Young naval officers today face nearly insurmountable professional demands to compete, but the Navy is looking for new ways to improve career choices—and, ultimately, its officers.
Lieutenant Commander Bob Bellitto, executive officer of the USS Peterson (DD-969), a Spruance (DD-963)-class destroyer, clearly enjoys his career and thrives on going to sea. But 15 years after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, Commander Bellitto can recall only one tour that provided him some “breathing space.” That was his most recent, a year at the Naval War College, where he earned a master’s degree in national security affairs. Challenging, to be sure, he says, but not “as demanding as being a naval officer.”
Ten weeks into his executive-officer tour. Commander Bellitto wrapped up a second master’s, that one in management. “That was extremely difficult as a sitting XO,” he says. “Fortunately it was only one course and 1 had a CO who was very cooperative.” Ambitious naval officers like Commander Bellitto are grabbing every brass ring within reach to make themselves competitive for the ultimate prize: command. The same officers are sharp enough, however, to question whether the pace has not become too intense. “Without any question,” says Commander Bellitto, the professional demands today are greater than for any previous generation of officers. Navy leaders not only agree, they’re concerned.
“What have we done to ourselves?” asks Vice Admiral Skip Bowman, Chief of Naval Personnel. He refers to a “frenzy” of ticket-punching sparked by legislated and service-driven requirements, stiffer competition for command and new technologies. “What are we placing on these young ensigns looking up at 25-year, 30-year careers? Are there too many things to do? Does it still make a career one would aspire to? Or do we literally have so many tickets to punch it is neither enjoyable nor can an officer become very proficient?”
Admiral Bowman and his staff have been examining ways to manage officer careers better. Their early findings suggest that too many officers are pushing too hard for tours they do not need. At the same time, the very brightest officers are not being moved fast enough into assignments that best serve the Navy’s needs.
The explosion of demands on naval officers is traced to several developments, most within the last decade. The kingpin is the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, which turned joint duty from a professional pothole into a golden milestone. The law mandates joint professional military education for career officers, sustainment of a cadre of joint specialists, and at least one joint duty tour for any officer aspiring to flag rank. Officers specializing in weapon purchases saw the bar raised again when Congress passed the Defense Acquisitions Workforce Improvement Act (DAWIA).
Meanwhile, during the drawdown, the Navy lost a higher proportion of command and executive officer billets than it did officers who covet them. “We’re all nervous about screening for commander command because of downsizing,” says Commander Bellitto. The military also has hosted a technological revolution in communication, information, and weapon systems, further intensifying the challenge of commissioned service.
“If you put all the operating and warfighting systems in my first ships together with a big pile of technical requirements we had to know, they wouldn’t fit into one of the systems we have today,” says Rear Admiral Stephen R. Loeffler, Admiral Bowman’s assistant for personnel policy and career progression. As a young officer, Admiral Loeffler watched his captain on the bridge of a ship order North Vietnamese gun positions shelled: “Mount 51. Ten rounds. Commence fire.” Today, he says, commanding officers fight from a sophisticated command information center, “with Sea Sparrows ready to intercept surface-skimming missiles on one hand, launching Tomahawks against Serb missile radar on the other.”
Ironically, much of the pressure on career path comes from a source that has not changed. The Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA) of 1980 set ceilings on the number of commissioned officers by rank and length of service. 0-5s must retire at 26 years, 06s at 30, flag ranks at 35 years, unless the President or Secretary of Defense grants a waiver. But the ceilings were set before joint duty requirements grabbed three to five years of an officer’s career. “We’ve been trying to cram 50 pounds in that proverbial 10-pound bag,” says Admiral Bowman, “and the bag is starting to split a little bit.”
