The Navy will hold selective early retirement boards for specific groups of captains and commanders this fall to force non-performing senior officers into retirement.
That raises eyebrows with critics who see a Navy trying to grow by 25,000 sailors in the coming years, but the service’s leaders believe the new boards will make a better officer corps.
The twin boards will convene on September 13 in Millington Tennessee, one for commanders and the other for captains.
Both will have community-specific panels that will sift through the senior officer records, officials told Navy Times.
For example, a panel of senior officers will scrutinize engineering duty officers in year groups 1989-1995 and will also peek at chaplains commissioned between 1986 and 1992, but the boards won’t be given mandatory numbers to trim, according the Vice Adm. Bob Burke, the Navy’s top uniformed personnel officer.
Speaking during an Aug. 7 media round table, Burke said the entire process really amounts to a quality control check on the senior officer corps. It’s modeled on the Navy’s Senior Enlisted Continuation Boards, which have been held seven out of the last nine years to weed out chiefs, senior chiefs and master chiefs who already are eligible for retirement.
The enlisted boards also don’t have mandatory quotas for cuts. They were the brainchild of then-Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (SS/SW) Rick West as a method of getting rid of “deadwood” stacked at the top of the Navy’s enlisted ranks nearly a decade ago.
Now, forced retirement can come down on any lackluster senior officer in specific year groups and career fields.
“We’re looking for someone who is just outright, plain not performing, here,” Burke said. “It’s a very valuable tool in helping us maintain the gold standard of what we expect of our senior enlisted leaders — enforcing the standard with our senior officers sends a good signal and provides the necessary tone across the force in terms of our expectations [of performance].”
The boards arise partly because of pending changes to commissioned officer rules crafted in the 2019 Pentagon budget. The spending plan frees services to more easily retain officers who are good at their jobs but don’t necessarily rise quickly in the bureaucracy.
Instead of “up or out,” the military is eyeing the increasing use of “up and stay” to retain talent that doesn’t make higher rank but still brings value to the services.
The Navy hasn’t held an officer early retirement board since 2012, at the end of the most recent drawdown of personnel. Under the old rules, all early retirement boards were mandated to make cuts.
Burke said he’s now armed with the legal authority to conduct a highly targeted board in the officer corps along the lines of what he called the “highly successful” senior enlisted version. Instead of trimming ranks, he said the panels will be “looking for quality.” If a board finds no officers to select for retirement, that’s fine, Burke indicated.
There will be some basic criteria at each pay grade, such as commanders who have been overlooked for promotion twice. And at the captain level, the baseline shifts to three years in grade.
“If we have people have who are occupying space and not doing their job…this is Congress giving us the latitude, a tool to move people who aren’t carrying their weight, so we’ll take a hard look and make sure we’re doing the right thing," Burke said.
Without “up or out,” the Navy needs some tool to identify marginal performers who probably should be prodded into retirement.
“If promotion isn’t going to be the incentive for them to stay, then you have to look at them along these lines — an early retirement board like this,” he said.
"Otherwise you’d have to wait for their statutory retirement age, and that’s 28-years for commanders and and 30-years for captains -- so if they’re only at the 24-year mark, that’s another four to six years you’d have to carry them on the books."
And in the end, he doesn't expect they'll be showing many officers the door, either.
“Given there’s no quotas, my expectation is that the number of officers selected for early retirement at this point will be small,” Burke said.
The trick here is to write up the instructions to the board — “precepts” in Navy lingo ―to specify the criteria the Navy needs to send an officer home.
The actual orders are still being reviewed by Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, but Burke suggested commissioned officers worrying about the panels should look at what the senior enlisted boards did.
They were looking for service records with red flags such as incidents of misconduct or substandard and declining performance over the previous three years. But even those demerits didn’t create automatic tickets home.
“Just because you have a disciplinary problem, doesn’t mean you will be selected for early retirement,” Burke said. “But it will be looked at in context of the whole record.”
The enlisted boards begin their process by reviewing each officer’s records and creating two stacks of files, those with potentially adverse info in one pile and clean records in another.
Those with no black marks are voted through as a group by the board and their files are set aside. Flagged files are briefed in greater detail to the board and sailors are voted on individually.
“Each board will select only those officers whose early retirement, in the opinion of a majority of the board members, is in the best interest of the Navy,” Burke wrote in the NavAdmin message announcing the board.
In his interview with reporters, Burke insisted that officers who have been passed over but are still “doing absolutely amazing things for the Navy” have nothing to worry about.
The Navy will formally notify officers recommended for early retirement and they must depart no later than seven months after they’re told. For officers facing this year’s boards, that means they must exit no later than May 1 if they don’t make the cut.
For officers who haven’t reached the mandatory 20 years of service to obtain a pension but they’ve been picked by the board for removal, they’ll be retained on active duty until they’re eligible to retire.
“We think we’d like to do this annually, but we’re taking a wait and see attitude and will analyze the results of this first board,” Burke said. “Our rough contention is that we’ll most likely do this at some periodicity and we’ll figure out how often after we assess this board.”
Mark D. Faram is a former reporter for Navy Times. He was a senior writer covering personnel, cultural and historical issues. A nine-year active duty Navy veteran, Faram served from 1978 to 1987 as a Navy Diver and photographer.