Air Force to Dump Below-the-Zone Promotions

The Air Force is about to unleash the biggest changes to the officer promotion system in decades, eliminating below-the-zone promotions and ultimately creating a five-year window for promotions at each grade without up-or-out limitations.  

The new system will be unveiled to commanders Dec. 16 and then announced generally across the Air Force immediately after, according to a letter to commanders from Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein that was posted on the unofficial Air Force AMN-NCO-SNCO Facebook page Dec. 9. The Air Force confirmed the memo’s authenticity and released four pages of talking points that evening.  

Doing away with below-the-zone promotions will effectively slow down advancement for the Air Force’s brightest stars but it could also better recognize the potential of officers whose record begins to shine a little later than their fastest-burning peers. 

The service will delay the meeting of the 2020 lieutenant colonel promotion board by two months, until May, to ensure no one is surprised or rushed by the changes. But Goldfein wrote that the delay will not affect pin-on timelines for those selected.  

Until now, the Air Force has allowed about 2 percent of selectees to be chosen from “below the zone,” determined by the year group in-zone for promotion in each given year.  

“Under our current Below-the-Promotion-Zone (BPZ) approach, we often provide less time for our airmen to develop, particularly among those selected for early promotion [up to 3 years less development time for those selected 4 years BPZ],” the talking points memo says. “Our current BPZ approach can also have adverse quality of life and retention impacts for both those designated and those not designated Below-the-Promotion-Zone.”  

That’s because below-the-zone selectees have to move more often and more rapidly than their peers.  

In terms of promotion timing, below-the-zone selectees may be chosen up to two years early, but early selects are at the back of the line when it comes to the order of when each selectee pins on his or her new rank. Those serving the longest at a given rank advance first and those with the least time in grade bring up the rear. 

Under the new “order of merit” system, however, precedence for who gets promoted first will be based on the same scoring system used by the promotion board to determine who is most deserving. That means that a high-performing officer who is junior to his peers can still be promoted first based on the board’s review of his performance, while a more senior officer may be promoted later.  

For most, the net effect will be minimal, as the majority of majors in zone for promotion would be promoted to lieutenant colonel under both systems. But for the few who had anticipated a chance to be selected below the zone, the change will inevitably delay their march up the career ladder.  

Exactly how much this could slow down promotions for fast-burners is difficult to determine. A major selected in 2018 two years ahead of her peers would not actually pin on that rank until the end of the 12-month cycle, meaning late 2019; that’s still well ahead of her peers, but last among the newest cohort of lieutenant colonels. Under the new system, by contrast, she would not have gotten a look from the O-5 promotion until 2020. Yet because of her superior performance, she might now expect to be among the first promoted in that cycle. As a result, the net effect could be less than a year.   

The real difference will come as the new system is rolled out across all ranks. Over time, the change will mean officers will spend more time at each rank. In financial terms, the impact of a year delay for a promotion ranges from about $7,200 to more than $12,000 a year.  

Majors and lieutenant colonels interviewed on the subject expressed frustration at that aspect of the change. “The people that might have been considered for below-the-zone promotions will be disincentivized by this approach,” predicted one lieutenant colonel when the concept was shared with him. “They are going to have to make some tough life choices.” Some, he said, would choose to leave.  

Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services, argued vigorously for the new system while discussing changes to the promotion system during a global tour of Air Force bases last summer.  

“Today, when you get promoted below the zone, you are instantly, from that point forward, on a very fast train,” Kelly said then. “Between the first time you get promoted below the zone and the next time, your time is compressed. They have less development time.” 

When that acceleration repeats itself multiple times, from major to lieutenant colonel to colonel, the Air Force ends up with highly talented officers with gaps in their experience.  

Indeed, officers asked about the change expressed frustration with senior officers they had worked for who lacked all the experience they might have had if they hadn’t been promoted so early.   

Majors and lieutenant colonels interviewed on the subject said they would not object to eliminating below-the-zone promotions if what the Air Force did was simply open up the zone to more year groups. “If the new zone starts at the same point where it would now be below the zone, it’s fine—and may be better,” said one major. “That would help eliminate the stigma for those selected above the zone.” But if it means delaying those early looks, he added, then the change would be objectionable.  

Said another: “Optimistically, I’m a huge fan of some of what they’re doing. Realistically, though, I’m not sure. If this isn’t anything but delaying by two years, it’s going to fail. A longer timeline will not provide a benefit.”  

The 2020 board represents an interim step on the way to establishing five-year windows for each promotion board. “Transitioning out of BPZ toward merit-based reordering is the next step on a journey that eventually leads to us implementing a multi-year promotion window that is zone agnostic,” the memo says. “This is another authority provided by Congress where officers can be promotion eligible for up to five years without zones and without an up-or-out promotion requirement.”  

That means officers will be eligible for promotion up to five times in a single zone without any up or out considerations. The memo suggests the new window system could be in effect by late 2021 or early 2022. 

The order-of-merit system would then apply to the order in which selected officers pinned on their new rank. Advocates say that will allow for more variety in career paths and less of a check-the-box approach to career development.  

Competitive Categories  

Varying the timing of promotions could also someday be adjusted for different career fields. That’s one of the benefits of breaking down the massive “line of the Air Force” promotion category into more manageable pieces. The Air Force will be able to fine-tune promotion opportunity, rates, and time-in-grade expectations for each category.  

The new competitive categories are:  

  • Air operations and special warfare. Includes all conventional (11X) and remotely piloted aircraft pilots (18X), along with combat systems (12X), air battle manager (13B), special tactics (13C), combat rescue (13D), and tactical air control party (13L) officers 
  • Nuclear and missile operations. Includes only nuclear and missile operations (13N) officers 
  • Space. Includes both space operations (13S) and astronaut (13A) officers 
  • Information warfare. Includes cyber operations (17X), intelligence (14N), operations research analyst (61A), weather (15W), special investigations (71S), information operations (14F), and public affairs (35X) officers 
  • Combat support. Includes airfield operations (13M), aircraft maintenance (21A), munitions and missile maintenance (21M), logistics readiness (21R), security forces (31P), civil engineering (32E), force support (38F), contracting (64P), and financial management (65X) 
  • Force modernization. Includes chemists (61C), physicist/nuclear engineers (61D), developmental engineers (62E), and acquisition management (63A) officers 

All of the changes have the same goal, Kelly said last summer: to produce the best possible officer corps. The memo takes that one step further: “Our goal through these efforts, and others, is to unleash the capabilities of our people to be ready for tomorrow’s fight.”