Admiral Bowman and his boss. Admiral Mike Boorda, Chief of Naval Operations, soon will receive findings and recommendations of a series of studies on officer career paths prepared by Admiral Loeffler and his staff after months of analyses and internal debate. They will recommend a wide range of steps to define and streamline careers. These could include:
- Increasing early or below-zone promotions
- Accelerating the assignment of below-zone officers into commands and other critical career tours
- Supporting legislation to raise the DOPMA ceilings to 35 years for Navy captains, 40 for flag officers
- Clarifying for every officer community what the Navy considers “must have” and “nice to have” assignments
- Shortening some billets, possibly to include time at sea
- Expanding the officer corps or at least stopping the officer drawdown sooner than planned (The likelihood of the Clinton administration or Congress approving this last move is small, but studies now under way include a rigorous analysis of officer requirements for postgraduate education and professional military education.)
With Admiral Boorda, a personnel expert, as the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Bowman says, “time is ripe for some out-of-the-box solutions to some of these problems. So it’s fair to say that there will be some changes.” Some, such as earlier screening to commander command, the Navy can execute within existing authority. Changes requiring legislation likely would be sent to Capitol Hill as part of the Navy’s 1998 budget submission.
A generation ago, nine of ten admirals were due-course officers; they had not been selected for early promotion at any time in their career. Today, most current flag officers have been “deep selected” at least once in their careers. The practice, understandably, is not popular with due-course officers. Admiral Bowman, a deep selectee himself, approaches the issue cautiously. “The downside [of below-zone promotions], frankly, is who anoints me or anybody else to pick a lieutenant as the future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Why this person and not that person?” Career managers see a need for below-zone promotions. Because of joint duty demands and DOPMA ceilings on length of service, too few officers make flag rank soon enough, either to fulfill their potential or meet the Navy’s need for senior joint and staff assignments.
By contrast, the Air Force uses below-zone promotions extensively, particularly at promotion to O-6. About 15% of their colonels are selected early. The Army uses below- zone picks less than the Air Force, and the Marine Corps almost never. The Navy’s interest has fluctuated over the years. In 1996, only 1.6% of officers selected to lieutenant commander were from below-the-zone picks. Only 2.6% of O-5s and 3.5% of new O-6s were below-zone selectees. The Navy might want to raise those figures as high as 15%, Admiral Loeffler says, to move officers, “especially our best and brightest,” through the ranks faster to gain the full benefit of their talents. As early promoted flag officers, these fast-trackers would be more competitive for senior joint jobs, including regional and unified commanders, joint staff, even Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. “The Navy needs more younger flag officers to compete for many of those positions,” Admiral Loeffler says.
During an interview. Admiral Bowman recalled he recently had to tell Admiral Boorda the Navy had no one to nominate for several joint flag billet openings. These included Operations Chief at U.S. Central Command; Deputy for Strategic Planning to the Commander in Chief, Europe; and Director of Operations at the Defense Nuclear Agency. “I said, ‘We just can’t play for these jobs. We have no flag officers available.’”
The shortage is not confined to joint duty jobs. Admiral Bowman said at the time, “I’m scratching to figure out whom to send to submarine group assignments, because we don’t have enough submarine flag officers.”
Admiral Loeffler says Army General John Shalikashvili, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, wanted a senior Navy captain to serve as his executive assistant to balance the fact that top military assistants to the Defense Secretary and Deputy Secretary were Army and Air Force officers. The Chairman wanted someone with a master’s degree and significant Washington experience. “While we had some great officers to propose—carrier COs, guys coming from command of Aegis cruisers—we didn’t have the right combination.” An Army officer got the job.
Complicating the Navy’s “play” for joint jobs is what it perceives as an overall shortage of flag officers. The number of authorized billets has fallen from 410 in 1989 to 331. Yet 95 authorized billets are filled by captains because of congressional constraints on flag officers. The Senate has invited the Navy to argue for a higher number. Armed with fresh analyses from Admiral Loeffler’s studies, the Navy hopes to do just that. Those reports should show whether the problem of filling joint assignments stems from too many demands on officer careers, too few officers, or a combination of the two.
