There have been roughly 10 studies of the military’s general officer requirements since World War II, but Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee’s personnel subcommittee, said his hearing Wednesday was the first recent Congressional examination of the issue of “brass creep.”
Webb said the inquiry was meant to be only an initial, non-adversarial examination of the topic. His panel relied in part on a study released the same day by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), which found an “unprecedented” top-heavy force structure in the military that the group said had not been fully corrected by Gates’ effort.
Burden on taxpayers?
The POGO study found that the ratio of generals and admirals to the uniformed troops they command has been steadily growing. It hit an all-time high in 2010, when across the department, there were seven general and flag officers for every 10,000 uniformed personnel, five more senior officers per 10,000 troops than when World War II ended, and one and a half more than when the Cold War drew to a close.
Since 9/11, the number of general and flag officers has risen from 871 to 964. The growth rate is much higher than in the rest of the uniformed ranks, a trend POGO said is counterintuitive and contradictory to what’s happened during other wars.
Benjamin Freeman, a national security fellow at POGO, said there are reasons to be concerned about the issue of brass creep, especially when DoD is looking for savings wherever it can find them.
“This progression towards a more top-heavy force is a burden for taxpayers and military commanders,” Freeman told the subcommittee. “The cost of officers increases markedly with their rank, so taxpayers are overpaying whenever a general or flag officer is in a position that could be filled by a lower ranking officer. Additionally, some military personnel experts say unnecessarily top-heavy organizations hinder military effectiveness as they slow decision cycles.”
Layers of bureaucracy
Gates made brass creep one track of his efficiency initiatives, which began in August 2010. He said that in some cases, “the gap between me and an action officer may be as high as 30 layers,” leading to a “bureaucracy which has the fine motor skills of a dinosaur.”
As a corrective, he created a task force led by Cliff Stanley, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and Vice Adm. William Gortney, director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff. Gates told the team to find 50 general and admiral billets they could eliminate. They returned with 102, plus another 23 that were downgraded to lower ranks.
Their review resulted in what will turn out to be significant governance changes in the way DoD handles its requirements for generals and admirals, Stanley testified.
He said DoD administratively removed the 102 general and flag officer billets, but wants to keep the Congressionally-mandated ceilings on the number of officers where they are today. Stanley said that will give DoD the ability to surge up its senior officers if it needs to.
“This is a significant change to the way we’ll manage our general and flag officer forces in the future,” he said. “In the past, the department always maintained the number of general and flag officers as close to statutory ceilings as possible. Anytime a new requirement arose, delays ensued while an offset was identified and then downgraded or eliminated. Through self-imposed policies, we can operate below authorized ceilings and gain flexibility.”
The POGO study also found the most senior ranks — three-and four-star officers — have grown faster than any other group of DoD uniformed personnel over the past decade. And there are some major differences between the military services in how the higher ranks have grown.
For example, the Navy and Air Force each grew their generals and admirals faster than both the Army and Marine Corps combined since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, according to POGO, during a period when the Navy and Air Force were cutting the rest of their end strength.
“Furthermore, the Air Force has a historically low number of planes per general, and the Navy is close to having more admirals than ships for them to command,” Freeman said.
Stanley said given a compressed schedule, his task force did not have the time to examine the roles and missions the military conducts to get a concrete assessment of what the military actually needs in the way of senior officers in order to effectively carry out its responsibilities.
Root causes of ‘star creep’
Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), the ranking member on the committee, suggested the DoD study group should be reconstituted in order to examine the department’s brass needs in light of its current roles and missions. He suggested a similar review with regard to DoD’s civilian senior executives.
Despite reductions in senior billets undertaken by Gates, Freeman said the efficiency initiative alone will not reverse the brass creep trajectory.
“We recommend that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta continue to implement the general and flag officer efficiencies initiated under Secretary Gates, and that he begin a new round of initiatives to further reduce the general and flag officer ranks,” he said. “To aid in this effort, the DoD’s director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) should be asked to investigate the impact of star creep, and brass creep more broadly, on DoD payroll expenditures and determine if it hinders military effectiveness. The Government Accountability Office can also be tasked with aiding this effort by investigating the root causes of star creep and working to identify unnecessary general and flag officer positions.”
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