The Real Story of Army Junior Officer Retention

As Gen. David Petraeus testified before Congress last month, many questions focused on the strain on the Army.  As he noted to the Senate Armed Services Committee, "We are very concerned about . . . the young captains of whom we’ve asked a great deal." In addition to the strains the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have placed on the service, the Army is on pace to grow by six brigades by 2010. The conventional wisdom has it that the Army is already struggling to fill critical midlevel leadership slots.  But midlevel officers are actually staying at their usual retention rates.

Recent media reports have "documented" the supposed Army "retention crisis." A New York Times article from April 2006 said that "young Army officers . . . are bailing out of active-duty service at rates that have alarmed senior officers." In December, Washington Monthly argued that young officers "are leaving the Army at nearly their highest rates in decades" in an "exodus of the best and brightest." But these reports are misleading.

While some great officers are indeed leaving the Army, this has always been the case. In recent years, continuous deployments and the instability this schedule can inflict on young families have prompted many to assess their options and sometimes choose to leave the service. Many officers, however, are staying. In recent years, the attrition rate has declined: Consider the overall company grade loss rates, which dropped from 8.5 percent in fiscal year (FY) 2005 to 7.9 percent.

Data from West Point, commonly viewed as a credible indicator of the health of the force, reveals that graduates are not leaving at an accelerated rate compared with previous years.  Consider the attrition rates of recent classes at the end of their five-year service obligations: 1997 (30.6 percent left service), 1998 (21.9 percent), 1999 (28.1 percent), 2000 (34.2 percent), 2001 (35.3 percent), 2002 (30.9 percent).  Since 1982, the average attrition rate of graduates at their five-year mark has been 30.4 percent.  With only 30.9% percent of the Class of 2002 having left service, this is hardly abnormal. 

The stress on officer retention is a by-product of drawdown decisions from the 1990s, the recent transformation of the Army’s structure, attrition, and increased deployment schedules.  Officer requirements have increased with the expansion of the force since 2002, so the necessity to retain and maintain the force becomes even more prevalent considering the plan for further expansion. 

In January 2007, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) produced a report detailing the Army’s need for a strategic plan to address its emerging officer personnel challenges.  But the GAO report said that, “Army projections show that it will have a shortage of 3,000 or more officers annually through fiscal year 2013 because of actions such as recent measures to expand the size of the Army.”  Yet at the end of FY 2007 the Army was only short 2,235 officers, less than its own prediction of 2,774.  Historically, the Army has, at times, had requirements that exceeded its actual strength, yet the service survived.   From 1996 through 2001, the Army met its requirements only in 1998.  Of note, the projected officer shortage in FY 2010 is only around 700.

The GAO report did state that, “shortages suggest that the Army might have to retain officers at higher than historical levels.”  Indeed, the number of required majors rose 2,623 from 2004 to 2008.  Since it takes a decade for the Army to produce a major, the Army needs to increase accessions and retain more captains.

Over the past few years the Army has instituted new policies to grow the officer corps while maintaining quality.  More enlisted soldiers are becoming officers through the Army’s Officer Candidate School.  The Army has also promoted junior officers at a more rapid pace but not at the expense of maintaining quality.  Only those labeled “best qualified” earn selection.  Lastly, the Army has authorized a ‘retention menu of incentives’ that includes a bonus of up to $35,000 for active duty captains.  Other incentives include a branch transfer, assignment to a post of choice or graduate school opportunities.  The Army is currently assessing the success of these incentives and examining future initiatives.

Additionally, to stem previous concerns over rising selection rates and overall quality within the officer corps, the  “below-the zone,” or early consideration period for promotion to major, has increased to a two-year window to recognize the potential of battle-hardened captains and to entice young officers with the prospect of an earlier promotion.  The percentage of below-the-zone promotions has increased from its historical five percent averages to ten percent in FY07 and 15% in FY08.  As the number of below-the-zone promotions increase, the overall promotion rate to major will decrease, theoretically improving the quality of the officer corps. 

The reported Army crisis is exaggerated and the reality is that retention has stayed relatively steady.  Reorganization and force expansion caused an increase in officer billets, largely responsible for the overall shortage.  Essentially, the denominator is changing while the numerator is staying stable.  Increased accessions will grow the numerator but maintenance of quality requires the increase be gradual vice precipitous.  Despite the retention data telling a good news story so far, there is concern that there is a potential problem, especially as more officers return from multiple tours.  Additionally, if the Army fails to retain officers at a higher rate, specifically in its captains, there is a potential for a crisis, but the time has not yet come (and may not arrive) to hit the panic button.