Navy leaders are weighing not only many more early promotions but also closer management of the careers of deep-selected officers. This could include moving them as fast as possible into command and other critical billets. The Navy, says Admiral Bowman, needs “a few officers, our best leaders, to get to flag level sometime around the 21-, 22-year point, maybe as early as 20 years of commissioned service.” That would give them 12-15 years of experience at flag level both inside and outside of the Navy. The earliest fast burners now make flag around the 25th year of service, slightly behind fast burners in the Army and Air Force.
As envisioned by Admiral Loeffler, those deep-selected for lieutenant commander could be moved ahead of due- course officers, even from an earlier year group, for executive-officer tours. Those picked up early for commander could be moved quickly into command. That occurs to some extent today. “What we want is concurrence from the leadership of the warfare communities that it will be done as a matter of policy,” says Admiral Loeffler. He also likes an Air Force program where four- stars meet three times a year “to look at where new one-stars and high-flying colonels are going so they can move those people along. The Navy has to do more of that.”
Slow to Flag, Fast to Four-Star
The Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), in a study of career lengths completed last fall, found Navy flag officers spend an average of only 5.8 years in their lofty ranks before retiring. Goldwater-Nichols has forced longer pre-flag careers followed by a “race against time” to the four-star rank, CNA says. Admiral Bowman concedes senior officers play catch-up to gain “sufficient flag experience” and “still have time to serve as vice chairman or chairman of the Joint Chiefs or as a unified Commander- in-Chief.” CNA found that eight of the 11 four-stars at the time of the study had spent little or no time as O-8s, rear admirals (upper half). Admiral Loeffler, a brand new one-star himself, says that is regrettable, because it undervalues the two-star experience. “On the Navy staff, on the unified command staffs, two-stars play a very important role. They’re the trench fighters among flag officers [who] really get the job done.” Yet given DOPMA age and length-of-service career ceilings, many never reach higher rank. The same four-stars, on average, served in 3.2 flag assignments over 6.2 years before their last promotion- That is fewer than two years per flag assignment, suggesting flags are “under pressure to do too much in too few years,” the report says.
Incidentally, for officers hoping to become full admirals someday, CNA found two constants in the careers studied: multiple commands at sea and a significant tour in Washington. Also, 9 of 11 four-stars then on active duty had been promoted below-zone sometime in their careers. On average, they spent seven fewer months as O-3s, six fewer months as O-4s, and five fewer as O-5s than did the typical officers from their year groups who retired as captains.
Accelerated promotion plans that produce flag officers by year 22 of commissioned service can deliver a four-star comfortably at 29 years, leaving time to serve as Chief of Naval Operations or as a unified commander for four years, as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman for two, with a presidential waiver for two more beyond the 35-year DOPMA ceiling. But the same officer probably would have to: gain a master’s degree on his own time; move directly from division officer to department head while at sea; and be promoted early at least twice. “This is what you need to do in a DOPMA-constrained career,” Admiral Loeffler says, with three to four years committed to joint duty requirements. The same officer probably would have sea duty until making lieutenant commander in the eighth or ninth year and miss some nice-to-have tours such as early staff experience. “The first time you would see this person on the Navy staff is as an O-6.”
Late to Command
Every officer community has wrinkles the Bureau of Naval Personnel wants to iron out. A big one in the surface warfare community is the flow point to commander command. The typical performer gets a ship after 18.6 years of commissioned service, and that would have slipped to 19.0 years if immediate action had not been taken. With the first below-zone look to captain coming at 19 years and in-zone selection at 21, says Admiral Loeffler, “not getting to command until 19.0 would put careers in jeopardy.”
Admiral Bowman agrees. “To send surface officers to commander command after they’re eligible to retire [at 20 years], and about the time they’re going into the captain zone, is not the way to run the railroad. We need to pull that back, and we will.” That can be done in three ways: lowering screening opportunity, reducing command tour lengths, or “descreening” officers already screened for command. Navy leaders believe that descreening is unfair, so they only will use the first two tools.
