First Airmen Get the Nod in New Promotion Process

About 1,200 majors earned a promotion under the Department of the Air Force’s new process for advancement that judges Airmen based on performance in their career field rather than comparing the force as a whole.

The 2020 lieutenant colonel promotion board is also the first to ditch so-called “below-the-zone” promotions, which offers people a chance to fast-track up the ranks, and puts Airmen up for promotion in an order based on merit rather than seniority.

The selection board, which convened in May, considered more than 2,600 Air Force and Space Force members for promotion. They work in about 40 specialties that fall into six new categories, Air Force Personnel Center spokesperson Michael T. Dickerson told Air Force Magazine.

Dickerson said that as of Oct. 7, 554 majors in air operations and special warfare, 33 majors in nuclear and missile operations, 58 majors in space operations, 197 majors each in information warfare and combat support, and 170 majors in force modernization were tapped to become lieutenant colonels.

The Air Force decided last year to scrap below-the-zone promotions to give officers more time to accrue “insight and experience” that they might not get by rushing through the ranks, according to Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower, Personnel, and Services Lt. Gen. Brian T. Kelly. About 2 percent of Airmen seeking promotion were typically chosen ahead of schedule.

The change resulted in record-breaking promotion rates for those looking to advance according to schedule or later than usual.

At about 76 percent, nearly 5 percent more Airmen were promoted to lieutenant colonel on schedule—or “in the zone”—than in 2018. At 13 percent, the number of majors promoted “above the zone,” or later than usual, was 6.3 percent higher than in 2018, the Air Force said.

Promotion zones are defined by the minimum amount of time an Airman should serve at a certain rank before seeking advancement.

As part of the overhaul, the Department of the Air Force also changed how it assembles the panels who evaluate troops in each category.

Most panelists are part of the career fields they’re vetting, while some come from other backgrounds to balance the board’s perspective, the service said. All panelists receive backgrounders on the major “milestones and challenges” of each profession.

“This tailored approach ensures panel members consider officers in each category against similar career milestones and expectations,” Air Force Personnel Center Commander Maj. Gen. Christopher E. Craige said in a release.

This time around, Airmen were also considered for promotion in order of their merit instead of seniority. 

“Performance will be the driving factor in determining when officers pin on new rank,” the release stated. “Those whose record of performance place them near the top of a promotion board’s order of merit, regardless of zone, will promote ahead of some of their peers.”

That approach tries to account for each person’s unique experiences and timing in professional development, Kelly noted.

He argues these promotion reforms help the department meet the National Defense Strategy’s demands for a better-trained, highly qualified force.

“This particular board gives us our first look at how those changes influence officer promotion results,” Kelly said in the release. “While this is only one data point with upcoming colonel and major promotion boards on the horizon, the outcomes appear to have followed our expectations.”

The department will keep studying and tweaking the promotion process as needed. It plans to eliminate zones altogether and make people eligible for promotion in a five-year window at each rank, and to roll out the changes at each level of the force.