Getting Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel Gets Harder for Operators

The selection rate for majors in zone for promoted to lieutenant colonel dropped slightly this year, while “above the zone” promotions continue to rise.

The Air Force unveiled an overhaul to its selection system in 2019, and instituted those changes in 2020, creating six competitive categories rather than have officers compete for promotion in a single group. The new system was supposed to make it easier for non-rated officers in logistics or intelligence, for example, to compete for advancement against rated officers, such as pilots and navigators.  

The selection rate for Line of the Air Force majors promoted “in the zone,” which ranged from 76 percent to 77 percent since the change, dropped this year to 75.1 percent. Above-zone promotions, those for officers getting their second look by the promotion board, rose to 13 percent, the highest level since the change.

Early, or “below-the-zone” promotions, were eliminated in 2020.

Driving the shift is the air operations and special warfare category. Majors in this category, the largest in the Air Force, accounting for nearly half of those considered, were selected at a 74.4 percent rate, down nearly five percentage points from 2021.

“Above the zone” selections for operators were just 8.2 percent, the lowest in any category. 

Selections also fell for information warfare officers, the second largest category. In-zone selections fell to 74 percent, down from 78.2 percent in 2021. However, the above-zone selection rate for information warfare officers tripled from 2021, rising from 6.4 percent then to 19.3 percent this year. 

Combat support—the third largest category—which has seen fluctuating in-zone selections in recent years, saw an increase in “above the zone” selection. 

When the Air Force announced its categories, the intent was to ensure officers competed to advance against peers with similar skills, career progression, and experience. Officials have since argued the system has also improved diversity, because women and racial minorities make up a greater portion of the non-rated officer community.  

On the whole, more than 1,500 majors were in zone for consideration by the board, the largest cohort in at least four years. The group was likely larger because retention ticked up, related to the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, potentially creating a slightly larger cohort. 

This year’s promotion cycle also marks the first time promotions boards have been able to see if potential lieutenant colonels have advanced academic degrees since 2014. The Air Force started “masking” those degrees because Airmen had come to see such degrees as a prerequisite for promotion—even if they had little to do with their career field. 

In reversing that policy, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall emphasized that advanced degrees are “neither a requirement for promotion to major or lieutenant colonel nor a guarantor of promotion.”  

“The DAF will continue to value both operationally and educationally derived experience and expertise and will always value high levels of performance,” he added. 

CATEGORY“In the Zone” Considered“In the Zone” Selected“In the Zone” Rate“Above the Zone” Considered“Above the Zone” Selected“Above the Zone” Rate
Air Operations & Special Warfare75055874.4511428.2
Nuclear & Missile Operations352571.435514.3
Information Warfare31123074.01813519.3
Force Modernization15812277.2137139.5
Combat Support26520175.81623823.5
Cross Functional Operations574782.516531.3
Data courtesy of Air Force Personnel Center