WASHINGTON — Struggling to retain enough officers to lead its forces, the Army has begun to dramatically increase the number of soldiers it promotes, raising fears within the service that wartime strains are diluting the quality of the officer corps.
Last year, the Army promoted 97% of all eligible captains to the rank of major, Pentagon data show. That was up from a historical average of 70% to 80%.
Traditionally, the Army has used the step to major as a winnowing point to push lower-performing soldiers out of the military.
The service also promoted 86% of eligible majors to the rank of lieutenant colonel in 2005, up from the historical average of 65% to 75%.
The higher rates of promotion are part of efforts to fill new slots created by an Army reorganization and to compensate for officers who are resigning from the service, many after multiple rotations to Iraq.
The promotion rates "are much higher than they have been in the past because we need more officers than we did before," said Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, an Army spokesman.
The Army has long taken pride in the competitiveness of its promotions, and insists that only officers that meet rigorous standards are elevated through its ranks.
But the recent trends in promotions have stirred concerns that the Army is being forced to lower its standards to provide leaders for combat units that will be deployed overseas.
"The problem here is that you're not knocking off the bottom 20%," said a high-ranking Army officer at the Pentagon. "Basically, if you haven't been court-martialed, you're going to be promoted to major."
The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to publicly discuss the issue.
Army officials say the primary cause of the jump in promotions is the service's ongoing effort to create more combat units without an overall expansion.
The Army hopes to increase the number of active-duty combat brigades from 33 to 42 over the next several years by cutting headquarters staff and transferring soldiers from support jobs into frontline combat positions.
The push to fill the new units means that more officers are being promoted, officials say. In addition, they say the military's deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have improved the overall quality of the Army's officer corps.
"These are people who have spent a year in combat," Hilferty said. "We think that we are promoting well-trained people."
Yet the increase in promotions is partly due to the large number of Army officers choosing to leave the service. Army officers are getting out of the military at the highest rate since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, shrinking the pool of officers eligible for promotion.
According to Army data, the portion of junior officers (lieutenants and captains) choosing to depart for civilian life rose last year to 8.6%, up from 6.3% in 2004. The attrition rate for majors rose to 7% last year, up from 6.4% in 2005. And the rate for lieutenant colonels was 13.7%, the highest in more than a decade.
"The most precious thing in the military is our talent and not our technology," said retired Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, who traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan last year to assess the state of the U.S. military missions in the countries. "What we don't want to do is come out of [these wars] and lose what we lost after Vietnam."
The departure of Army officers in those years created what many military historians have called a "hollow force."
Last year, the Army exceeded by 8% its overall goal for retaining active-duty enlisted troops, a figure President Bush cited last week as a sign of the service's health.
Also last week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld dismissed recent reports -- including one commissioned by the Pentagon -- that the Army was facing a looming personnel crisis, and said the "battle-hardened" military was as strong as ever.
Yet many senior officers and outside experts worry that rising attrition rates for officers could be an ominous sign of an eventual exodus from the service's leadership ranks.
They say that with many officers in line for a third yearlong combat tour in Iraq, it is inevitable that a growing number would choose to leave the military to relieve strain on their family lives.
The exodus "will be among officers whose families say, 'Look, there are 300 million people in this country; let somebody else take their turn,' " McCaffrey said.
The Pentagon-commissioned report, released publicly last week, agreed.
"The demands for Army ground-force deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq are not likely to decline substantially any time soon," said the report by retired Army Lt. Col. Andrew F. Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. The service "risks having many of its soldiers decide that a military career is too arduous or too risky an occupation for them and their families to pursue."
Hilferty, the Army spokesman, said there was only "anecdotal evidence" that the strains of war were pushing officers out of the Army.