The defense policy bill signed into law by President Joe Biden Dec. 23 will make a small but significant change to how the National Guard processes officer promotions, and it also directs the Defense Department to study how bureaucratic requirements affect timely promotions in the Guard.
National Guard officers simultaneously hold two distinct entities: a state-level one in their state’s Guard, and one in the reserves of their respective federal military branches. When it’s promotion time, they must be promoted in both organizations.
After being promoted in their states, officers must also have their promotions processed through the Pentagon and Congress, via a process called “federal recognition.”
In some cases, federal recognition is instantaneous, such as for automatic promotions or when an officer was chosen for promotion by a service-wide promotion board before being promoted in their state. But when officers receive so-called “vacancy promotions” when a state initiates the promotion of an eligible officer to a job authorized for the next higher rank, the federal recognition process can stretch for months or even years.
Such delays leave officers working in new jobs of greater responsibility while wearing their old rank — and they don’t receive retroactive pay or seniority once the promotion later goes through.
The fiscal 2023 defense policy bill targets federal recognition delays in two ways:
- Beginning in January 2024, officers whose federal recognition takes more than 100 days will have their promotion’s effective date (which determines seniority and backpay) retroactively dated to when the state first submitted their federal recognition package to the National Guard Bureau (or the day the officer moved into a higher-ranking billet. The secretaries of the Army and Air Force “may” do the same for officers promoted in 2023.
- The law also requires the Pentagon to launch a private contractor-led study “on the National Guard commissioned officer and warrant officer promotion system.” The report will focus on the federal recognition process and how it can be improved, including the feasibility of introducing a dedicated information technology system for transmitting promotion packets.
The moves couldn’t have come any sooner, argued a spokesperson for the National Guard Association of the U.S., John Goheen.
“We hear about this all the time from our members,” explained Goheen in a telephone interview. “There are people doing jobs without the appropriate rank...how do you command respect when you’re doing the job of a particular rank — when people expect a particular rank — and you’re wearing a rank below that?”
The federal recognition process was originally established to ensure that states weren’t trying to promote or appoint unqualified officers in their respective National Guards, he said.
But the rising use of the National Guard in recent decades has created a force that’s largely in step with its federal requirements, leading some to feel federal recognition is “redundant.”
“These are [separate] state and federal commissions, [so] I doubt we’re going to get to a point where the services are going to say [they] don’t need to check on this,” Goheen said. “[But] how much time do they really need to make sure the state’s done their job?”
The author of this article, Davis Winkie, is a member of the National Guard Association of the United States.
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army. He focuses on investigations, personnel concerns and military justice. Davis, also a Guard veteran, was a finalist in the 2023 Livingston Awards for his work with The Texas Tribune investigating the National Guard's border missions. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill.