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Navy Officer Promotions

(Note: The below article is from the Aug 97 edition of Navy "All Hands" Magazine.

Long ago, the Navy recognized the finest ships and the best-trained crews were only as effective as the officers who commanded them. Consequently, the sea service has always sought the most capable men and women for the officer corps and encouraged them to advance as far as their abilities permitted. Laws and regulations governing the promotion of naval officers are the product of more than 200 years experience and ensure that all officers receive impartial consideration based solely on their capabilities and performance. This article addresses all aspects of the officer promotion system.

The Navy's officer corps is structured like a pyramid. Starting with a wide base of junior officers at the bottom, it rises to a relative few flag officers near the peak, with one, the Chief of Naval Operations, at the top. The officer corps structure consists of 20 competitive categories, i.e., groups of officers possessing similar skills, education and training.

By law, the Navy's promotion system is vacancy-driven. Promotion planners develop annual plans to determine the projected need for officers in each grade within each of the competitive categories. The development of these plans starts the promotion system cycle with these three elements: selection opportunity, selection for promotion and promotion.

Promotion process

Obviously, all officers can't reach the top of the pyramid, but everyone has the same selection opportunity as their contemporaries in his or her competitive category.

Selection opportunity is the product of three factors: authorized officer strength, promotion flow point and selection opportunity (percentage).

Authorized officer strength

The Navy's authorized officer strength is the total number of officers authorized to be in the Navy at the end of each fiscal year. Congress prescribes this total number for each of the Armed Forces each year, and SECNAV distributes this total number among the Navy's 20 competitive categories. Since authorized officer strength sets a limit on how many officers we can have in the Navy each year, it affects the number of promotions that can be made.

Promotion flow point

Promotion flow point is the average number of years of commissioned service (ensign date of rank) officers have when promoted to the next higher grade.

Promotion Flow Points

To Grade of Promotion Flow Point
CWO3 After 4 Years as CWO2 (Permanent)
CWO4 After 4 Years as CWO3 (Permanent)
LTJG 2 Years
LT 4 Years
LCDR 9 to 11 Years
CDR 15 to 17 Years
CAPT 21 to 23 Years

Selection opportunity

When developing annual promotion plans, planners use the selection percentage guidelines, along with the number of vacancies to be filled in each grade in each competitive category to determine the zone size (or rather, to determine who is "in zone" for selection). For example, if planners foresee a need to fill 300 captain vacancies in the unrestricted line (URL), and a selection opportunity of 50 percent is desired, then the zone must include 600 URL commanders.

To be eligible for consideration for selection from in zone, an officer must have the following minimum years in grade:
    RADM - 1 year as RADM(L) (prior to the convening date of the board). RADM(L) - 3 years as CAPT (by Oct. 1 of the year in which promotions begin). CAPT - 3 years as CDR CDR - 3 years as LCDR LCDR - 3 years as LT LT - 2 years as LTJG CWO4 - 3 years as CWO3 CWO3 - 3 years as CWO2

These three factors authorized officer strength, promotion flow point and selection percentage are inter-related. A change in one will force a change in at least one other.

After finalizing zone sizes, promotion planners forward the plans via the chain of command to SECNAV. The plans are modified and/or approved, and the zones are announced via an ALNAV at least 30 days prior to the convening date of the fiscal year's first selection board.

Selection Percentages

To Grade of
CWO3 75%
CWO4 70%
LTJG 100% (if fully qualified)
LT 95 - 100%
LCDR 70 to 90%
CDR 60 to 80%
CAPT 40 to 60%
RADM(L)/RADM **No minimum
    ** The selection percentage for RADM(L) is approximately 2 to 3 percent, depending on competitive category. The selection percentage for RADM is approximately 45 percent.

Selection for promotion

The SECNAV convenes annual promotion boards for each competitive category to select active-duty officers and Reserve officers not on active duty for promotion.

CWO2 and ensign are commissioning grades and an officer's commanding officer determines the individual's promotion to lieutenant junior grade. Officers above the grade of captain are appointed, not promoted, by the President of the United States to admiral, vice admiral and rear admiral.

Selection boards are composed of officers who have shown outstanding quality of performance, maturity, judgment, naval background and experience.

The senior member is usually named president of the board. Each member takes an oath to consider all eligible officers without partiality and to recommend for promotion only those officers who are "best qualified."

In written directions to the board, SECNAV stipulates that the board's proceedings shall be confidential and confined within the board room. The board is required to submit its findings and recommendations, but not the reasons for its decisions. Therefore, those who aren't selected have nothing in their official record to indicate why they were not recommended for promotion.

After the board closes:

The Chief of Naval Personnel (CNP), Judge Advocate General, Chief of Naval Operations, Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Management and Personnel review the list.

    SECNAV reviews the list.

    SECNAV publishes the list for chief warrant officer, lieutenant, lieutenant commander, commander, captain, rear admiral(L) and rear admiral(U) via an ALNAV message. The ALNAV lists the selectees in alphabetical order and shows the relative seniority among selectees within each competitive category.

    Secretary of Defense approves selection of the active-duty list, lieutenant through rear admiral (U).

    SECNAV publishes the active-duty list for rear admiral(L) and rear admiral(U) and approves chief warrant officer promotion boards via an ALNAV message.

    Senate confirmation is required for lieutenant commander through rear admiral(U) active-duty boards. (Vice admirals and admirals must also be confirmed by the Senate, but these officers are not selected by statutory boards.).

    SECNAV authorizes promotions via NAVADMIN message as vacancies occur. This usually occurs at monthly intervals during the fiscal year after the fiscal year of selection.
The board cannot exceed the number of selections provided for in SECNAV's precept. For example, if 100 officers are "in zone" and SECNAV requires a 70 percent selection percentage, the board cannot select more than 70 officers for promotion.

It may reach "below zone" and choose for early promotion up to 10 percent (or 15 percent with SECDEF approval) of the total number of officers selected. If, in the above example, the board selects 10 officers from below zone, it can select only 60 officers from in zone. (Each officer normally gets two "looks" from below zone.) The board also may select "above zone" officers, i.e., those who were considered in a previous year, but weren't selected.

Defense Officer Personnel Management Act

The Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA), enacted Sept. 15, 1981, established all the requirements and guidelines which govern the active-duty list for officer promotion /continuation/retirement system.

Officers promoted or selected for promotion to their present grades before Sept. 15, 1981, are termed pre-DOPMA officers for promotion/continuation/retirement purposes.

Those selected and promoted to their present grades, continued or augmented on or after Sept. 15, 1981, are termed DOPMA officers.

See Chart

Failure of selection

Many fine officers who are well-qualified for promotion are not selected as a result of the provisions of the DOPMA "up-or-out" system. The system is a competitive system where the most outstanding are selected and the numbers selected will vary with the requirement of the times and needs of the service in the particular grade concerned.

Those who fail to be selected may be continued on active duty or retired in accordance with current guidelines.

U.S. Military

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