More than two years into the Air Force’s switch to a new officer promotion system, officials are settling into wait-and-see mode while its longer-term impacts take shape.
Unlike on the enlisted side, the Air Force said it is comfortable with how its officer jobs are spread across the ranks. An officer’s chances of promotion will remain essentially the same as usual in fiscal 2023, service spokesperson Tech. Sgt. Deana Heitzman said.
Promotions to Air Force colonel and lieutenant colonel this year remained as competitive as they were in 2021, and even more so for those trying to move up later than usual. As of Aug. 18, the Air Force had not yet released the full results of its promotion boards for majors.
In March 2020, the Air Force split its massive single group of officers — known as the Line of the Air Force category — all of whom competed for promotion regardless of their profession, into several career-specific categories that include: air operations and special warfare; nuclear and missile operations; information warfare; combat support and force modernization.
The intent was to promote people based on how well they met the requirements for their particular line of work, rather than judging everyone on a single set of standards that favored pilots and other combat jobs.
A previous category for space-related jobs disappeared once the Space Force began handling its own promotions.
“It is too soon for any career progression and retention data to be attributed to developmental categories,” Heitzman said. “However, we anticipate that increased transparency in the promotion system and promotion opportunities … will be positive factors for retention.”
This year marked the first time a promotion board has considered prospective colonels in the newest category, dubbed “cross-functional operations” or “LAF-X,” that was created in July 2021.
“The new category consists primarily of foreign area officers who now have their own Air Force specialty code,” said Col. Scott Arcuri, head of the Air Force’s selection board secretariat, in an August 2021 press release. “LAF-X consists of only majors and above.”
Foreign area officers become specialists in a particular country and region of the world through studying history, politics and culture, language immersion and by living abroad. The category also includes multi-domain warfare officers — a field created in 2018 but that began phasing out earlier this year — operational warfare planners and astronauts.
Last year, then-Air Force personnel boss Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly said data from the first round of promotions to lieutenant colonel under the new system suggested that promotions are becoming more equitable for minority airmen.
Presumably, that’s because the majority-white pilot corps is no longer competing against other career fields that are more diverse, in a system that was skewed toward aviation-related accomplishments, said Katherine Kuzminski, a military personnel expert at the Center for a New American Security, at the time.
That result — judged by whether airmen in a particular group were promoted at a higher rate than the average — in 2022 held true for Black and Hawaiian and Pacific Islander airmen looking to become colonels. It was also true for American Indian/Native Alaskan, Hawaiian/Pacific Islander and biracial airmen promoted to lieutenant colonel.
Black airmen fared above average in lieutenant colonel promotions in 2021 but not the year after, according to an analysis of demographic data provided to Air Force Times from the major, lieutenant colonel and colonel promotion cycles in 2020, 2021 and 2022. All figures refer to in-the-zone promotions, or once someone hits the minimum amount of time in grade and service needed to move up.
Hispanic and Latino airmen were not promoted above average to any rank in any of the three years. In contrast, white airmen were promoted above average to all three ranks, across all three years.
And women have outpaced men for promotion to major and lieutenant colonel, but fell below average when seeking to become colonels in 2021 and 2022.
Another potentially major change is on hold: adopting a five-year window in which an airman could be promoted. Officials are still looking at the details of how that would work, Heitzman said.
Instead of promoting airmen either “in the zone” or “above the zone,” which is later than usual, proponents believe a five-year span would let officers focus on more personal and professional growth without worrying as much about timing.
“In the meantime, the Air Force officer promotion windows remain what they are today,” Heitzman said.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.