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Record-high retention in the officer corps has forced the Air Force to cancel its 2013 majors' selection board. The service is calling it a delay of at least six months, but it is effectively a cancellation, as there will be no line majors' board in 2013.
Directly affected are about 2,500 line captains commissioned in 2005.
But the move signals a broader problem challenging Air Force personnel officials: Too many colonels and lieutenant colonels are postponing retirement and staying on active duty, gumming up the promotion system.
By delaying the majors' board, officials hope to keep from stretching out the time between selection and pinning on the new rank. Because the 2004 and 2005 year groups are comparatively large and the number of retiring senior officers is below historic norms, the time between selection and promotion was threatening to reach 18 months for these year groups — roughly 50 percent longer than normal.
Brig. Gen. Gina Grosso, director of force management policy and deputy chief of staff of Manpower, Personnel and Services, said colonels staying longer in their grades have created a domino effect that has left fewer vacancies for newly pinned-on lieutenant colonels. That creates a backup for majors and is now jamming up the way ahead for captains.
The Air Force did have other options: It could have reduced the 90 percent promotion rate for aspiring majors; it could have reduced the number of officers reviewed by the board by abandoning the year groups in favor of a lineal system; or it could have taken steps to ease the logjam through involuntary means at the colonel and lieutenant colonel ranks.
Delaying the board proved the simplest approach for the service.
"We're going to promote the same number of people, and they're going to pin on at a date determined by the retention rate," said John Park, deputy director of force management policy. "We're not going to be denying any more people promotion to major than we would have if we hadn't delayed the board."
Delays in selection boards can have long-term implications for those whose decision on whether to stay in the Air Force or get out is hanging on whether or not they are promoted. Likewise, delays in pinning on have financial repercussions that last for an entire career. Six-month delays on individual raises will yield similar delays for subsequent promotion raises over officers' careers, including the point at which they retire and their final retirement pay calculations. The difference will amount to thousands of dollars.
Sticking to the December 2013 schedule would not only have slowed down the 2005 year group, but also the groups that followed. Left unchanged, the delay to pinning on would only get worse.
The goal is to have selectees pin on their new rank within 10 months to a year of being selected, Park said; moving the board for the 2005 year group out by at least six months should accomplish that.
"Instead of having a board select people and then have to wait 18 months to pin on, we moved the board later to some point in 2014, which is closer to that pin-on date," he said. "[The Office of the Secretary of Defense] asks us to confirm those promotions within a certain time."
The majors' board for judge advocates will also be delayed for scheduling reasons, but this delay will not affect projected pin-on dates. And neither chaplains nor health profession officers are affected by the delay.
Lt. Col. Emi Izawa, chief of the Military Force Policy Division, said the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act controls how many officers the service can have at each grade.
"If the Air Force were to continue at the pin-on rates common over the past several years, the total number of majors would surpass the total allowable by the law," Izawa said.
Park said moving the 2013 board to July 2014 will eliminate the December 2014 majors' board, which would likely be held in summer 2015.
The Air Force is on target this year to meet the DOPMA limits of 13,000 majors, 9,000 lieutenant colonels and 3,000 colonels by Sept. 30, Grosso said. As of Aug. 31, the service had 13,197 majors, 9,191 lieutenant colonels and 3,125 colonels, but that number does not take into account retirements, separations and promotions scheduled for September.
Grosso said the service was asked by Air Force Secretary Michael Donley to do a better job managing to its DOPMA limits.
"There are years when we haven't hit the DOPMA targets, and truthfully nothing has happened, but we try to manage to that," she said. "We can request a waiver, but … our secretary wants us to be good fiscal stewards on personnel and not exceed the end strength because it's quite expensive."
Grosso said adjusting the promotion rate — already reduced from 95 percent to 90 percent in 2010 — was ruled out, as were more aggressive measures, such as 15-year retirements for majors or above and involuntary reductions in force.
Park was adamant that the service would not break faith with senior officers.
"We're not talking about doing adverse action to create opportunity for people to get promoted a little bit earlier that were going to get promoted any way," Park said. "There is not a forcing function for people who are serving well in the Air Force in order for us to manage the board date closer to the time when those people would start pinning on. I don't think we're ever going to do anything really adverse to drive quicker pin-on time for people."
The Air Force can still offer early retirements to select personnel under the temporary early retirement authority, or TERA, approved by Congress last year.
Lt. Gen. Darrell Jones, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, told Air Force Times in January that the service probably would offer early retirement incentives to narrowly targeted groups of airmen with between 15 and 19 years of service in 2013 — but no specific plans have been announced so far.
"We would use it for overage career fields and to shape the force," he said at the time.
At the Air Force Association conference outside Washington in September, Jones said the Air Force has spent the past two years "strategically shaping the force."
"We're not going to have the bathtubs that we had where entire communities had gone out, and then we had to go back and figure out how we were going to get back. We've been able to protect our seed corn. The bad thing about protecting the seed corn is you have to make people get out," he said.
The Air Force has excelled at retention, he said, noting that it is at a 17-year high.
"Some of you have asked whether we'll ever get to a place in the Air Force where we're not paying people to leave and then a year later paying them to stay; I said no, probably not," Jones said. "That's the nature of what we do."