Skip to main content

Administrative Separation Boards: Air Force Should Clarify Member Qualifications

GAO-23-105780 Published: Feb 02, 2023. Publicly Released: Feb 02, 2023.
Jump To:

Fast Facts

Administrative separation from the military can have lifelong implications regarding a veteran's benefits and future employment opportunities. Service members facing discharge for misconduct, unsatisfactory performance, and other reasons may present their case before an administrative separation board.

These boards review evidence and recommend either retention or separation. Each service has established policies for convening these boards and selecting board members. These policies generally align with DOD's policy—except for a provision within the Air Force policy.

We recommended that the Air Force clarify this inconsistency.

A gavel on a table with an American flag in the background.

Skip to Highlights


What GAO Found

Administrative separation boards review evidence to make recommendations regarding whether an armed force should separate (that is, discharge from service) or retain a service member. The armed forces (Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Space Force, and Coast Guard) have similar policies and processes for convening administrative separation boards and selecting members of these boards. The process for convening boards begins when a service member receives written notice of a proposed separation action. If the eligible service member requests a board hearing, the board members must be selected to serve. Administrative separation boards are required to have at least three voting members (a President and two members) and a nonvoting recorder. Most of the policies specify the qualifications of board members such as rank, grade, and position.

While the policies of the military services (Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Space Force) generally align with Department of Defense (DOD) policy and law, provisions in the Air Force's policy pertaining to qualifications of noncommissioned officer board members for enlisted separation boards contain conflicting requirements. Additionally, one of the Air Force's requirements is inconsistent with DOD policy. Specifically, one provision in the Air Force policy specifies that noncommissioned officers (E-5 or above) may serve as voting members of the board, while another provision in the same policy states that only senior noncommissioned officers (E-7 and above) may serve. DOD enlisted administrative separations policy requires that voting members be of the E-7 grade or higher.

Without the Air Force clarifying the conflicting grade requirements of voting members throughout its enlisted separation board policy, it risks having board results overturned when members are not appointed in a manner consistent with the grade requirement specified in DOD policy.

The armed forces have processes to review board cases and outcomes before and after separation. GAO found that armed forces' policies that govern administrative separation boards outline requirements for legal reviews. Additionally, armed forces officials told GAO that they conduct legal reviews of administrative separation board cases to ensure these comply with due process requirements and applicable policies. A service member can request review of his or her discharge from one of three different post-separation boards. Specifically, a service member can request a discharge review board and a board for correction of military/naval records to review a discharge or correct an alleged error. After exhausting the remedies available at both of these boards, a service member can request the DOD Discharge Appeal Review Board to conduct a final administrative review of his or her case.

Why GAO Did This Study

Being separated from the armed forces for misconduct, unsatisfactory performance, or other reasons can have lifelong implications. Service members who face separation and meet certain conditions may request that an administrative separation board be convened to determine whether to uphold the separation authority's recommended action. If the board recommends separation and the decision is upheld, the service member may receive one of three types of discharge: honorable, general (under honorable conditions), or under other than honorable conditions. The type of discharge a service member receives may affect eligibility for veteran's benefits and future employment opportunities.

Section 529B of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022 includes a provision for GAO to review the use of administrative separation boards within the armed forces. This report assesses the extent to which the armed forces have: (1) established policies and processes for convening administrative separation boards and selecting the board president, recorder, legal advisor, and other members of these boards; and (2) processes to review cases and outcomes of administrative separation boards.

To address these objectives, GAO reviewed and analyzed relevant laws as well as DOD and armed forces policies on active duty enlisted and officer administrative separation boards. GAO compared the armed forces policies with relevant laws and DOD policies, as appropriate, to determine similarities and whether any military service policy or provision of policy conflicted with law or DOD policy. GAO also reviewed these policies to determine requirements for administrative separation board review processes. GAO conducted interviews with armed forces officials to gather information about these policies and processes for convening administrative separation boards, selecting board members, and reviewing board cases and outcomes.


GAO recommends that the Air Force clarify its policy for enlisted administrative separation boards as it pertains to the required qualifications of voting members, to ensure that its policy is consistent with DOD's policy for enlisted administrative separations. DOD did not provide comments on the draft report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of the Air Force The Secretary of the Air Force should issue clarifying guidance for the Department of the Air Force's enlisted administrative separation board policy to make it clear that the required qualifications of enlisted voting members are E-7 or higher, consistent with those specified in the Department of Defense's enlisted administrative separation board policy. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
The Department of Defense concurred with this recommendation. In November 2023, the Department of the Air Force published its updated enlisted administrative separation board policy clarifying that the required qualifications of enlisted voting members must be E-7 or higher. This change is consistent with required specification in the Department of Defense's enlisted administrative separation board policy. Since these actions meet the intent of our recommendation, we consider this recommendation to be implemented.

Full Report

Office of Public Affairs


Administrative hearingsArmed forcesMilitary departmentsMilitary dischargesMilitary forcesPolicies and proceduresMilitary officersHomeland securityLegal counselEnlisted personnel