Each year, when Congress passes the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), it stipulates to the Army how many people can be on active duty during the year.
Under separate legislation, Congress also limits what percentage of the total active duty force can serve in each commissioned officer rank, in each warrant officer rank, and in each enlisted rank above the grade of E-4. There are no statutory limits for E-4 and below (the "E" stands for "enlisted," and in the Army an E-4 is the rank of corporal).
This is the basis of the Army enlisted promotion system: the Army takes the number of slots it has for each enlisted rank (above the rank of corporal) and allocates them to the different military occupational specialties (MOS), or enlisted jobs.
Army Promotions and Vacancies
To promote someone in the U.S. Army, there must be a vacancy. For example, if an E-9 (sergeant major) retires in a certain MOS, one E-8 can be promoted to E-9, and that opens an E-8 slot, so one E-7 can be promoted to E-8, and so forth. If 200 E-5s leave the Army in a particular MOS, then 200 E-4s can be promoted to E-5.
So, how does the Army decide which enlisted members are going to get promoted? They do this using three systems: decentralized promotions to the grades of E-2 through E-4; semi-centralized promotions to the grades of E-5 and E-6; and centralized boards for promotions to E-7, E-8, and E-9.
Decentralized Promotions in the Army
In the Army, the unit (or company is the promotion authority. In theory, the commander decides who gets promoted and who doesn't. However in practice, because there are no quotas for promotion for E-2s through E-4s, commanders pretty much promote anyone who meets the promotion criteria set by the Army to ensure that the promotion flow remains stable. Everyone (regardless of MOS) can expect to be promoted in the same approximate time frame.
There are some exceptions to the rules. First, in the Army, it's possible to join an advanced rank (up to E-4) for certain accomplishments, including college credits, Junior ROTC, or even referring other applications for enlistment while a member of the Delayed Enlistment Program (DEP).
Second, soldiers in Special Forces (18X) can be promoted to E-4 with just 12 months of time in service, and no specific time in grade requirement.
Semi-Centralized Promotions in the Army
A semi-centralized promotion process means that the unit/company plays a part in the promotion selection process, but it's the Army that decides who gets promoted.
There are two promotion processes known as primary zone and secondary zone. Most enlisted are promoted in the primary zone. The secondary zone gives an opportunity for commanders to give exceptional performers an early shot at promotion.
The process for either zone begins with administrative points. A soldier receives promotion points for various accomplishments, such as military decorations (medals), and PFT (Physical Fitness Test) scores.
Administrative Points in Army Promotions
Administrative points consist of duty performance, awards and decorations, military education, and civilian education.
The unit commander awards duty performance points based on recommendations from the soldier's supervisor. The commander may award up to 30 points in each of the following areas:
- Competence: Is the soldier proficient and knowledgeable? Does he communicate effectively?
- Military Bearing: Is the soldier a "role model" in the areas of appearance and self-confidence?
- Leadership: Does the soldier motivate others, set high standards, and show proper concern for the mission?
- Training: Does the soldier share knowledge and experience? Does she teach others?
- Responsibility/accountability: Does the soldier demonstrate that he is responsible and can be trusted?
Some military awards (medals) are given a specific promotion-point value, as are training courses such as ranger school or platoon leaders development course.
The Army gives promotion points for off-duty education, such as college courses, or business/trade school courses, and for scores on the Army PFT and test scores on the rifle or pistol range.
The next part of the process is the promotion board. To convene a promotion board, the commander must be in the grade of lieutenant colonel (O-5) or above. That means if the company commander is an O-5, the board can be conducted by the company, but if the company commander is an O-3, the member will meet the board conducted by the next level of command (such as battalion) where the commander is at least an O-5.
Some E-4s can be promoted to sergeant (E-5) without a promotion board under a new Army promotion policy.
The promotion board consists of at least three voting members and one non-voting member (the recorder). The president of the board is the senior member. If the board consists of all enlisted members (NCOs), then the president of the board should be (if possible) the command sergeant major. If not possible, then the president can be a sergeant major (E-9). All members of the board must be at least one grade senior to those being considered for promotion (for example, for an E-5 promotion board, all of the members must be in the grades of E-6 or above).
