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Officer promotion rates are headed for a sharp downturn after a decade of record-high selection levels, according to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno.
In a recent memo to senior leaders, Odierno said the Army is preparing to return to the selection opportunity levels that were in place before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Those were 90 percent selection opportunity for promotion to captain, 80 percent for major, 70 percent for lieutenant colonel and 50 percent for colonel.
"In some instances, we may see promotion rates below these targets to correctly size and shape year groups," Odierno said. "This will be a departure from the very high promotion rates of the past decade."
Selection opportunity is calculated by dividing the number of primary-zone candidates by the total number of above-zone, primary-zone and below-zone officers selected by a board.
From 2001 through 2010, selection opportunity for advancement to colonel in the Army Competitive Category averaged 64 percent, while the select rate for officers in the primary zone averaged 54 percent.
During the same period, selection opportunity averaged 100 percent for lieutenant colonel and 108 percent for major.
Primary-zone select rates averaged 84 percent for lieutenant colonel and 94 percent for major.
Selection competition began tightening in 2011, when the primary-zone rate for major was 93 percent, 87 percent for lieutenant colonel and, most noticeably, 36 percent for colonel.
Noting that the colonel list released in mid-December has "generated significant interest and concern," Odierno said the 36 percent select rate was the lowest since 1987, and the result of several factors.
The primary zone year group, 1990, had 1,029 members.
"By comparison, last year's primary zone had 878 [members]," Odierno said.
"Additionally, year group 1990 was promoted to lieutenant colonel in fiscal 2006 with a selection rate of 90 percent, resulting in it being above the glide path needed for optimal selection opportunity."
Odierno said the bottom line is that in the aggregate, the Army is overstrength in colonels, and "the number of colonels required to be selected by the  board was less than prior years."
Army policy limits below-zone selections to no more than 10 percent of the officers selected by a board, although that ceiling can be raised to 15 percent with the approval of the secretary of defense and secretary of the Army, as was done in 2008-10, when the BZ rate for major exceeded 10 percent.
Below-zone categories normally are populated by officers who are one year junior to candidates in the primary zone.
Each BZ selection reduces by one the number of officers who can be picked up for promotion from the primary zone or the above-zone category.
From 2001-10, the BZ select rate for colonel averaged 7.5 percent, but in 2011 dipped to 4.6 percent.
"Army leaders were very sensitive to the implications of a high BZ rate for the last colonel board, and wanted to make sure that as much opportunity was provided to primary-zone officers as possible," said Lt. Col. Cape Zemp, chief of officer selection board policy in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel (G-1) at the Pentagon.
"The secretary of the Army has the final say in the percentage that we apply, but our recommendation to him will be to remain at or below 10 percent," Zemp said.
"Our challenge in the coming year is to keep a balance between acknowledging the potential and quality of our primary-zone officers while extending opportunity to below-the-zone officers," he said.
Odierno's memo focused on the Army Competitive Category, but Zemp said any changes for the special branches largely will be influenced by the structure requirements of a smaller Army.
"The impending changes have the potential of affecting officers of the special branches and warrant officer aviators and technicians," he said.
"It's possible that because of adjustments to the structure, selection opportunity — like the basic branches — could decrease for the special branches," Zemp said.
Selection rate adjustments also are possible for the Warrant Officer Corps, he said.
With the gradual return to pre-wartime selection rates, more officers are going to be passed over for promotion.
Zemp said the service will conduct Selective Continuation boards in the coming year, and into the future, for officers who are passed over two or more times for promotion.
"We are watching specialty needs, branch shortages and year group balance," Zemp said. "The requirements could be adjusted, but for now the Selective Continuation boards will remain."
Since the enactment of the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act in 1981, it generally has been Defense Department and Army policy to retain fully qualified officers — typically senior majors — who are within six years of qualifying for retirement at 20 years of service.
Zemp said the Army has no plans to change this policy.
"Keep in mind that the Army has many … majors who have deployed multiple times," he said. "It is important that we keep faith with those officers who have made repeated sacrifices and remain fully qualified to perform at their current grades."
However, Odierno told senior leaders that "even with the soundness of our board process, some great officers will not be selected [for promotion and retention]."
"This is difficult for those who have served honorably and with distinction during a demanding time for our Army," he said.