Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that sailors can still be separated from the active-duty Navy under the new high-year tenure plus program if they are not willing to fill critical positions.
The Navy has indefinitely extended its "high-year tenure plus" program -- a policy that allows sailors to serve past normal rank limits without being involuntarily discharged from the service or pushed into the reserves -- less than a year after it was announced.
In an administrative message released Monday, the sea service said that it is making the program, which was rolled out in December 2022 and offers a way to bypass the traditional high-year tenure rules, permanent. The new program halts separations or involuntary transfers for sailors who don't advance at a fast enough pace if they are willing to fill critical jobs.
The blunting of the sometimes controversial high-year tenure rules, which have been around in various forms for at least a decade and are aimed at eliminating low-performing sailors, is yet another policy change the Navy has taken that aims to keep service members in the ranks and at sea.
Under the original policy, sailors of any rank could serve at their current level for only a limited time before the Navy would move to discharge them with the presumption that they were not performing well enough to stay in the service. A 2018 document on the policy described it as a tool to "enable the Navy to retain the right number of members."
For example, under the old rules, a typical E-3 sailor could serve only six years at that rank before the Navy would have separated them. If that same sailor were to be promoted to E-4, they would have been able to serve four more years.
However, in December 2022, the Navy put all of that on pause with the new high-year tenure plus program. The program, according to a Navy fact sheet, "allows sailors remaining on active duty beyond high-year tenure gates to apply for new jobs through the MyNavy Assignment portal or extend at their current command to complete a full tour."
Rear Adm. James Waters, the Navy's director of plans and policies concerning its sailors, said at the time that the move was directly connected to the service's retention efforts.
"By removing this barrier to retaining career-minded sailors, the Navy is broadening career progression opportunities for sailors and allowing them the opportunity to advance to the next higher paygrade," Waters said in the release.
The new 2022 program was expected to impact about 1,600 sailors over two years. Sailors who are coming up on their limits and opt not to take a job that is part of the new high-year tenure plus program, however, will still be forced to separate as normal.
While the Navy's retention efforts have largely been successful, the service continues to struggle with having sailors -- especially more senior ones -- on ships.
As a result, over the past several years, the Navy has rolled out multiple different policies to keep more sailors in uniform and at sea by either offering more benefits and pay or promotions, or denying them early release.
Last year, Lt. Rachel Maul, then a spokeswoman for the chief of naval personnel, told Military.com that "closing gaps at sea is a chief of naval personnel priority, and teams are using all available options" as part of an announcement of a different policy that would promote sailors to its top enlisted ranks in exchange for orders to ships.
The move to officially abandon the high-year tenure program also comes as the sea service reexamines other aspects of service like its fitness tests.
Earlier this year, the Navy forgave all past fitness test failures and, earlier this month, it extended its policy of only one fitness test per year into a fourth year.
Meanwhile, in October, the Navy announced that it missed its enlistment recruiting goals for the second time in two years -- and by more than 7,000 sailors in fiscal 2023 -- all despite taking drastic measures. In fact, the Navy missed every active-duty and reserve recruiting goal it set for itself last fiscal year.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on X at @ktoropin.