Secretary of Defense Ash Carter prepares to speak to U.S. Army Cadet Command cadets who are at Fort Knox to complete their Cadet Summer Training on June 22, 2016.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter prepares to speak to U.S. Army Cadet Command cadets who are at Fort Knox to complete their Cadet Summer Training on June 22, 2016. (Michael Maddox/U.S. Army)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said his proposal to allow officers to stay in rank longer does not fundamentally change the Defense Department’s promotions policy but gives them flexibility to retain quality officers who might otherwise leave the service.

Earlier this month, Carter announced his proposed reforms to the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, legislation commonly known as “up or out,” in which officers must meet specific requirements to be promoted to the next rank within a certain time in order to remain in the military. The result of the 1980 law is the military’s major through colonel or equivalent ranks are capped at the number of officers who can be in those ranks at any given time.

Carter proposed allowing major through colonel ranks or their Navy equivalent the option to request their promotion considerations be deferred to extend their time in their current ranks. He said this would allow those officers greater flexibility to take on assignments that aren’t necessarily part of their promotion requirements, or to stay in a position that they enjoy. While the services would be in charge of determining how long the officer could defer, Carter said he envisions adding 1-2 years eligibility in a rank.

“And I think that is what [the service chiefs] would choose,” he said.

On Tuesday, during an exclusive interview with Stars and Stripes, Carter said he wanted to tweak the system to address a side effect of “up or out” that has bothered him, that officers are less willing to veer from assignments that will meet promotion requirements out of risk of not meeting a calendar-based deadline.

The legislation “in the way it is written, it is over-restrictive,” he said. “Really good people don’t take advantage of opportunities to broaden their skills and make themselves better leaders for the future because they are afraid of letting a deadline pass.”

Carter said he saw the need for flexibility through his many years in the Pentagon, where “on average” the structure works to promote. But he said it can fail an outlier, such as an officer who wants to take a year to pursue a fellowship. When Carter became Defense Secretary in February 2015, making these personnel management reforms was the topic of his first speech.

His proposal also allows the services to raise the caps on the number of officers in those specific ranks, so that an officer who chooses to stay in one rank longer is not taking away an opportunity from a more junior officer who seeks a promotion. The rank caps are set in law and based on a services’ end strength and the number of commissioned officers it has.

The proposals have cautious support in the Senate version of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. The Senate included language to create a five-year trial period to temporarily remove the caps on the number of officers in the major through colonel or equivalent ranks, but also noted concern that removing the caps could strip the fluidity that “up or out” creates.

The Senate’s version also requires the DOD to report back on what impact the added flexibility has on retaining officers in specific career fields, including intelligence, foreign language skills, military legal experts and cyber experts.

“The committee recognizes the value in flexibility in personnel authorities yet remains concerned that the authority under this section must not be used to promote ‘grade creep,’” the Senate wrote in its version of the bill, which still must be reconciled with the House version later this year. The House version does not include those provisions.

Carter emphasized his proposal is not an overhaul, but a tweak to the existing structure. However, the change was viewed as a more fundamental shift by military advocates.

Garry Hall, a retired rear admiral and president of the Association of the United States Navy, opposes the change because of the effects that he thinks it will have on innovative, younger officers and the unexpected consequences it might hold for the force down the line.

“You can get really stale – it’s hard to motivate [lieutenants or captains] if they see somebody who has been a [major] for 20 years,” Hall said.

Hall is also concerned the effects of expanding certain ranks won’t be understood for years and could have unintended consequences. For example, the Congressional Research Service found in 2006 that due to the Army reducing the number of new officers it recruited during the 1990s to meet congressionally mandated end-strength cuts, it had about 4,000 fewer captains and majors than it needed to meet the demands of the mission in Iraq that year.

“Start manipulating the personnel system and it will have an effect you don’t expect,” Hall said.

Retired Lt. Gen. Guy Swan, now a vice president at the Association of the United States Army, also voiced concern about the long-term effects of shifting the “up or out” culture in the military.

“I think [Carter’s] doing the right thing challenging the system,” Swan said. But a change that would allow officers to stay in rank longer could have the unintended effect of making officer development more sluggish.

“This system has been built on growing leaders,” he said. “If you change promotions today, it will reverberate for the next decade or so. So these decisions cannot be taken lightly.”

Swan also questioned whether the costs of implementing the change have been considered, such as needing new personnel management computer systems.

“Where is the money going to come from? There’s a real fiscal element to this,” he said.

There is also a question of time to enact the “up or out” change, and other proposed changes, such as allowing civilians to enter the military as a colonel in certain fields such as cyber warfare.

Some of Carter’s proposals require legislation. With an election just four months from now, it is not clear whether there will be time for Congress to pass some of the “Force of the Future” initiatives.

“You get into a prioritization exercise,” Swan said. “Which of these is more important than the others?”

Carter said it can get done before a new presidential administration takes office in January.

“There’s plenty of good that can be done in the time remaining and there’s plenty of changes that have to be made in those [defense] bills to make them serve our military better – this could be one of those changes,” he said. Twitter: @TaraCopp

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