WASHINGTON -- To fill a growing number of vacancies in the officer corps, the Army is promoting captains, majors, and lieutenant colonels more quickly and at a higher percentage than before the Iraq war, a trend that some military specialists worry is lowering the overall quality of the officer corps.
The Army, already stretched thin from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, attributes the accelerated promotion rates to the pressures of war and the urgent need for field commanders. Another reason for the vacancies, military analysts say: unit leaders are quitting the Army faster than anticipated -- after multiple tours of duty in Iraq. The shortage of captains, majors, and lieutenant colonels is especially pronounced among experienced officers who have between five and 15 years in uniform, according to Army officials.
In 2006, the Army had to promote more officers ahead of its own timetables, according to the most recent statistics. For example, the Army had a goal of promoting about 70 percent of eligible majors to the next rank of lieutenant colonel; instead, it promoted 90 percent of them to fill the vacuum. The same year, the Army advanced nearly all of its captains to majors, roughly 20 percent more than its guidelines call for.
Along with fast-tracked promotions, the Army is keeping underachieving officers instead of forcing them to retire, according to the latest data.
A dearth of midlevel officers could harm the Army's readiness, according to analysts. Considered the backbone of the military, those ground-level commanders are responsible for leading combat units into battle, planning military operations, and managing troop logistics such as supply convoys.
At a hearing last month, Lieutenant General Michael D. Rochelle , the deputy Army chief of staff, told Congress that about 8 percent of the force's junior officers -- captains and lower-ranking lieutenants -- left the Army in 2006, lower than in previous years but still higher than the goal of a 5 percent attrition rate. "Multiple deployments appear to be impacting midcareer soldiers between their sixth and 10th year of service more than any other population," Rochelle told a House Armed Services subcommittee.
One officer who served in Iraq last year related how the exodus has affected his own unit.
"From my microview of the Army, the junior officer attrition is unreal," the officer, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, wrote in a personal e-mail from Iraq and provided to the Globe. "In my battalion alone, one of 10 officers in my year group is staying in the Army. All the rest are leaving with me."
In order to stop the exodus, the Army last October established an Officer Retention Branch designed to "retain more of our best officers," Rochelle testified. It also increased from 412 to 612 the number of full scholarships offered to captains to attend graduate school.
But those efforts are not enough. Since 2001, the Army has stepped up its efforts to better prepare its forces for the war on terrorism, including establishing smaller units and increasing the overall size of the force. That strategy of more self-contained combat units has increased the Army's need for more midlevel officers to command them.
For example, the Army is struggling to fill 8,000 new midlevel officer positions it has created since 2002, representing a 58 percent increase in captains and majors, according to Army figures. The service projects for 2007 that the estimated 14,000 majors it will have in uniform will only be about 83 percent of the number it needs, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.
To offset the current shortage, the Army has broken some of its own guidelines for promotion.
Under its regulations, a review board examines eligible officers' fitness reports and performance evaluations, then gives each officer an "order of merit" rating. The officers at the top are most likely to be promoted, while those who score lower aren't as likely to advance; the Army used the ratings and its promotion percentage goals to separate outstanding officers from underachievers.
But the Pentagon's data shows that since 2001 the Army is promoting almost everyone -- even less-able officers who typically wouldn't make the cut. The Army is also moving recently promoted officers up to the next rank ahead of schedule, a controversial move last used during the Vietnam War.
The Army is giving some more opportunities for promotion than in the past, when the system was used to get lower-scoring officers out of uniform.
For example, if an eligible officer was passed over for promotion twice, he or she typically would be involuntarily discharged within six months, said Army Colonel Kenneth Dahl, a brigade commander who is now on a government fellowship at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. Now, under what it calls the "selective continuation" plan, the Army has allowed those officers to remain on duty.
Some officers worry that the trend of fast-track promotions could have consequences on the ground in Iraq. The Iraq veteran who wrote e-mails about the problem said that a commander in his unit who was headed to a combat zone did not know what a 'cordon-and-search' mission was -- the Army's system of looking through neighborhoods for insurgents.
The Army maintains that it hasn't sacrificed quality for accelerated promotions. "All of the officers we have, particularly the midgrade officers, are qualified," said Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty , an Army spokesman. "You only get promoted if you're fully qualified."
Its defenders also point out that the Army's officers who do tours in Iraq are battle-hardened and uniquely qualified for leadership. "The majority of them have all been in combat, they have experience under fire," said Kevin Ryan , a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a retired brigadier general.
Nevertheless, current officers and outside military specialists worry that the accelerated promotions could have detrimental effects over the long term.
"It doesn't mean that they are all dunderheads," said retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich, a professor of military history at Boston University and a West Point graduate. "But our method of promotion as a means to prepare officers for positions of senior leadership is being broken."
Bacevich said a good analogy would be a college basketball team with only freshmen on the roster: "Yes, there would be some freshmen that are ready for the big game, but really you want a team of sophomores, juniors, and seniors. The same principle applies to developing an officer corps."
But one former officer isn't optimistic.
"I hope it's not the case, but the Army is headed for a tremendous leadership crisis in the next few years," the Iraq veteran said in the e-mail.
Globe correspondent Kevin Baron contributed to this report. Bryan Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.