If available, there must be at least one voting member of the same sex as the soldiers being considered. For example, if a board is considering 50 E-5s for promotion to E-6, and two of those being considered are female, the board should have at least one female voting member. Additionally, each board should have at least one voting minority member (African-American, Hispanic, Asian, etc.).
Soldiers physically appear before the promotion board. Each board members ask a series of questions, and scores the candidate in six areas:
- Personal appearance
- Oral expression and conversation skills
- Knowledge of world affairs
- Awareness of military programs
- Knowledge of basic soldiering (Soldier's Manual)
- Soldier's attitude (includes an assessment of the soldier's and potential for promotion, trends in performance, etc.)
Each board member rates each of the above areas as follows:
- Average — one to seven points
- Above Average — eight to 13 points
- Excellent — 14 to 19 points
- Outstanding — 20 to 25 points
The maximum number of points that can be awarded by each board member is 150 points, total. The total points for all the voting board members are totaled and then divided by the number of board members. It results in an "average score" by the board. That becomes the soldier's "promotion board points" (maximum of 150).
The board takes one final action: they vote on whether or not they recommend the candidate for promotion. If a majority of the members vote "no," then the individual will not be promoted, regardless of how many total administrative and board points they have.
The board points are then added to the administrative points. The maximum possible combined administrative points and board points is 850.
To be placed on the promotion "recommended list," a soldier eligible for promotion to E-5 must achieve a minimum of 350 combined administrative and board points. A soldier eligible for promotion to E-6 must have at least 450 total promotion points.
Soldiers who make it through all of the above are placed on the "recommended list," and there are only a certain number of vacancies available in each MOS for each enlisted grade. Each month, the Army looks at each MOS and determines how many people within the MOS they need to promote to fill the vacancies (remember, vacancies within each grade are created when someone gets promoted out of that grade, leaves the Army, or re-trains into a different MOS).
Centralized Promotions (E-7, E-8, and E-9)
Centralized promotions are conducted Army-wide at Army Personnel Headquarters. The unit or battalion has little to do with the promotion process in these cases. There are no minimum time-in-grade requirements for promotion to E-7, E-8, or E-9, but soldiers must meet the following minimum time-in-service requirements to be eligible for promotion:
- Sergeant First Class (E-7) — Six years
- Master Sergeant/First Sergeant (E-8) — Eight years
- Sergeant Major (E-9) — Nine years
The Centralized Promotion Board consists of at least five members. The board can (and usually is) divided into separate panels, which review and score the promotion records for those being considered in different MOSs. If so, each panel must include at least three voting members. The president of the board must be a general officer. Board members are commissioned officers and Senior NCOs.
Unlike the promotion boards for E-5s and E-6's, soldiers do not personally meet the Centralized Board. The board makes their decisions based on the contents of the soldier's promotion records.
Each year, the Army decides how many soldiers within each MOS it plans to promote to the ranks of E-7, E-8, and E-9. For example, if the Army plans to promote 17 E-7 soldiers in MOS 123 to E-8 within the next year, they basically say to the board, "Here are the promotion records of everyone eligible for promotion to E-8 in MOS 123. Please review these records, discuss them, vote, and select 17 of them to be promoted within the next 12 months."
Soldiers eligible for consideration may write to the president of the promotion board to provide documents and information drawing attention to any matter concerning themselves that they feel is important to their consideration. Although written communication is authorized, it is only encouraged when there is something that is not provided in the soldier’s records that the soldier feels will have an impact on the board’s deliberations.
The promotion records consist of pretty much everything that is in the soldier's military records, including decorations (medals), dates of service, dates of assignments, duty positions (past and present), performance reports, educational accomplishments, military training, official photograph, and records of disciplinary action (such as Article 15, or courts-martial convictions, letters of reprimand, etc.).
The members of the board discuss and score each record, and then make a determination as to whether or not the individual should be promoted.
The Army then takes all the selectees (without regard to MOS), and assigns them a promotion sequence number, which is assigned according to seniority. For example, if it's the E-7 list, the Army will give the lowest sequence number (0001) to the E-7 selectee with the most time-in-grade as an E-6. Each month, for the next 12 months, the Army will then release the sequence numbers of those to be promoted during that month. It ensures a smooth promotion flow for the following 12 months (when the next board will meet and do everything all over again).