In the U.S. Army,

  • something like 75%-80% of newly-commissioned Second Lieutenants are promoted to First Lieutenant (around age 25)

  • perhaps 75%-80% of First Lieutenants are promoted to Captain (ages 28-29)

  • 75%-80% of Captains are promoted to Major (around ages 31-33). About half (or slightly less) of Second Lieutenants make it this far. Call it 48% to make the numbers round.

  • Only one out of four Majors (12% of the original group) are promoted to Lieutenant Colonel by age 40. Half of the Majors retire around that time at half pay. The remaining one quarter serve out their careers as Majors, and are promoted to Lieutenant Colonel around age 50, shortly before retirement, for purposes of calculating their pensions. This is a form of "social promotion."

  • Half of the Lieutenant Colonels (6% of the total) are promoted "naturally" to Colonel by age 45; the remainder, at the end of their careers.

  • Half of the Age-45 Colonels are promoted to at least to one star General (3% of the Second Lieutenants). The remainder retire as Colonels (and do NOT receive a "final" promotion).

Of course, we know that there is a pyramid. But why is it so much less steep up to the level of Major than thereafter?

  • 3
    do you mean, historically? In which era?
    – Louis Rhys
    Feb 26, 2013 at 1:41
  • 1
    @LouisRhys: Modern era.
    – Tom Au
    Feb 26, 2013 at 3:04
  • 4
    The closer to the top you get, the fewer positions there are. A division commander only has 3-4 brigade commanders under him, who each may have 10 (to give a number, don't know the exact) at the next level down for example. So it's a pyramid with curved sides, not straight sides.
    – jwenting
    Feb 26, 2013 at 7:21
  • 2
    Check out the totals by rank for October 2014 from DMDC...O-3 is by far the most common rank, starts thinning above, especially from O-6 to flag officers, whose total number is limited by Congress.
    – andybega
    Dec 17, 2014 at 17:24
  • 1
    Don't they sign up for a certain time period, like 20 years? This could just be long enough to make major due to normal promotion cycles.
    – jjack
    Apr 9, 2016 at 12:23

9 Answers 9


I see two different questions: why are there so few promotions at the top, and why is the attrition rate so much higher at the top?

To the first, I would blame a top-heavy force, i.e. there is a very high ratio of flag officers to troops, particularly at the very top. Promotions to general staff tend to come with appointment to commands, which are political, and few and far between to begin with. "Star creep" or "rank inflation" mean that a large number of generals and admirals are occupying the top of the heap, leaving little room for advancement. After all, why would you leave? It's an achievement and responsibility which has been compared to that of a Fortune 500 senior executive, and though your compensation will be at least an order of magnitude smaller, it's not a bad lifestyle. Gates' 2010 report is not the first time the brass creep has been raised, nor is the U.S. the only country where it is a concern, but it is a significant factor, particularly since the end of the Cold War as troop numbers and the number of commands have been shrinking.

To the second I attribute a variety of factors, all of which ultimately point to opportunity cost. As the chances for a promotion shrink, the burdens of military life become progressively more onerous compared to opportunities in the civilian world. Consider that

  1. The requirements for promotion become more onerous at higher ranks.
  2. The pyramid gets narrower at the top. Officers passed over for promotion once are unlikely to get a second recommendation; those passed over twice are subject to discharge or retirement.
  3. Perhaps as importantly as anything else, O-3 comes relatively soon after one's service commitment ends, and one earns a military pension during the long wait at O-4, but beyond that the incentives are few.

There are Army regulations governing when promotions are awarded to whom. For example, there is a minimum Time In Grade (TIG) of several years, depending on current rank. There are educational guidelines as well; for example, to be promoted to captain, a first lieutenant must have earned a bachelor's degree or its equivalent, and to be promoted to major, he or she must have advanced education. Not every soldier will meet such requirements; a mediocre physical fitness report can get you passed over.

