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So many officers, so little to do.

A lieutenant commander should be in charge of a small ship or the weapons on a big one. But in today's swollen officer corps, he's just as likely to have jobs like running the Pentagon athletic club.

"Dump the B-2!" the analysts urge. "Kill the ATF! Trash the LHX-and the M1-A2, SSN-21, F- 14, C-17, V-22, D-5. . . ." But none of these armchair quarterbacks, frantically signaling as they go after our nation's defenses, has been saying: "Cut the officer corps." Sure, cutting back on officers sounds wimpy. One B-2 costs half a billion dollars. The D-5 missile program alone will eat up $35.5 billion over the next few years. But how would you like to save $20 billion a year in personnel costs, slash weapons prices by cutting down on procurement waste, and increase the combat readiness of the nation's troops? All this and more can be ours ... if we cut the officer corps. In half.

The ranks of officers are wildly disproportionate to the peacetime force. At the end of World War II, the Army had 14 generals for each of its active divisions; today, it has 22. At the end of World War II, the Navy had one admiral for every 130 ships; today that ratio is 1 to 2.2. But that the services have too many generals and admirals is only a symptom of the more basic problem: Too many officers are pressing up from below. There are enough officers of the rank of lieutenant colonel and above to lead the force fielded during the second World War.

In 1945, the Department of Defense had 14,989 officers of the rank of colonel (in the Army, Air Force, and Marines) and captain (in the Navy). Today it has 14,301. In 1945, there were 36,967 lieutenant colonels and commanders. Today, there are 32,575. Unfortunately, there's not that much left to command: Total force strength has plummeted from 12.1 million in 1945 to about 2.1 million today.

The principle justification for stockpiling officers during peacetime seems sound: Should war come, as long as surplus officers are waiting to train and lead new inductees, the ranks can be filled in quickly, like slack balloons inflating. This reasoning produced the 1947 all-service Officer Personnel Act, which created the up or out" promotion system and boosted the number of officers to provide for an ample, young corps. That law is behind most of today's impressive surplus. In the highly efficient Nazi Army of 1939, the ratio of officers to enlisted men was 1:34-and the army still wasn't at full strength. Though high, that ratio permitted a build-up over the next few months that enabled the Nazis to overrun France. In fact, German officers shrank in number relative to the size of the force over the course of the war, since they died at a higher rate than their men. In the United States in 1939, Roosevelt was still proclaiming neutrality and had not yet begun to build up the armed forces. The ratio of American officers to enlisted men in the services overall was I to 11.7; at the peak of the war effort, in 1945, it was I to 11.6. Today, there is one American officer for fewer than six enlisted men. What, one has to wonder, do all those officers do all day?

The short answer is that all of them do too little of everything. The Pentagon rotates its officers swiftly through a series of assignments in hopes of keeping them flexible and ready to lead newly mobilized troops into battle. But the number of officers has outraced the Pentagon's ability to place them productively; the effect is to decrease, not increase, readiness-and to breed cynicism and waste money at the same time.

Hollow corps

In 1986 Steven Canby, a defense consultant, was asked by the assistant secretary of defense for acquisition to study weapons development and procurement. He concluded that acquisition's perpetual problems of waste and cost overruns had their roots in the structure of the officer corps. While serving as program managers, officers barely had time to learn the system's ins and outs before they moved on to a new assignment. This constant reshuffling, combined with the surplus of officers, was undercutting even more important aspects of the military than acquisition. After all, officers are supposed to have the training and experience to lead troops into combat. But in the Army, 16 colonels and 13 lieutenant colonels competed, respectively, for each command position.

The result was what Canby called an "unsolvable dilemma": "If officers are rotated too fast, little experience is gained in field formations |and~ military expertise suffers .... If command is held to the Army's recently discontinued goal of 30 months for the purpose of building cohesive units, most officers are excluded from command and their raison d'etre: experience for wartime command and staff responsibilities." That is, keeping so many officers undermines the goal of keeping so many officers: readiness. Either some officers must get no command time, or all officers must get too little time to learn the ropes and to gain the loyalty of their troops.

Surplus officers are forced into holding patterns. While awaiting the day that they must go to war as undertrained leaders, officers serve as underskilled bureaucrats, sometimes in productive jobs and sometimes in meaningless ones. At the Pentagon, officers of all ranks-trained and paid to lead troops in combat-work in public relations, lobbying, and speechwriting, and fill the ranks of "special assistants." Colonels flip charts for generals during congressional hearings; one- and two-star generals run tape recorders for high-ranking Pentagon officials during interviews.

