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The Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA) (Pub.L. 96–513) is a United States federal law passed in 1980 that for the first time standardized officer personnel management across the United States Armed Forces. DOPMA established ceilings on the number of field grade officers authorized to each service, created uniform regulations governing promotions, and codified rules regarding separation and retirement of officers.[1]

DOPMA created stable and predictable career paths, institutionalized relatively short careers compared to private industry, and mandated the military adopt an "up or out" personnel management strategy (requiring officers who failed selection for promotion to be removed from the service).[2] Although DOPMA accomplished many of its intended goals, many provisions and consequences of the legislation remain controversial.[3]:16–23


Interwar years and World War II

Prior to World War II, the US Army and US Navy had different philosophies governing the promotion and retention of officers. The army maintained a seniority system based on tenure; promotions only occurred if there were vacancies at the next higher grade. Due to Congressionally imposed limits on the size of the army officer corps and extremely low turnover (resignations, retirements, and dismissals), a significant logjam in promotions developed during the interwar period. In 1940, army Chief of Staff General George Marshall (with the permission of President Roosevelt) purged the senior officer ranks to create vacancies for junior officers. Congress granted further authority to cull the ranks in July 1941 with the passage of the Army Vitalization Act.

During World War II, Army promotions up to lieutenant colonel were de-centralized and delegated to commanders in the field. This was in contrast to the Navy, which first introduced an "up or out" system in 1916. The Navy also instituted a centralized selection system, which it maintained even during World War II.[2]


In the aftermath of World War II Congress drafted legislation that attempted to address three (sometimes competing) objectives: create "uniform" rules for officer management between Army and Navy (and later Air Force), promote a "young and vigorous" officer corps, and retain the capacity to rapidly remobilize if needed.[4] In 1947 Congress consolidated Army and Navy officer management legislation into the Officer Personnel Act (OPA). With the encouragement of the Army (notably by General Dwight Eisenhower) OPA extended the "up or out" system across the military, requiring officers to go before promotion boards at set times based on cohorts (normally based on year of commissioning). OPA also ended the practice of appointing Army officers into specific "branches", giving the Army greater authority to move personnel to different functions and change organizational designs. OPA also authorized the services to grant voluntary retirement at 20 years of commissioned service.[5]

OPA's emphasis on remobilization capacity drastically altered the composition of the armed forces. In 1945, there was approximately one field grade officer for every 208 enlisted personnel; by 1950, there was approximately one field grade officer for every 78 enlisted personnel.[6] In response to this growth, Congress passed the Officer Grade Limitation Act in 1954 (OGLA). OGLA established grade tables for the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force limiting the percentage of officers who could serve in the rank of major (and naval equivalent) and above. OGLA also limited the number of voluntary retirements of senior officers at the 20-year mark, concerned that there would be an exodus of officers once they met minimum retirement eligibility criteria. The retirement limitations were later repealed due to the military's assurance to Congress that the majority of career officers would elect to serve until they reached the 30-year mark.[7]

Consolidation into DOPMA

By the 1970s, Congress desired to consolidate OPA and OGLA as well as clarify other legislation governing officer management. DOPMA, introduced by Senator Sam Nunn, combined many of the provisions of both OPA and OGLA. DOPMA established a "sliding-scale" grade table which authorized a relatively higher number of field grade officers during periods of personnel reductions. As such, promotion opportunities increase significantly during times of growth, but decrease more slightly during drawdowns.[2]

Rules governing promotion

The DOPMA "system" generally provides two opportunities to advance to the next rank. Officers typically will go before selection boards in cohorts based on the year they were commissioned. The majority of officers are promoted "in zone" (or "primary zone"); officers not selected will go before the next board ("above zone"), typically held a year later. Officers who are not selected "above zone" (twice fail promotion) are required to separate from the service, retire if eligible, or by exception may continue to serve until retirement in their current grade (but will never again be considered for promotion). At the discretion of the services a small number of promotions may go to exceptional officers ("below zone") who are promoted one or two years ahead of their cohort.[8]

Congress desired "due course" officers (those selected in the primary zone) to be promoted within set windows based on time served in the current grade and cumulative years of service. While not specified in DOPMA, Department of Defense policy established targets for selection to the next grade.[9] Desired promotion rates and reporting requirements of service board results are regularly published by DoD.[10] Current promotion guidelines are as follows:

