not the best qualified, for promotion.
Even more telling, the system tends to force out people who want to focus on their specialty but don't want to manage other people: IT specialists who want to build computer systems but don't want to manage other computer experts, and infantry officers who relish field assignments but don't want staff tours in the Pentagon.
They note that in other countries, such as Britain, officers can make full careers as majors.
Greater Variety of Career Paths Suggested
Harry Thie, a military manpower specialist at Rand Corp., said the underlying issue is whether the military should do more to foster differing career paths for personnel who have different talents and ambitions.
Perhaps, he says, the military should allow people to stay longer in the assignments they prefer, and perhaps it should even allow people to stay beyond the 30-year mark that is now the limit for all but generals and admirals.
Reform advocates have sometimes proposed simultaneous changes in military compensation to help draw people with differing interests and ambitions to the military. Last year, the Defense Science Board, a high-level Pentagon advisory group, urged the department to modify "up or out" for some skill areas and restructure the military pay system to emphasize pay for performance and skills.
Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, said Rumsfeld recognizes that the services can't afford to get top-heavy with officers and that it is vital to keep open opportunities for younger people.
Despite those risks, he added, in Rumsfeld's view reform offers "some attractive possibilities."
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Reconsidering "Up or Out"
The Department of Defense may be changing its "up or out" policy which releases personnel who were bypassed for promotion. Promotion rates for selected Air Force ranks in 2000:
Note: These are only the officers considered for promotion during the primary promotion review period.
Source: U.S. Air Force