Battlefield promotions of the sort seen in films are exceptionally rare. There is a service-wide promotions board which reviews all officers recommended for a promotion. But while promotions at lower ranks are almost perfunctory, candidates at higher ranks receive much greater scrutiny. The regulation even states that majors or lieutenant colonels passed over twice for promotion are retained essentially at the pleasure of the Army, and would otherwise be directed to retirement or discharge. Moreover, the board is working for the good of the Army, not necessarily your career, and your timing could be off. Only 36% of eligible lieutenant colonels were promoted to colonel in 2011, whereas 91% were five years previously.

Timing is influential in another way. To become an officer in the U.S. armed forces, one is either graduating from the academy or an ROTC program or is completing an officer training program probably following some time as an enlistee. This will entail at least a 3-5 year active duty service obligation, and a concurrent 8-year total military service obligation, which can be even longer in effect in certain occupations (e.g. for example, naval aviators' commitment clock starts running only after they complete their flight training).

So if the median O-1 (Army second lieutenant, Navy ensign) is 22 or 23, a large percentage of them will make it to O-2 (Army first lieutenant, Navy lieutenant junior grade) if only because they are required to remain in the military for at least as long as it takes to make that grade, and the requirements for that grade are relatively low. From there it isn't much time to O-3 (Army captain, Navy lieutenant, etc.). But by age 30, many will have tired of military life— the bureaucracy, the moving, the danger of getting blown up— and many will leave, particularly those with families.

Those who remain after that have a strong incentive to serve out their 20 years. Once an officer (or enlisted Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs)) makes it to the 20 year mark, they are eligible to retire. Under the old system, a military pension was based on 50% of the base pay averaged over the "high three" years. Many US Army officers and NCOs decide at the 20 year mark to retire because the compensation and lifestyle of a private sector job begins to look very appealing. There is also a saying in the military that after 20 years you are working for 1/2 pay, because one could at that point retire, collect 1/2 their base pay, and then go on to also earn a very comfortable salary in the civilian world. A newer retirement system referred to as a "blended retirement" began in 2017. Many consider it less generous than the old 50% pension system. You have two decades to figure out how to apply the contacts and management skills you have acquired in a new career as a civilian.

  • 2
    Hey, you clearly know a lot about this, but this: "Star creep" or "rank inflation" mean that a large number of generals and admirals are occupying the top of the heap, leaving little room for advancement. is just not true. The number of flag officers is legally limited to a few hundred, as you can see here, and pyramid starts getting narrower, fast, from O-3 (here, from DMDC).
    – andybega
    Dec 17, 2014 at 17:30
  • 1
    And it's not like you can just sit around and wait to get promoted, because of up or out. It get's competitive after O-3 because more people are competing for fewer spots. Simple supply and demand.
    – andybega
    Dec 17, 2014 at 17:32
  • @andybega I have to disagree. At least in the Dutch army some jobs are exclusively reserved for [certain] general ranks. For example, the head of a service branch is always a luitenant-general. When the Royal Marechaussee (MP) became an independent service, its commander (maj-gen) became automatically ltn-gen, even though the numbers and tasks remained the same.
    – Jos
    Jul 19, 2023 at 4:44

I work for a company that provides services specifically for the military, and because of that, they tend to hire a lot of former officers. Many of them left the military after reaching Captain because they could make more money in the private sector (plus the added benefit of nobody shooting at you). Those who stay on to reach the rank of Major often do so only because they want to acquire that half pay retirement benefit before jumping to the private sector.

Another factor that is less relevant now is that a lot of the military support in places like Iraq and Afghanistan was provided by privatized security companies, and they were hiring large numbers of former military officers at wages much higher than they could have obtained in the private sector back home.

Lastly, there are only so many command positions available, and most of those don't have a lot of turnover. If an officer stays in long enough to reach the upper ranks, he is much less likely to retire early, which means the number of vacancies is going to be limited.

  • 20years ago there was the opposite problem (at least in other Nato armies) there was no private contacts and pay was firmly linked to rank - so any junior officers with useful skills in computers/communications etc were promoted rapidly up the ranks to keep skills in-house
    – none
    Feb 26, 2013 at 2:53

Up or out.

