Air University Review, July-August 1978

Up-or-Out-a perspective

Lieutenant Colonel Robert O. Heavner

Comments on the Air Force's up-or out policy range from "essential" to "wasteful." This personnel management tool is an integral part of the proposed Defense Officer Personnel Management System (DOPMS). But the Defense Manpower Commission Report criticized up-or-out as a wasteful practice.1 With growing military pension and training costs, many wonder why the Air Force should eliminate an officer for reaching a particular age or for being passed over. Since up-or-out is tied so closely with the management of the objective officer force and with retirement costs, we should examine several questions: What is up-or-out? What are its origins? Is it unique to the military? Is it advantageous?

Under DOPMS the Air Force will have only regular career officers. Those reservists who do not gain regular status by the eleventh year of commissioned service will be released from active duty. They must go out because they have not made regular after being considered by several boards. Up-or-out will also operate on the regular officer force. According to "Officer Career Information," tenure for regular officers is as follows:

20 years for major (if continued)

26 years for lieutenant colonel (if continued)

30 years for colonel (if continued).2

Thus, a regular continued major must retire at 20 years if he (or she) is passed over for lieutenant colonel. Regular lieutenant colonels and colonels who are passed over will also be forced out but at higher years of service points.

Up-or-out is not unique to the U.S. military. The Japanese ground self-defense force employs a form of up-or-out. Second lieutenants to lieutenant colonels can serve to age 50. The mandatory exit age is 53 for colonels, 55 for major generals, and 58 for generals.3 But the Japanese system permits a passed-over officer to continue until retirement at 20 years of service.4

Some critics of up-or-out argue that this system is unique to the military: no rational nonmilitary organization would engage in such a wasteful practice. This is not true. First, major universities have used up-or-out in tenure decisions for years. Second, some prestigious law firms have also used up-or out in their selection of partners from among associates. In his study of Wall Street law firms, Erwin 0. Smigel describes up-or-out:

The "up-or out rule" is designed to insure that lawyers who are not going to be made partners leave the firm, permitting a constant flow of new talent into the organization…5

Trying for tenure in these law firms, as in the Air Force, is a gamble, and losers must go out.

The lawyers who gamble on the chance of being made a partner and lose try to leave soon after they know they have been passed over. - - - Although they and their immediate colleagues feel such men have failed, the larger world may consider them successful.6

These firms assist in securing employment and keep such failures from the public's eyes. Occasionally, a law firm with an up-or-out policy keeps a passed-over associate with unique experience considered essential to the firm.

These law firms and universities eliminate candidates not selected for tenure to ensure that there will be positions to fill with other candidates they wish to consider. To continue an untenured professor or lawyer-when the number of candidate positions is fixed--has a cost: reducing the number of candidates for tenure in succeeding periods. Like military up-or-out, these systems are open to attack. They force competent trained personnel out with attendant trauma and costs. Criteria for tenure (promotion) are not explicit.

Like these major law firms and universities, the Air Force wishes to maintain a pool of promising candidates and avoid stagnation. The present Air Force up-or-out system is rooted in the Army's efforts to replace the strict seniority system after World War II. To understand why, the Army espoused up-or-out and why Congress permitted it, we should examine the experience of two prominent advocates: Generals Marshall and Eisenhower.

When Marshall became the Army Chief of Staff, 1939, he faced the immense task of preparing a small peacetime army for an impending war. He was not a World War I hero, as was MacArthur, but he had served under Pershing in that conflict and had seen firsthand the failure of senior commanders.

He was haunted by recollection of the droves of unfit commanders sent in World War I by General Pershing to "Blooey" (Blois)--as the French used to send theirs to Limoges--for reclassification, and of his chief's almost frantic efforts on eve of battle to find suitable officers for combat assignments.7

Like many of his contemporaries and subordinates, Marshall had found the strict seniority system personally stifling. But the system's most glaring faults became known after General Marshall began to use large maneuvers to prepare and evaluate Army units. First, the strict seniority system provided the Army with senior commanders who were advanced in age, near mandatory retirement. Many lacked the physical endurance required of a field commander.

As the Army expanded in 1940 and 1941, the Chief of Staff was shocked and saddened to find that many of his contemporaries, with fine records in peacetime or in World War I, could not meet the heavy demands of new command responsibilities. For some of the early appointments he had reached back in his memory and recommended for high place old friends from Fort Leavenworth or First Army. He was aghast when many of them broke under the pressure of their new duties.8

Second, senior officers often lacked appropriate experience because they had stagnated in the junior grades. Some were capable officers with short tenure as commanders; others were simply incompetent.

Marshall concluded that with his own World War I "hump" the strict seniority system provided senior officers who often lacked competence and nearly always lacked necessary experience and physical stamina. He began a strenuous campaign to replace unsuitable senior commanders with capable younger men. Firing older commanders was very costly to him personally because old colleagues sometimes had to go; his improvised up-or-out system brought criticism from those officers passed over (who accused the Army of a breach of contract), from Congress, and from the press.

Marshall formalized his up-or-out approach by establishing a plucking board.

