So Many Officers, So Little to Do

By Bennet, James | The Washington Monthly, February 1990 | Go to article overview

So Many Officers, So Little to Do


Bennet, James, The Washington Monthly


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. …

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