Air Force nearly doubles early promotions for enlisted airmen, but is it enough?

The Air Force is increase the number of enlisted airmen who can be promoted early due to exceptional potential.

The announcement comes as the Air Force and Defense Department as a whole are trying to work within the boundaries of a military personnel system that many officials call outdated. The Air Force is bumping up the number of early promotions this year from 96 to 180 through its Stripes for Exceptional Performers (STEP) program.

“Increasing STEP allocations is another way we’re empowering commanders at every level to identify and reward their top performers,” said Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David L. Goldfein.

The program gives all of the Air Force’s major commands and the Central Base Board at least two STEP promotions.

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“Not only does this help support our senior leaders’ focus on revitalizing squadrons but it also helps to save Airmen’s time,” said Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright. “We’re allowing commanders more opportunities to recognize those airmen who have demonstrated sustained performance at the next level.”

Considering the size of the Air Force, 180 slots is still small. The service is in the midst of the talent grab with private industry, which can offer better pay and benefits in some cases.

As DoD’s requirements and threat landscape changed over the past decade, it found it needed more talented, innovative and intelligent troops. The Air Force is feeling the strain especially hard with pilots, where it currently has a 2,000 person deficit.

Many lawmakers, experts and military officials say one of the biggest issues holding DoD back from recruiting the people it needs is the nearly 40-year-old personnel system in which it works.

An antiquated advancement system

In November, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.)  called the current personnel rules “outdated” and “overly rigid,” partly because of their across-the-board enforcement of training requirements and an up-or-out approach to military officer promotion and retention.

The 2019 Senate version of the defense authorization bill tries to address some of those issues. The bill pushes more promotion decisions down to the services to create alternative paths and timelines for officers to move up in the ranks.

“Our approach to [the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA)] was granting the service secretaries more flexibility to the service secretaries to shape their promotion timeline in a way that is most effective for their service,” a Senate Armed Services Committee staffer said on background May 25. “The committee did not feel that the Air Force promotion system did not necessarily need to resemble the Marine Corps promotion system.”

The bill also gives services the ability to change the promotion timeline for certain occupations.

This is something the Air Force is particularly interested in for pilots. As the service struggled to keep pilots, it found many were not interested in the up-or-out system. They would rather just fly and not worry about meeting goals to become a general one day.

The Senate Committee also wants to expand officer spot promotions up to the colonel level. This would allow the service to give a lower ranking officer a higher rank on-the-spot if he or she takes a high demand or challenging job.

DoD has been asking Congress for these changes for a couple of years, changes which would make programs like STEP far bigger and more commonplace.

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