Promotion To: Promotion Eligibility: Minimum Time in Previous Grade: Target Selection Rate:
First Lieutenant/Lieutenant (Junior Grade)/(1LT/LTJG) 1.5 to 2 years of service 18 months All Fully Qualified
Captain/Lieutenant/(CPT/LT) 3.5 to 4 years of service 2 years 95%
Major/Lieutenant Commander/(MAJ/LCDR) 9 to 11 years of service 3 years 80%
Lieutenant Colonel/Commander/(LTC/CDR) 15 to 17 years of service 3 years 70%
Colonel/Captain/(COL/CAPT) 21 to 23 years of service 3 years 50%

Source: Congressional Research Service[11]

DOPMA was designed to apply to "line" officers and made specific exceptions for military lawyers, doctors, nurses, and other professionals. Non-line officers tend to be managed in significantly different ways based on custom requirements.[12]

Consequences of enactment

DOPMA's attempt to balance competing personnel objectives resulted in mixed success. DOPMA achieved Congressional goals to create uniform promotion outcomes, standardized career lengths across the services, and regulated the number of senior officers as a proportion of the force. It also created reasonable and predictable expectations of when an officer would be eligible for promotion. However, DOPMA also had unintended effects. The legislation has been criticized for creating a system that results in high turnover, frequent moves, and relatively short careers.[13] Some of the assumptions underlying DOPMA have proven false; for example, the services' prediction that most career officers would elect a 30-year career was more optimistic than reality; by 1990 the average officer retired after 24 years of service at age 46.[14] DOPMA has also proven difficult to implement. Since its inception, the services have repeatedly sought suspension of key provisions of DOPMA grade tables to manage drawdowns and force increases.[4]

Others feel that changing conditions since enactment of the legislation require DOPMA reform.[3] While the promotion system is predictable, it allows the services little flexibility to reward and manage its top performers.[15] According to author and economist Tim Kane, DOPMA is "the root of all evil in this ecosystem," and binds the military into a system that honors seniority over individual merit. Mr. Kane argues that the resultant inflexibility causes tremendous attrition in the officer corps since officers have little control over their careers, but has persisted despite numerous efforts towards reform.[16] Perhaps the most controversial provision is the "up or out" policy. Even the sponsor of the bill, Senator Nunn, argued that it was needlessly expensive to force officers through the ranks and rid others unnecessarily. However, the Department of Defense and the House insisted these provisions were included.[17] Other changes to DOPMA that have been recommended to Congress include adoption of an "up or stay" personnel policy, greater use of warrant officers, and decreasing the number of officer skills managed in the "line" category.[18]


  1. Bernard Rostker, et al. (1992). "The Defense Officer Personnel Management Act of 1980 - A Retrospective Assessment" (PDF). pp. 1. ISBN 0-8330-1287-8. Retrieved 4 September 2013. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Bernard Rostker, et al. 1992, p. 89
  3. 3.0 3.1 Halter, Scott (January–February 2012). "What is an Army but the Soldiers? A Critical Assessment of the Army’s Personnel System" (PDF). Retrieved 4 September 2013. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 McKenzie, Thurman. "The Defense Officer Personnel Management Act – the Army’s Challenge to Contemporary Officer Management". School of Advanced Military Studies. Retrieved 4 September 2013. 
  5. Bernard Rostker, et al. 1992, pp. 88–95
  6. Bernard Rostker, et al. 1992, p. 94
  7. Bernard Rostker, et al. 1992, pp. 95–96
  8. Bernard Rostker, et al. 1992, p. 13
  9. Peter Schirmer, et al. (2006). "Challenging Time in DOPMA: Flexible and Contemporary Military Officer Management" (PDF). pp. 9. ISBN 978-0-8330-3948-4. 
  10. Under Secretary of Defense (Personnel and Readiness) (2009). "DODI 1320.13 "Commissioned Officer Promotion Reports"" (PDF). 
  11. Army Officer Shortages: Background and Issues for Congress [1], Congressional Research Service
  12. Harry J. Thie (1994). "Future Career Management Systems for U.S. Military Officers" (PDF). 
  13. Peter Schirmer, et al.. "Challenging Time in DOPMA: Flexible and Contemporary Military Officer Management". pp. 61. 
  14. Bernard Rostker, et al. 1992, p. 96
  15. Casey Wardynski, et al. (2010). "Towards a U.S. Army Officer Corps Strategy for Success: Retaining Talent" (PDF). 
  16. Andrews, Fred (5 January 2013). "The Military Machine as a Management Wreck". Retrieved 12 January 2013. 
  17. Bernard Rostker, et al. 1992, p. 98
  18. Harry J. Thie. "Future Career Management Systems for U.S. Military Officers". 

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