@choster has the core of the response, but the succinct answer is that if you are passed over for promotion twice, then the Army has no need of you. There are multiple papers written on why this is a suboptimal solution - a quick review of any military professional journal should reveal some.

Why are qualified officer's passed over for promotion? Even in today's top heavy military, there are fewer and fewer positions as you rise. We don't need as many Major Generals as we do Majors.

Why does the pyramid's shape change at Major? That is slightly tougher, and here I veer a bit more towards opinion, but there are two reasons.

1) When I was a junior officer we were painfully aware that until we got to the rank of O-3, we were on probation. It takes time to build an officer. O-1 through O-3 are really probationary training stages. (to put it another way, a senior military man of my acquaintance once urged his Lieutenants to take more risks by pointing out that they couldn't get into trouble that he couldn't fix. He probably couldn't say that for his Captains ).

2) The military needs more field grade officers than they do strategists. (I'm going to leave it to a green suit to explain why).

  • This is like e.g. the accounting firms. Only a handful make it to first-level "Partner" (probably equivalent to Lt. Colonel) or higher. The ones that don't are expected to leave, after rising initially through the ranks of junior, advanced, senior, and managerial accountants.
    – Tom Au
    Feb 26, 2013 at 22:38
  • 3
    see the Dutch armed forces for why you need more field officers than desk warriors. The Dutch army now has more generals than junior officers, almost. There's hundreds of the buggers all over the place, managing an army that's now down to about 2 brigades in strength...
    – jwenting
    Nov 6, 2014 at 8:10

I think the main reason is simply that the grades from that level onward are designed to create a lot of personnel churn for all but the top (some would say most well-connected) officers. Mostly what I think you are observing is an effect of how difficult it is to get promotions past that level (O-4 in US military code parlance).

Promotions in the US military are governed by US law as to how long the person has to have been in the military, and in their current position, before they are eligable. This is implemented via DOD Instructions 1320.13 and 1320.14. Getting to O-4 only requires a collective 10 years of service, and nearly every officer (80% by law) are allowed the promotion.

However, to get past that point requires a three year further commitment at your current level, and 16 years service (then 3 more and 22 years for O-6). To make matters worse, nearly a third of O-4's will never make it (30% by law), and only half of O-5's can make it to O-6.

You get three opportunties for this promotion. When you become eligable due to years of service is called being "in-the-zone". You can get a "below-the-zone" early promotion one year before that, an "in-the-zone" promotion, or a (apparently very rare) "above-the-zone" promotion a year after that.

If you don't get promoted after that, you are expected to retire. So once you get to O-4 and above, there is going to be a constant yearly stream of retirements, both of people forced out, and of people who don't want to wait 3-6 more years for a crack at a promotion.

  • 1
    Apparently, about 2/3 of the passed over officers do retire, and 1/3 stay in the Army and receive an age "50+" "social" promotion, for pension purposes. One man I knew as a child retired this way as a (Lt.) "Colonel."
    – Tom Au
    Feb 26, 2013 at 15:35

MAJ is the sweet spot by design. Officers either reach 20 years and a pension of about one third their pay or they bail at about 12 years service and pursue safer, better opportunities for self/family. Children are generally old enough to need stability when officers hit MAJ. Staying past MAJ for most officers effectively commits them to 20+ years service.


The more I think about it, the more I believe that at least part of it is due to the dual structure of enlisted men and commissioned officers.

The first group is enlisted right out of high school; the second group is drawn from college graduates who have successfully completed an officer's candidate school (or ROTC) program. "Enlistees" can rise to sergeant, but never higher (unless they leave the Army, go to college, and re-join the Army).

Second lieutenants are paired as "platoon leaders" with career (senior) sergeants. Most second lieutenants are soon promoted to first lieutenant (after two year, rather than three, and at a greater rate than posited in my question. So the first "bottleneck" occurs at the company commander level. Up to that point, there a paucity of (short-term serving) college-educated junior officers, because enlisted men that lack a college degree aren't promoted beyond sergeant.

