Star Creep: It’s Not Just for Galaxies

POGO, Today’s Military: The Most Top-Heavy Force in U.S. History.

Seventeen general and flag officers were scheduled to be eliminated between May and September through Gates’ Efficiency Initiatives. But the DoD didn’t reduce its top brass at all. Instead, six generals were added from May to September, increasing the number of general and flag officers from 964 to 970. Moreover, from July 1, 2011—Panetta’s first day as Secretary of Defense—to September 30, the Pentagon added three four-star officers. Coincidentally, this is precisely the number of four-star officers Gates cut during his final year as SecDef, from June 2010 to the end of June 2011. Thus, in just three months, Panetta undid a year’s worth of Gates’ attempts to cut the Pentagon’s very top brass. It’s doubtful that Gates would consider Panetta’s current rate of adding a new four-star officer every month conducive to efficiency.

The most top-heavy branch of the military, the Air Force, led the most recent surge in increasing top brass, adding six officers in the two-, three-, and four-star ranks, while cutting one brigadier general. The Marines and Army each netted two additional generals. The Navy was the only branch of the military that actually did cut its top ranks during this time period, even though they added a four-star admiral.

While the Pentagon was adding these officers it was cutting enlisted personnel (a phenomenon known as “officer inflation” or “brass creep”). Between May and September, more than 10,000 enlisted personnel were cut by the DoD, possibly in preparation for the end of military operations in Iraq, while more than 2,500 officers were added. Consequently, for the first time in the more than 200 years that the U.S. has had a standing military, there are fewer than five enlisted personnel for every officer. In other words, today’s military is the most top-heavy force in U.S. history.

It takes unbelievable political and administrative effort to get the services to do anything that they see as against institutional interest. I think it was William Safire’s (in Before the Fall, his best book) who described Nixon’s efforts to get Navy Quonset huts off the Mall — they’d been put up as temporary office space in WWII and were still enjoyed by brass needing a base of operations when lobbying the Hill into the late ’60s. Nixon saw them as an eyesore, and they grated every time he was driven past them — which was often. As I recall the story, Nixon gave order after order to have them removed, but the Navy played for time, hoping he’d lose interest or finish his term; at the time of his re-election in 1972 they were still standing. I forget now if the huts outlasted Nixon or not, but in the end they did go. Still, the ugly ‘temporary’ structures outlasted the war by almost 30 years.

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