After Thanksgiving, waistlines aren’t the only things that are bloated–the Pentagon’s top ranks are fattening at an alarming rate.
Despite a plan set forth by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to rein in the Department of Defense’s (DoD) increasingly top-heavy force and assurances from Pentagon personnel that these plans were being enacted, the U.S. military is still adding top brass faster than you can say tryptophan.
I don’t think any reader of the blog will disagree that the current US defense establishment is far too top heavy. There are a couple reasons for this. One is simply the bureaucratic imperative, where said bureaucracy grows less to accomplish its mission, but rather to grow itself. Some of the increased numbers are structural. The major Combatant Command structure imposed by the Goldwater-Nichols Defense act increased the numbers of 3 and 4 star positions. The post-9/11 addition of NorthCom as a command, as well as the operational need to establish not one, but two subordinate command structures under CENTCOM to conduct operations in Iraq and Afghanistan also swelled the ranks of general officers. To some extent, this is rather difficult to avoid.
On the other hand, there’s a relatively clearly understood rank structure for a given size of operational command. That is, a division level force would typically have a Major General in command. A corps level command would warrant a Lieutenant General in command. A field army level force, a full General. And of course, the Army doesn’t operate alone. In today’s wars, the Army operates both with the other services, and our coalition and host nation partners. The overall commander of the forces tends to be one pay grade higher. That is, if the Army has a division equivalent in the field (that is, two or more Brigade Combat Teams), their operations would be commanded by a Major General (two stars). But the joint forces commander overseeing the other services and nations, as well as the Army contingent, would typically be at least a Lieutenant General (three stars) and possible even a full, four star General. Further, many, if not most, of the general officers deployed with troop units “wear two hats”- that is, they hold one position, say, CG, 4th ID, and concurrently serve in a second role, such as say, Commander, Multi-National Division South, as commander not only of their own US troop units, but also of subordinate coalition and partner nation troops units in a given geographical region. So while there is considerable room for reducing the numbers of general officers in field units, that’s not where the real reductions can be made.
The non-troop unit side of the Army (and to an equal extent, the other services) have huge numbers of general officers. This institutional side of the Army doesn’t deploy. It is the part of the Army responsible for providing the resources, infrastructure, and schooling that keeps the Army a viable force. But it is a bloated, sclerotic beast.
[take a look at some bullshit job titles]
The problem with this bloat isn’t so much the direct expense of paying a general officer. That’s not that bad. Even providing the staff that inevitably accompanies the stars is a relatively small expense. But a little here and a little there adds up. Pretty soon you’re talking about real money. Worse, you’re talking about real numbers of troops. Remember, the end strength of the Army and other services are set by law. Every officer and soldier assigned to this side of the Army means one less available for troop units. Some such assignments are justified an necessary. The Army needs drill sergeants and recruiters. The Army needs people to run the bases at home when units deploy. The Army needs to run its school system and its doctrinal centers. But there are a profusion of jobs on this side that seem to be more concerned with providing employment for generals than for producing war-fighting forces.
Further, the great number of jobs outside the direct warfighting path leads to pressure for officers to have abilities in these non-warfighting areas. We see officers in assignments away from troop units or jobs that directly support troop units or training. The end result is that an officer eager to climb the ladder to promotion often finds himself spending less time with troop units and thus less suited for command. And yet successful command is a prerequisite for further promotion. Not a recipe for success.
Finally, the profusion of general officers leads, inevitably, to a centralization of authority. At a time when company level officers are being burdened with greater responsibility than ever, more and more the authority for many actions are being held at higher and higher levels. For instance, final clearance for supporting fires may be held at brigade or higher levels. Authority to discipline soldiers for infractions such as DUI is routinely held at battalion or brigade level. And yet, the chain of command holds a company commander responsible for the accomplishment of his mission, and for maintaining a low rate of DUI in his command. But responsibility without authority is a recipe for leadership failure. You either trust your subordinates to do what you task them to do, or relieve them. But tasking them to accomplish a mission, then withholding the tools to do so sets them up for failure, and further, erodes confidence and morale throughout an organization, and leads to leadership that is unwilling to take initiative to solve problems. It is a short trip from there to a hollow force. And that centralization of decision-making means organizations lose agility. Instead of taking initiative and outthinking the enemy, units are paralyzed while waiting for decisions from higher authorities. Higher commanders, who should be focused on the big picture, and pondering operations further in the future, instead find themselves bogged down playing super-squad-leader.
Trimming the upper ranks of the services, indeed, slashing them, would necessarily lead to a devolvement of authority to lower levels, increasing the agility of the force, and leading to better leadership development at all levels. It would increase morale among the rank and file of the force (even as the general officer ranks morale takes a hit), and even save some money on the margin.