The other factor is that because of U.S. affluence, American officers are sometimes promoted one rank above their responsibility level. If a company is commanded by a Captain in the British army (the "standard"), it might be commanded by a Major in the U.S. army; or a battalion by a Lt. Col. rather than a Major. So the first major "weeding out" occurs at the level of Captain, a second one at Major, and after that it gets "serious."

This was the case in the Korean War (Robert Leckie, "The War in Korea"), when the first batch of troops in Korea was a battalion sent to Osan under the command of Lt. Colonel Charles "Brad" Smith. He was 36 years old, and a favorite of General William Dean, having received promotions at a maximum rate until then. But he barely made it to Brigadier General, and losing the battle of Osan may have had something to do with his not rising higher.

  • 3
    +1 Robert Lekie, I have watched far too much HBO Pacific not to recognise that guy. I'm surprised to learn that the US don't have a late entry scheme and apparently getting to captain is impossible without a degree. I thought us in the UK were the ones riven with class issues, but we have quite a good system.
    – Nathan
    Feb 26, 2013 at 18:50
  • 2
    The difference in the situation in the USSR during WWII, where officers were being shot at the top of the pyramid for failing and anyone with talent being promoted up in order to avoid losing, and a peacetime army with little to no turnover at the top is extreme. The Peacetime Russian army has similar issues as the peacetime US army, as the geriatric hold the top spots until death.
    – Oldcat
    Nov 6, 2014 at 1:22
  • I'm pretty sure the details here are wrong. From what I can tell, it's British companies commanded by majors, and American ones commanded by captains; battalions in both appear to generally have lieutenant colonels commanding them. As for platoon leaders, every source I can find says that an American platoon leader must be a lieutenant; an NCO is the platoon sergeant and second-in-command, but is not the platoon leader. And it seems like just about every second lieutenant in the US is promoted to first lieutenant; it is literally automatic after 18 months good conduct.
    – cpast
    Dec 13, 2014 at 3:43
  • @cpast: I stand corrected on the platoon leaders issue (and made corrections). I stand by my comments on British vs. U.S. military, because in the British army, officers tend to "top out" at Captain, vs. Major in the U.S. army, and in either case, at company commander.
    – Tom Au
    Dec 15, 2014 at 15:06
  • 1
    @TomAu The US Army's site lists "command company" under the duties of a Captain. The British Army's lists "second-in-command of up to 120 people" under Captain; command is under Major. News articles about US companies name captains as the commanders; I can't find articles about British companies as easily, but the couple I did find listed majors as commanders. All online sources I have found except this post list majors as British company commanders and captains as US commanders.
    – cpast
    Dec 15, 2014 at 16:46

The up or out system is responsible for the broken personnel system in the Army for officers and enlisted. I am a retired Army Reserve Officer and I had a corporate and government career as well. NO corporation or civil service system has the up or out policy. Corporations and civil service retain people who perform well even when there are simply too few positions available for promotion.

It is noted in a very good article that "The services must separate retention from promotion. This is so obvious it’s astounding it hasn’t been done already. Almost no organization other than the military has such a strict up-or-out system. The rest of the world acknowledges that some people excel at leading and managing others in the accomplishment of goals, while others excel at the work itself." Refer to this article at http://taskandpurpose.com/military-needs-abandon-promotion-boards/.

My pay entry basic date goes back to 1975, so I have the life experience to discuss this dumb system. Further the US Military makes the problem worse because it has competition to just get into the resident courses needed for promotion. I made Major right on time and then I was eligible on time for Lieutenant Colonel but I had to delay promotion until I transferred to the reserves due to limitations on the number of positions. There has to be a limitation on the number of higher positions so that is not the issue.

I served on both the active duty and the reserves and my experience taught me that you need to have indians, not just a top heavy organization with lots of chiefs. I was good enough to be recalled after 9/11 but then after two years on active duty I went back to civilian life because retiring at half pay was not worth the risk of losing opportunities as a civilian. Further it is very hard to stay past sixty years of age due to the rules and the whole dumb system.