A Navy lieutenant at sea might manage 100 men in his ship's engineering or maintenance division. In the Pentagon, one manages the dining room of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. A lieutenant commander, who during war might command a small ship or oversee the weapons of a destroyer, in peacetime runs the Pentagon Officers Athletic Club. A brigadier general directs the US Army Center of Military History-an important post, but not one you'd expect to see filled by a man trained to lead several thousand troops into battle. In the Air Force, the basic unit is the squadron, commanded by a lieutenant colonel. But with only 244 squadrons to command, the Air Force boasts 12,425 lieutenant colonels (maybe each of the 333 generals should control a squadron). That's why one of them runs the Air Force office of Bands and Music.

The inflation of lieutenant colonels and colonels has been particularly extreme: from an officer-to-enlisted-man ratio of 1 to 208 at the end of World War II to 1 to 38 today. This helps to explain the swollen middles of American command bureaucracies which themselves sometimes exist only to give a two- or three- star general a place to hang his hat. Two years ago, Derek Vander Schaaf, the Pentagon's deputy inspector general, studied almost 60 American commands around the world. He found that, generally, "middle level base operations . . . duplicate higher and lower headquarters functions. They usually provide only advice and recommendations, adding little of value or substance." Sometimes the excess personnel spills over, not to form a new level of bureaucracy, but to duplicate an existing level: Alongside the 49 people stationed at NATO headquarters who reported to the secretary of defense, Vander Schaaf found 46 reporting to the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and inside the US, he found three different commands with primary responsibility for developing "in-depth" plans for the defense of Baltimore.

Some of these jobs need to be done, although most of them could probably be consolidated. Performing them, however, does not exactly keep officers honed for battle or contribute to military support systems. Someone has to run the Institute of Heraldry, which designs and makes flags and symbols for the government. But why is this person an Army Colonel? Even the field commands themselves can be so overstuffed with officers that men assigned to them gain no hands-on leadership experience. in examining commands in Japan and Korea, Vander Schaaf found that excess staffing meant the admirals at each post didn't have much to do: "neither of the two naval 'commanders' will ever command much of anything, certainly no ships or airplanes."

The combination of "up or out" and swift rotation encourages (and is reinforced by) the modern military's ticket-punching," credentialing approach to gaining promotion. The system prods every officer, no matter how well-meaning, to regard each assignment cynically, as an opportunity to rack up points and quickly move along. In procurement posts, these incentives discourage an officer from blowing the whistle on wasteful contractors and bad products. After all, for him the program is a way station on the journey up through the ranks. If he rocks the boat-complaining about overpriced bolts or unnecessary avionics-he will inevitably cross some general with a yen for the weapon.

In battle, the effects have been more deadly. Commanders in Vietnam served only six-month tours of duty so that the services could "blood" as many of them as possible; casualties among the troops varied inversely with the officer's combat experience, dropping over time-until a new commander arrived and started the learning process over again. Swift rotation meant that in many cases bonds never formed between the officer and the men he commanded. "The troops began to perceive that their officers simply were not prepared to share the risk of ultimate sacrifice-and they came to despise them for it," wrote Richard Gabriel and Paul Savage in Crisis in Command. A smaller proportion of American officers were cut down by the enemy than in other wars. And more were attacked by their own men.

War dividends

Undermining the combat readiness of American officers costs the government an enormous amount of money. To hold onto large numbers of young officers, the services offer strong inducements to join up, to stay, and, eventually, to leave. In 1987, the General Accounting Office found that the fringe benefits, retirement, and health care benefits of military personnel paid almost 60% more than those accorded civil servants. The benefits granted officers range from free health care to the $5,800 the government spends annually to maintain base homes that Marine Corps and Air Force generals live in rent-free. On top of his base pay of $46,141, a lieutenant colonel, for example, might receive over $1,400 each year for "Basic Allowance for Subsistence;" $8,000 for "Basic Allowance for Quarters" if he has dependents $7,000 if he doesn't); and another $4,000 for his "Variable Housing Allowance"-all tax-free. That's enough to raise his salary by almost 25 percent, and it doesn't include other tax-free benefits like flight pay and hard-to-quantify ones like home loan assistance, recreational facilities (theaters, golf courses, family camping areas), noncontributory social security wage credits, and professional education and training. Of course the nation's warriors deserve special treatment. But officers get these benefits whether they spend their days planting bombs underwater with the SEALS or pushing a pencil in a Pentagon press office.