To insure fairness in the elimination, Marshall selected for the task a committee of six retired officers-a "plucking board" as it was called-headed by his immediate predecessor, General Craig. The officers, after examining records and recommendations as to performance, were empowered to remove from line promotion any officer for reasons deemed good and sufficient. He would then be subject to removal one year after the action was taken. As a guide Marshall passed onto the board, with his approval, G-1’s statement that cases were to be decided not on an officer's past record but on his value to the Army. "Critical times are upon us," he warned, and the standard had to be "today's performance."9

By replacing deadwood with Eisenhower, Bradley, Clark, and others, Marshall assuredly paved the way for victory in World War II.

After the war, Eisenhower urged that the Army formally adopt a competitive up-or-out system. Since he had worked for Marshall at the beginning of the war, Eisenhower understood the failure of the strict seniority system. He testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that a number of senior commanders "had to be replaced and gotten out of the way and younger men had to come along and take over the job."10 Eisenhower also described the dismal career profile that faced him and his contemporaries under strict seniority "Until we got to the grade of general officer, it was absolutely a lock-step promotion; and short of almost crime being committed by an officer, there were ineffectual ways of eliminating a man."11

Marshall's and Eisenhower's arguments carried the day, but not without debate. In a letter to the committee, Senator Guy Cordon stressed the costs the proposed up-or-out system. He was careful to distinguish between combat and technical services.

It may be that some of the restrictions in the bill are justified for combat units but I feel strongly that they are inadvisable for the technical services.12

Noting that a colonel would be forced a at age 52, Senator Cordon stated, "This seems to me to be a most wasteful and illogical requirement, particularly for the technical services."13 Referring to such retirement for a division engineer, the senator continued, "They are at the peak of their ability to render service in their profession and exceptions should most certainly be made from any requirement which, again might be desirable for combat units."14

Senator Cordon's objection is still with us, voiced by sincere critics of up-or-out. Indeed, the Air Force of 1978 is more technical than the Army of 1947. In terms of experience and training losses, up-or-out is a very costly policy. Marshall and Eisenhower argued that up-or-out was an essential replacement for strict seniority, which provided senior combat commanders who lacked youthfulness and relevant experience. Our continued use of up-or-out stems from the continual need to provide youthful, experienced senior combat commanders. Unfortunately, up-or-out, a policy to produce senior combat commanders, has been treated as the alternative to strict seniority-In fact, up-or-out is an alternative to strict seniority.

In view of the costliness of up-or-out for regular officers under DOPMS, we should ask several questions about the senior commanders which up-or-out is to produce. First, how many senior combat command positions require youthful officers with broad command and staff experience obtained through frequent reassignments? Second, in what fields can an 0-5 or 0-6 serve until he (or she) is 55 or 60 years old? Third, how many bona fide candidates for senior combat command positions, e.g., 0-7, do we wish to consider for promotion annually? With this number we can begin to determine the numbers of lower grade officers who should rapidly gain the experience required of a senior combat commander. At present, we act as if most company and field grade line officers are such candidates. Many who lack either the interest or aptitude for senior command are encouraged to gain diversified experiences in many general areas and avoid extended assignments in any single specialty. And we maintain a youthful officer force in all fields without questioning the relevance of this dimension.

The modest number of senior command positions that require a youthful generalist and the accompanying need for bona fide candidates argue against up-or-out for all line officers. Such costly executive development must be limited to a portion of the line. At least two barriers stand in the way of such a move: an inability to identify potential senior commanders and a reluctance to identify explicitly and groom such officers. The controlled OER offers some promise of identifying candidates. Our willingness to identify them early is understandably hindered by considerations of fairness and fear of errors.

The costliness of up-or-out and clamor of its critics will certainly increase. We must compete with the private sector for the shrinking youthful portion of the labor force. For as far as we can see ahead, we shall need youthful generalists as senior combat commanders. Up-or-out plays an essential role in the development of candidates for these positions. But our need for technical officers will certainly not diminish, and they do not need the youthfulness sought by Marshall and Eisenhower. Up-or-out is a process of examining and then either promoting or eliminating in the search for a modest number of youthful senior commanders. It is time to be more deliberate and to discriminate between the need for youth in combat and the need for technical expertise where youthfulness is inessential.

USAF Academy


1. Defense Manpower Commission, Defense Manpower: The Keystone of National Security Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976).

2. AFP 36-22, "Officer Career Information," (Washington, D.C.: Hq USAF, 29 December1976), p.11.

3. "Japan: All-Volunteer Combat Oriented," Air Force Times, March 14, 1977, p. 32.

4. Ibid.

5. Barney G. Glaser, Organizational Careers (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1968), p. 342.

6. Ibid., p. 345.

7. Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Ordeal and Hope (New York: Viking Press, 1966), p. 91.

8. Ibid., p. 92.

9. Ibid., p. 97.

10. Hearings before the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate, 80th Cong., 1st sess., on H. R. 3830, 16 July 1947, p. 10.

11. Ibid., p. 1.

12. Ibid., p. 5.

13. Ibid., p. 6.

14. Ibid.


Lieutenant Colonel Robert O. Heavner (Ph.D., Stanford University) is a 1977-78 White House Fellow serving as Executive Assistant to the Director, Office of Management and Budget. He has been as associate professor of economics and management at the Air Force Academy and a lecturer at the Air War College. Colonel Heavner has also been an aircraft commander, instructor pilot, and flight examiner in the B-57, including assignments with ADC, PACAF, and Air Weather Service. He has been a consultant to the Air Force Chief of Staff (Studies and Analysis) and to the Rand Corporation.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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