In the modern era, the up or out policy along with the current age restrictions is a dumb way to ensure quality in the force. If enlisted or officers are performing well, as judged by an independent board using relatively objective factors on an annual basis, then they should be retained and all promotions should be based on persons applying for the promotion when they are ready. People mature at different rates and people need time to gather experience in various jobs that they need to get this experience. Getting rid of up or out will save the governments billions of dollars since you would eliminate the churn and recruiting costs.

A forty year old sergeant who is competent as proven by years of validated performance is going to be an order of magnitude more competent than a twenty year old sergeant with little experience or years of being honestly evaluated. The same goes for a lieutenant. The worlds police forces do not use such a bizarre systems. I found that old soldiers who loved the Army were much more reliable then young and less mature sergeants. The same was true of my more mature lieutenants.

It is time to ditch the twenty year retirements and the up or out system so that you save billions of dollars every year and get much better results with less churn by retaining mature, competent and healthy officers and enlisted. You will have much lower recruiting goals and costs with less churn. The laws and all the entire mentality that stereotypes older workers needs to be thrown out. Hard facts using physical exams by doctors, physical tests administered by professionals and independent evaluation of performance that avoids the possibility of a toxic leader ending a good performer's career needs to be put in place. It is the twenty-first century and the technology to do this exists now, time to ditch the 20th Century mentality and system.


Though it has been a couple of decades, here is the situation as it was in the U.S. Army (and as described by my several British officer acquaintances) at that time.

To make Major in the U.S. Army, except in a very few specialty professional tracks (doctors, for instance), you NEED to have accomplished a tour as a company commander (or equivalent COMMAND position). It is an unwritten criterion, but a well-established one in the minds of Officer Branch Managers and Promotion Review Board Colonels. In my day, less than 10% of Captains who had not had company command were ever promoted to Major. My daily contacts with serving officers in my DoD job up until my retirement a couple of years ago would indicate that that standard has not changed.

In the U.S. Army, Captains command companies.

All of the British "company grade" officers (lieutenants or capatins) that I knew in my career well enough to compared service cultures (probably 4-5) were looking forward to their opportunity to command a company as Majors, shortly after their next round of military schooling, which they expected to have as late captains.

There IS NO typical/traditional level of command for Major in the U.S. Army (though it does occur by exception occasionally). Captains command Companies; Lt Colonels command Battalions; Colonels command Brigades or equivalent sized forces. Majors jobs are generally as Bn XOs and Staff, as Assistant Staff Officers at Brigades/Groups and above, and as mid-level staff operators in Command and national headquarters. They also go to school a lot, head up various base operating departments, & instruct.

  • As a Brit, I find this fascinating! In the UK, it is perfectly possible for enlisted personnel to be recommended for a commission, and they would attend the same officer training programme at Sandhurst as a university graduate. Also, promotion from 2nd Lt (essentially a training rank) to Lt is virtually automatic after a year's service, promotion to Captain I think is similar. Hence the Five Year Commission system, after which many will take their skills into civilian life.
    – TheHonRose
    Apr 28, 2016 at 0:23

Responding to answer that noted that no corporations or civil service jobs have an “up or out” mentality. I used to work as a lawyer and law firms have an up or out mentality, especially the most prestigious. You are judged after 7 years as to whether you make partner and if not, you must leave at the most competitive firms, typically moving laterally to a less prestigious firm or a corporation as in-house counsel. I dry much agree with the commentors who thinks this is a dumb rule. Not in armed forces but perceive advancement at flag flag officer and upper field officer level to be very political. Law firms at least seem to be much less political since it’s all about how much revenue you generate for the firm and that’s pretty much it….

  • Agree with everyone else about flag officers being limited to 700 by law and that causing and up or out environment bc they don’t want people they don’t like hanging around and being passive aggressive; want young boot lickers eager for advancement… Mar 17 at 4:39
  • 2
    This looks like it should be comment... Mar 17 at 4:47

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