Over the past 10 years, as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan raged, the U.S. military's enlisted ranks shrank, while the officer corps – particularly the general and flag officer ranks – and the bureaucracy supporting these top commanders, grew immensely.
Earlier this month Third Way released a report on this trend, reaching a disquieting conclusion – the U.S. military is more top-heavy than it has ever been. While I, and others, have documented this trend before, it's only gotten worse. The U.S. military now has an officer-to-enlisted personnel ratio that's at an all-time high; this imbalance will only worsen with the recent announcement of further reductions to the force.
In hopes of slashing some of this bloat, last week Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered a 20 percent reduction to top military brass and their staffs. However, Hagel offered no details and indicated that cuts won't begin until 2015.
Unfortunately, the Pentagon has a poor track record of following through on plans to trim its top ranks.
In 2010, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called for eliminating more than 100 general and flag officer positions as part of his Efficiency Initiatives. Despite this clear plan and Pentagon assurances that "we did cut generals," the top ranks remain largely intact. In those ranks, as with the rest of the force, it's the lower ranks that bear the burden while the top ranks are spared.
When you compare Gates' plan with the most recent data available on the number of general and flag officers, the conclusion is clear – the Pentagon isn't adhering to Gates' Efficiency Initiatives. While the number of these officers on DoD's payroll has dropped since Gates' announcement, the vast majority of those cut are one-stars – in fact, more one-stars have been cut than Gates recommended. However, reductions to the top ranks are lagging far behind Gates' plan. As a result, the Pentagon still has 37 four-star general and flag officers, or G/FOs, on its payroll, which is more four-stars than served during World War II – when the military had nearly 10 times as many enlisted personnel.
This bloat at the top has had a trickle-down effect that hinders troops and wastes money.
A May 2013 GAO analysis found that the number of support staff at DoD's Combatant Command headquarters grew "by about 50 percent from fiscal years 2001 through 2012." This has created added distance between commanders and warfighters. "In some cases the gap between me and an action officer may be as high as 30 layers," Gates once stated, resulting in a "bureaucracy which has the fine motor skills of a dinosaur."
A top-heavy military also has serious financial costs. Despite a declining defense budget, generals and admirals continue to live like kings, living in mansions and surrounding themselves with entourages that would make Jay-Z envious. In fact, according to a recent Los Angeles Times report, there are "hundreds of high-priced homes in the Pentagon inventory." Just operating and maintaining these homes can exceed $100,000 annually; some homes, like those on prime waterfront real estate at D.C.'s Fort McNair, cost around $1 million to renovate.
While lifestyle costs may be colorfully wasteful, they're small potatoes compared to headquarters support costs, which GAO found had more than doubled from fiscal year 2007 ($459 million) to fiscal year 2012 ($1.06 billion).
Fortunately, there are some very simple solutions. First, as Reps. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., and Keith Ellison, D-Mich., recently proposed, Gates' Efficiency Initiatives should be fully implemented. Second, caps on the total number of general and flag officers, should be reinstated and tied to the size of the force. The top ranks shouldn't grow while the force shrinks.
With declining defense budgets, we need to trim the fat at the top, creating a leaner and more effective military. The front-line should not be sacrificed to spare the back office.