Officer promotion in the U.S. Army is a competitive, sink-or-swim process. Seniority is a consideration only in that it makes one eligible for promotion. It does not guarantee it; past performance and leadership potential are the main considerations. The promotion of field officers is strongly meritocratic. However, the promotion of generals follows a different system and is often politicised.
The legal guidelines describing how U.S. Army officer promotion works are contained in Title 10 of the U.S. Code. This is the block of federal law that deals expressly with the military and civil-military relations. The other major source of rules regarding the process is Army Regulation 600-8-29, but other regulations, instructions and directives apply as well.
Army officers are required to serve a set period of time in their present ranks before they are considered for promotion under terms described in Department of Defense (DoD) Instruction 1320.13. This is called "time-in-grade" in the military. For example, a second lieutenant seeking promotion to first lieutenant must serve 18 months of "time-in-grade" before he becomes eligible. Another consideration is total time spent in the service. A lieutenant colonel must spend three years "time-in-grade" and a total of 16 years in the Army before he becomes eligible for promotion to full colonel.
After serving sufficient time to become eligible, an officer must be recommended by his commanding officer. Strictly speaking, an officer can be promoted without the consent of a commanding officer, but this is difficult to achieve and highly unusual.
Promotion Selection Board
The main hurdle to promotion is passing the Promotion Selection Board, an Army-wide panel comprised of 18 to 21 serving officers and chaired by a general. Their focus of consideration is on fitness reports and the officer's leadership potential. The latter is partially subjective but demonstrated by how much responsibility the officer held in his current rank. For example, supervising regional recruitment efforts or a public relations office will not merit the same consideration as leading a combat unit, for example. Meanwhile, a single average or negative fitness report can be enough to sink an officer's promotion chances.
The Board's process is highly competitive, because there are only a set number of open slots at each rank every year. It is possible that an officer can be recommended for promotion by the Board but not make the cut for an open slot. These officers are referred to as "Above-the-Zone" and are automatically forwarded to next year's Board.
Up or Out
The U.S. military has an "up or out" policy. Officers who are passed over for promotion twice (including those who are recommended but are unable to secure an open slot) are required to either leave the service or retire.
The jump from colonel to brigadier general (one star) follows a different process. All general officers are recommended by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The Army has another promotion board for this purpose, which draws up a list of potential candidates. The only other requirement is a prior tour in a "joint" assignment (outside the Army and in cooperation with other military services), but this is virtually a formality because almost everyone holding the rank of colonel will have achieved it.
The requirements are similar to those of more junior ranks, except that the minimum "time-in-grade" for any general rank is one year. When there is an open slot, the president picks someone from the list, usually with the advice of the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Army and the Army Chief of Staff. The candidate's name is then submitted to the Senate. This makes the process for promoting generals markedly more political than for lower grades, where competitive merit is the overwhelming factor.
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