Opportunity to screen for commander command has been set at 50%; the ideal command tour is 24 months. The Chief of Naval Operations recently has approved lowering command opportunity to 45% and cutting tours to 20 months through the year 2000. This will move the flow point to command back to 17.5 years’ service, enough to allow commanders one or two fitness reports before being reviewed for below-zone promotion to 06. The Navy does not want surface command tours to slip below 20 months. “If you start running people through the mill too quickly, you lose crew stability” aboard ship and reduce readiness, Admiral Loeffler says.
Too few commands also are a problem in the aviation community. To accommodate aviators needing experience as squadron commanding officers, typical 18-month tours have been pared to 14 or even less. Executive officer tours have been cut, too. Like surface warriors, aviators are reaching commands too late. Admiral Bowman says.
Raising Career Ceilings
An alternative, or complement, to more aggressive fast- tracking is to lengthen careers. With five years added to the typical career for senior ranks, the Navy could promote to one-star comfortably as late as 27 years and expect the same officers to serve “meaningful two- and three-star assignments before retirement,” Admiral Loeffler says.
“We are living within 35-year careers today. We’re still making three- and four-star flag officers. We’re still getting officers promoted to captain at a reasonable flow point. But there’s a cost involved.” The cost varies by individual. Some officers gain too little staff experience; others miss out on graduate education; still others, of course, skip the two-star experience.
DOPMA ceilings could be raised five years on captain careers too, to allow 35 years of commissioned service. “There really are no Fortune 500 companies telling top executives to go home at age 52,” Admiral Loeffler says. Navy leaders have not reached agreement yet on whether to press for longer careers. The other services have expressed some support. Admiral Bowman says the old youth-and-vigor argument behind the up-or-out promotion system can not be ignored. On the other hand, he says, maybe raising the typical retirement age “makes more sense as an investment for the country.”
Illuminating Career Paths
Admiral Loeffler says officers need to be better informed about their career path milestones and the laws that shape them.
Kids today don’t know what DOPMA is. They roughly know there’s something over there telling us what the flow points are for promotion and what overall impact it has. They don’t know what the real implications of Goldwater-Nichols are, how it affects their career paths and their decision whether or not to stay. ... A well-informed officer will make the right decision—whether it’s to stay at sea, to make his flight gate, or when to break out to screen for XO of a submarine.
That is why the Navy intends soon to clarify career paths for individual communities, distinguishing must- have jobs from nice-to-have for careerists. Admiral Bowman says most of the confusion revolves around career choices ashore. “I’m not sure folks know what to say when asked, ‘Should I go joint or to this difficult aviation safety job?’ ‘Should I go joint or to this submarine reactor safety requirement job?’ They are all important and must be filled by qualified officers.”
Must-have jobs for surface line officers, Admiral Loeffler says, include: division officer tours, department head tours, executive officer afloat, joint professional military education and a joint tour, commander command afloat, major command, and Washington/headquarters duty. Nice-to-have tours for surface officers include: junior officer shore tour, a subspecialty utilization tour, and a second Washington/headquarters tour.
Only 78% of current O-6s have postgraduate education, but the Navy intends to make a masters degree a “must-have” too. Because the Navy does not have enough money to sponsor postgraduate education for every officer, most will have to earn degrees on their own dollar and time. In return, they will be able to work toward a proven sub-specialty ashore. So far, fewer than 8% of officers have proven subspecialties at sea and ashore.
Shaving Tour Lengths
One way for officers to clear more wickets is to spend less time in individual tours, particularly on-shore training billets but even at sea. “Pipeline compression,” under way for a while already, likely will intensify. Recent examples include the shortening of training time before surface warfare division and department head officer tours and the tightening of curricula for aviation fleet replacement squadrons. Personnel managers are scrambling to find and eliminate any “dead time” in officer career paths—even if it is just a few extra days between training and new assignments. At first glance, this seems at cross purposes with easing the pace of officer careers. But Navy leaders suggest that dead time only leaves officers running harder, later, to catch up.
