Under New Rules, Officer Promotion Boards Will See More Negative Information

Air Force officer promotion boards will see more negative information—including serious reprimands—that previously could be hidden from them, under new rules that go into effect March 1.

The new rules, which were published internally in January and announced on Feb. 10, follow a new law included in the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act that affects mainly majors and above who are up for promotion. Previously, wing commanders and other higher-ups had discretion to remove some damaging information from a company grade officer’s promotion folder, but the new rules standardize what is now included in a promotion package.

This includes:

  • Court martial convictions
  • Non-judicial punishment, such as an Article 15
  • Letters of reprimand
  • Being relieved of command
  • Adverse findings of an official investigation, including sexual assault investigations.

Inclusion of some of these incidents was already mandatory.

The changes affect all officers in the Air Force and Space Force, and is retroactive back to January 2012, meaning negative information withheld from boards that far back, and covered under the new guidelines, will be put in future promotion folders.

Though most of the changes affect majors and above, if Airmen or Guardians up for promotion to captain were involved in an incident receiving attention from national news media, or where the information is “of interest to the Senate Armed Services Committee,” that now will be included in promotion packets, the Air Force said in a press release. Previously, such information was only mandated in general officer boards.

Asked why all negative information was not already included as a matter of course in promotion proceedings, an Air Force spokeswoman said on Feb. 17 that some information “was kept in varying places in an officer’s record, and disposition and visibility varied among commanders.” Previously, all actions below a letter of reprimand were optional for inclusion in a promotion folder, “though substantiated investigations and other adverse actions may have been retained by the Inspector General,” she said.

Letters of reprimand and Article 15s “required a mandatory unfavorable information file, maintained at the unit level,” she explained. This information also went into a service member’s “master personnel record,” as well as records kept by the IG, but were “not necessarily provided” to promotion or selection boards, and could be removed by a higher officer in the chain of command.

For example, systemic problems found in USAF and Navy nuclear communities back in 2014 could have been kept from promotion boards in the past. But “substantiated sexual assault offenses, were required to be documented in an officer’s performance report, which was then filed in the officer’s selection record,” the spokeswoman said. “Court-martial convictions were permanently filed in the officer’s selection record.”

The new policy standardizes processes “across the force and ensures promotion boards can fairly and accurately assess the entirety of an officer’s career,” the spokeswoman said.

Lt. Gen. Brian T. Kelly, Air Force deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services, said in a release that the purpose of the policy is clear: “We must ensure we are promoting leaders of character and competence.”

The new policy was implemented about one month after the Air Force Inspector General’s Independent Racial Disparity Review identified widespread racial disparities in the department. The 150-page report found that one out of every three Black service members believed the military discipline system is biased against them; one out of every three Black officers do not believe the Air Force and Space Force provide them the same opportunities to advance as their white peers; and two out of every five Black civilians have seen racial bias in the services’ promotion systems.

“This additional mechanism in the promotion process will promote transparency and accountability for everyone, especially those we entrust with leading our Airmen and Guardians,” Kelly said, though he acknowledged there will be some “concern” about how the changes might impact promotion opportunities.

“We often hear about it being a ‘one-mistake Air Force,’ which really has not been true,” Kelly said. “The reality is, our selection boards and the Senate have consistently shown the ability to objectively review adverse information and, when appropriate, recommend and confirm officers for promotion, provided the incident is indicative of a mistake and not a character flaw, and the totality of the record shows high performance levels. We expect this to continue.”

Asked how boards are being instructed to distinguish between “character flaws” and “mistakes,” the spokeswoman said boards are being told “how to review and consider adverse information in balance with the totality of the incident and the entire record. The board takes into account the whole-person concept,” in accordance with Air Force regulations.

“This change increases our accountability and demands we hold ourselves to a higher standard,” Kelly said. “The resulting transparency and associated accountability will improve our development and make us a stronger force.”