Monday, May 10, 2004


Lawton (OK) Constitution
September 7, 2003

Time To Rethink The Military Promotion System?

By Richard Hart Sinnreich

Last week, The Washington Post reported the formal censure by the acting
Secretary of the Navy of the retiring commander of Marine Corps forces in
Central Command and the Pacific. The censure cited his "lack of judgment" in
requiring a subordinate selected for promotion to brigadier general to wear
the stars of his new rank prior to receiving the prerequisite Senate

In the military, awarding the insignia of rank in advance of actual
promotion is called "frocking." It occurs because a considerable time may
elapse between selection for promotion and the date on which the latter
legally takes effect. Meanwhile, assignment exigencies may require the
selected officer to assume the duties of his or her new rank before actually
receiving it.

Usually, such a "promotable" officer must simply operate for a time at the
lower rank. In some cases, however, and especially where interaction with
foreign military forces is involved, sporting a lower rank than the job
requires invites unnecessary complications.

In those circumstances, senior commanders may decide to frock the officer,
granting him or her the outward status of the new rank without the
associated pay and juridical authority. But the rules governing this
practice are very restrictive, especially for flag officers.

In the case in question, the officer was assigned a sensitive command in
Kuwait. Although he had been selected for promotion to brigadier general a
year earlier, the selection still had not been confirmed. In preempting that
confirmation, however well intended, the officer's superior violated an
important element of civilian control of the military, to say nothing of a
jealously guarded Congressional prerogative.

His scolding thus was justified. But the episode merely highlights a
longstanding problem with the way military rank is awarded. In most
occupations, the job determines the rank. In the military almost uniquely,
the rank at least nominally determines the job.

But today, military rank once awarded is permanent. That wasn't always the
case. Until the last century, primarily to accommodate wartime force
expansion and peacetime contraction, it was common to "brevet" an officer
temporarily to a higher rank.

Like frocking, breveting reflected assignment. Unlike frocking, however,
breveting awarded the officer all the pay and privileges of the rank.
More important, when the assignment ended, so also did the brevet. While
permanent rank, having been confirmed by Congress, could be reduced or
removed only by court-martial, a brevet could be terminated at the stroke of
a pen.

For that very reason, breveting was vulnerable to abuse. But it had the
virtue of allowing prompt and flexible matching of rank to mission
requirements. And because it conferred no permanent authority, it presented
no threat to civilian supremacy.

As American military and naval forces transform themselves to accomplish
with smaller formations tasks that formerly required much larger ones, it
may be time to resurrect the brevet in some modernized form.

Consider, for example, a contingency requiring a relatively small U.S. force
- a brigade task force, say - to deploy independently and collaborate with a
larger allied or indigenous military organization.

Today, typically, to provide the necessary senior representation, the
brigade would be subordinated to a higher headquarters, duplicating
commanders and increasing the deployed footprint. Instead, breveting the
brigade commander and augmenting his or her staff might well be cheaper and
more effective.

Or consider a current Defense Department proposal to replace component
commands in overseas theaters - each headed by a 4-star flag officer - with
standing joint task forces commanded by 3-stars. The objective, endorsed by
most military professionals, is to improve the routine integration of
multi-service forces.

But at least one senior commander in Europe has warned that reducing the
rank of a task force commander from 4 stars to 3 would seriously diminish
his or her ability to deal on an equal level with allied counterparts. In
Europe, he contends, credibility tends to be associated with rank more than
with position.

Here too, breveting might just as effectively satisfy the representational
requirement without permanently inflating general officer ranks or requiring
additional and unnecessary headquarters echelons.

Finally, it may be time to reconsider altogether the relationship between
promotion and assignment. The traditional model, in which rank is associated
with the officer rather than the job, is by no means the only one possible
and may no longer be the best.

Any alternative system must reflect the reality that military officers,
unlike civilians, lack the freedom to reassign themselves at volition. It
must assure them reasonable financial stability and career progression. And
of course, it can't be permitted to diminish the basic accountability of
military officers to civilian political authority.

Within those broad parameters, however, there remains considerable scope for
innovation. Maybe now is the time to begin exploring it.

Lawton's Richard Hart Sinnreich comments on military issues for The Sunday