The Navy even will look at ways to shorten sea tours for its best officers. If a hard-charging commander, for example, “returns from deployment after 15 months in command, having checked every block,” the detailer might decide to send the officer early to a critical post-command billet “and have the new officer work up the ship and take it back to sea,” Admiral Loeffler says. Such customized treatment is termed “flexible” and could become commonplace for the best officers. “We’re going to tell detailers to look at captains in major commands or who finish their deployments to roll them into headquarters staff jobs, roll them into their joint tours, so that they’re well positioned to be competitive, so we’ll have more people through key wickets and in-zone for flag.”
Reducing too many tours is not possible unless the Navy gets to keep more officers, however. “We’re not putting people at sea just to satisfy an experience concern,” Admiral Bowman says. “They’re filling real billets [as] electrical officers, damage control assistants, and reactor control assistants. They’re in bona fide billets, for bona fide requirements.” Having more officers buys man- years to take an officer off the ship and send him to school or to a joint duty billet. Admiral Bowman notes that the Air Force, with about the same size force overall as the Navy, has 20,000 more officers. Thus it has an easier time sending officers not only to joint duty but also plenty of nice-to-have assignments. “Maybe we have accepted this lean, mean officer-enlisted ratio” for too long. Admiral Bowman says. By one estimate, for equivalent levels of officer strength, DOPMA tables allow the Air Force to have 2,000-3,000 more field grade officers.
Officer Flow Points
DOPMA sets ceilings on career lengths and dictates promotion opportunities and flow points or windows at each grade. For example, due-course promotions to 0-4 must occur between the 9th and 11th year. The flow point to O-5 is between 15 and 17 years, and to 0-6 it is 21 to 23 years. During the drawdown, every service has needed temporary relief from DOPMA grade restrictions. For 1997, they want some permanent relief. Admiral Bowman says fewer and fewer of current O-4s through O-6s—officers accessed during the Cold War—will be able to sail through their careers meeting DOPMA flow points.
Some analysts believe the services are growing too top heavy, accommodating promotion to fit the number of careerists brought in during the Cold War. Admiral Bowman, however, says that DOPMA, Goldwater-Nichols, DAWIA, and technology leave the Navy short of senior officers. “We need to expand, not contract, the top level.”
Overboard on Joint?
Goldwater-Nichols made joint experience a requirement for flag rank. Navy leaders suggest that after a decade of experience, it is time to reconsider this near obsession. Maybe, Admiral Bowman says, “we’re trying to make everybody Chief of Naval Operations, and we should be content making people merely the very best aviators, submariners, and surface officers we can.”
Joint duty is still important. Officers return from such training and assignments better warriors and leaders. But any officer seeking joint experience to the detriment of his or her own warfighting skills is misguided. “We probably caused this angst by advertising so much about the need for joint, the need for expanding your horizon. We’ve almost convinced ourselves, and our juniors in the process, that joint, joint, joint had to be done,” Admiral Bowman says. “We were forgetting that [our joint military] is not really purple but a rainbow of what all the services bring to the table. Maintaining that individual community capability and expertise is vitally important.”
In the submarine force, for example, officers are needed in “absolutely critical jobs like examining boards or nuclear power instructors, nuclear prototype instructors.” But many submariners believe that success in the Navy means spending early shore tours in joint duty or Washington jobs. They should understand successful careers are possible, Admiral Bowman says, “through a whole lot of different paths. We’ve convinced people you’ve got to be the Director of the Joint Staff if you’re going to survive in the business, and it’s just not true.”
Navy leaders soon will begin to reshape, refine, or just clarify career paths based on options discussed here, and others unique to each individual warfare and staff community. “Maybe there’s room for melding all these options together and coming out with a plan that makes it easier for the average officer and doable for the burning stars [to] accomplish all these within the prescribed period of time,” says Admiral Bowman. At a minimum, the Navy will begin to mentor officers better to ensure they understand career paths and what current laws and policies require. Whatever changes lay ahead for officer careers, Admiral Loeffler says, the need for continuing education will not change nor will the key to success: “sustained, superior performance at sea and ashore.”
Mr. Philpott, a former editor and senior writer for Navy Times, writes the monthly column “Points of Interest” for Proceedings.