These untaxed benefits let officers take home much more than do civil servants of a comparable grade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. In gross income, a colonel with 26 years of service makes about $70,5 10, while his counterparts, a senior GS-15 or a level 2 member of the Senior Executive Service, pull in $62,873 and $71,800, respectively. After taxes, those salaries work out to $55,185 for the colonel and $40,045 and $45,335 for the civil servants. Even a level 2 federal executive (like the undersecretary of defense) takes home only $55,582. And the CBO analysis did not take into account that many officers pay no state taxes. (Officers and enlisted men can declare any state in which they once served as their official residence; as a result, frequent rotation can come in handy: The GAO has reported that, although only 13 percent of general and flag officers were stationed in the 14 states that don't tax income in September of 1986, 52 percent claimed these states as their residence.)

These salary figures also don't reflect the generous retirement benefits that drive the "up or out" system. That system has the effect of encouraging officers who make it through their first 10 to 12 years of service to stick around for at least 20, at which point they become eligible for retirement pay that amounts to at least half of their base salary. After 20 years of service, a captain or colonel-about 43 years old-retiring after January 1, 1989 could expect $25,500 annually from Uncle Sam; if he were retiring after 30 years, he could expect $43,884. That works out to lump sum payments of $644,629 and $890,636, respectively, over his projected lifetime. No wonder the ranks are inflated. And those figures don't include the costs of free health care provided to retirees and their families. Sure, the US government would save money by cutting programs like the C-17 cargo jet, which would cost around $1.5 billion next year. But rethinking the service's preparations for mobilization would save much more. The bottom line is that, once retirement costs are added, taxpayers spend $8 billion a year to stockpile lieutenant colonels and colonels alone.

Armed and dangerous

If the best way to guard against the need to mobilize were to stockpile officers-letting them atrophy in public relations jobs or pursue skills that will mainly benefit them in retirement-then the present system would be worth its price. But it's not the best way. In fact, the reasoning that produced the 1947 Officer Personnel Act was flawed. The main restraints on mobilization don't include training new middle-ranking officers. They do include training good technicians, non-commissioned and junior officers, and assembling a force to command; they also include producing weapons for these troops to fight with. Today's weapons are so expensive and intricate that they dribble off assembly lines at rates of 10 and 20 copies per year. Arms manufacturers would have to build 128 ships for every admiral-50,816 ships in all-to return the Navy to the World War II ratio. It would take the United States years to gear up for a long war-and we certainly don't need all these officers to fight a short one.

Canby advocates shifting over to a new, three-year enlistment system for the Army, Navy, and Marines. A unit, including officers and NCOS, would train together for the whole three years, establishing the bonds that today's ceaseless rotation rules out. The unit would then be disbanded. During the next 12 months, it would be on "phantom" status; if war breaks out, the fully trained, cohesive band could be recalled in the same amount of time it takes to bring back active duty personnel who are on leave. The services would hold on to technicians and tactical leaders for eight years, at which point they would either become part of the small, standing, non-operational army or join the reserves. Very few would remain in the services beyond ten years. Servicemen who leave after ten years, says Canby, could manage weapons programs for the military; like the reserve officers who develop weapons for the Israeli forces, they would have the training to understand what works on the battlefield and the independence to say "no" to a general.

Canby's system would cut the standing officer corps in half. It would eventually save at least $20 billion a year in training and retirement costs, $10 billion each from officers and enlisted men. A major cut like this wouldn't give the US a Teutonic, 1:34 ratio of officers to enlisted men. But it would take the armed services back to the ratio they had when World War II began, while retaining the young, able officers they didn't have then. Of course, the services would have to institute a bonus system to ease out officers who have already put in 12 to 20 years with the expectation of reaching full retirement; that would still be cheaper than paying these men and women to hang around until they get there (and then paying them not to hang around when they do).

Beyond generating personnel savings, cutting back on officers would save billions more by eliminating busy-work assignments and dumb acquisitions programs. Most important, it would produce an officer corps with more tooth than tail. The flurry of initials and numbers that accompanies defense budget debates somehow always obscures manpower issues. And even when analysts manage to look past the Seawolf or the C-17 to consider the people who will run them, they tend to treat them as subject to the same mechanical formulas used with hardware. But while doubling our airplanes might double the number of troops and the amount of equipment we can get to Europe fast, doubling the number of officers doesn't double military leadership. Indeed, it may even halve it. In the future, it would be nice to have an officer corps that was a little less quantified, and a little more qualified.
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Title Annotation:officer corps
Author:Bennet, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Feb 1, 1990
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