News Flash: Army Promotion Rates Skyrocket During Wars

The LAT is publishing, as if it were hot of the presses, news that Army promotion rates skyrocket during wartime. Mark Mazzetti, who is a solid defense reporter and should not be shocked by this, reports:

Struggling to retain enough officers to lead its forces, the Army has begun to dramatically increase the number of soldiers it promotes, raising fears within the service that wartime strains are diluting the quality of the officer corps. Last year, the Army promoted 97% of all eligible captains to the rank of major, Pentagon data show. That was up from a historical average of 70% to 80%. Traditionally, the Army has used the step to major as a winnowing point to push lower-performing soldiers out of the military. The service also promoted 86% of eligible majors to the rank of lieutenant colonel in 2005, up from the historical average of 65% to 75%.

The higher rates of promotion are part of efforts to fill new slots created by an Army reorganization and to compensate for officers who are resigning from the service, many after multiple rotations to Iraq. The promotion rates “are much higher than they have been in the past because we need more officers than we did before,” said Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, an Army spokesman.

The Army has long taken pride in the competitiveness of its promotions, and insists that only officers that meet rigorous standards are elevated through its ranks. But the recent trends in promotions have stirred concerns that the Army is being forced to lower its standards to provide leaders for combat units that will be deployed overseas. “The problem here is that you’re not knocking off the bottom 20%,” said a high-ranking Army officer at the Pentagon. “Basically, if you haven’t been court-martialed, you’re going to be promoted to major.”

While all more-or-less true, those of us who have been paying attention the last several years already knew this. Further, anyone with any knowledge of military history knows this has long been the way when the country is at war.

The post-Civil War frontier Army kept officers languishing at company grades (lieutenant and captain) for years on end. Promotions skyrocketed during World War I. They plumetted again during the interwar years, with men spending long years as captains. During World War II, majors and lieutenant colonels in their twenties were a common sight. Quick promotions were the order of the day in Vietnam, too.

The reasons for this are twofold. The first is obvious: Wars kill people and those who survive move up to fill sudden vacancies. The second is more important: Wars usually bring in a huge influx of volunteers and draftees in the lower ranks and experienced officers and NCOs are in comparatively short supply.

Neither of these factors has had much of an effect on the current situation, since casualties have thankfully been incredibly low by historical standards and we have not, as many have lamented, reinstituted the draft. The situation is not, however, that hard to explain.

First, for several years in the early 1990s, we were getting rid of junior officers left and right (and commissioning fewer lieutenants to begin with) in order to draw down the force and give the country the “peace dividend” it reasonably expected after the Cold War. Those guys are are the ones coming up for lieutenant colonel and major now. Because we suddenly need virtually all of them, rather than the historic three quarters of them, promotion is easier.

Second, a lot of officers got out over the last fifteen years or so who might well have stayed on during the Cold War. The high operations tempo and resultant family separation during that period have no precedent in the all-volunteer era. When coupled with the huge dot.com boom that overlapped much of that period, a lot of fine officers simply decided they could not afford to stay on.

Kevin Drum, notes that he has “been surprised over the past couple of years to learn how fragile the Army apparently is. I wouldn’t have expected an occupation of 150,000 soldiers for three years to have caused as much stress as it has.” I have followed this issue for the better part of twenty years and, while I had predicted some of the fallout–especially with regard to the Reserve Component–I underestimated the magnitude of the strain.

One of Drum’s commenters notes, “An academic who studies the military, commenting on the two reports that came out last week, said the US force structure was transformed after Vietnam from ‘marathoner’ to ‘world class sprinter.’ He then said that in Iraq the sprinter is being asked to run a marathon.” That’s about right.

There’s no real good solution for this, either. A draft, for reasons I’ve articulated ad nauseum, is as impractical militarily as it is unpopular politically. A massively upscaled Army would be incredibly expensive to recruit and retain. And we got along astonishingly well for the last generation with that world class sprinter Army.

If Iraq isn’t a one-off though–and I’m pretty sure it isn’t–this is something we’ll have to address.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Michael Kasun says:

    In times of war the promotion rate is much quicker that in peace time.

    My father was a WWII fighter pilot and made the jump from Capt. to Maj. in 4 months.

    Nothing unusual here.

  2. ken says:

    There’s no real good solution for this, either. A draft, for reasons I’ve articulated ad nauseum, is as impractical militarily as it is unpopular politically. A massively upscaled Army would be incredibly expensive to recruit and retain. And we got along astonishingly well for the last generation with that world class sprinter Army.

    No solution? You are right. When the politicians start start an illegal, immoral and unnecessary war it should put a strain on our military. The strain should be big enough that it becomes self correcting and politicians refrain from supporting illegal, immoral and unnecessary wars.

  3. My Dad joined just as Korea was winding down. He got three stripes in 1 year. The fourth one took two years, and if they had known he wouldn’t re-enlist, he wouldn’t have gotten it at all.

  4. McGehee says:

    When the politicians start start an illegal, immoral and unnecessary war it should put a strain on our military. The strain should be big enough that it becomes self correcting…

    As in what, a military coup?

  5. legion says:

    While its true that the LAT story is complete fluff, there are a couple of minor points…
    I don’t have any Army regs close to hand, but I’m pretty sure we don’t do battlefield promotions anymore. If your colonel gets capped, and you’re the next-ranking officer, you don’t get to pin on colonel… you just get to be acting CO until a new colonel gets in. And even when we did do that, I also believe many of those promotions (at least for officers) were brevet promos – i.e., the rank was not permanent, you stil got paid at your ‘old’ pay grade, and when the current crisis was declared over, you reverted back to your permanent grade. Many a WWI general reverted to being a field-grader after the Armistice.

    Also, the Army has had a huge problem maintaining enough captains in service for ages. I distinctly remember reading an AF Times article describing it a ‘crisis’ sometime prior to 9-11; it was guessed as being a combination of the dot-com boom sucking people out of the military and a general disillusionment with careerism and politics in the senior ranks.

  6. jimbo says:

    Kerry may have been right for the wrong reasons. We do not and will not have a force large enough to occupy and transform a country the size of Iraq, and no other nation will help us in any significant way. We need to find a way to let rogue and failed states fester in their own juices, and prevent any of their crazies from getting loose. Kerry seemed to think we needed to have Interpol track down OBL to his cave and serve him a warrant to appear in the Hague. Instead, maybe we need to tighten borders and incapacitate certain people in ways that will make civil libertarians uncomfortable.