The U.S. Army is running short of
officers, mainly because it has too many in the first place. It's a problem
that is turning into a solution.
While the U.S. Army has been able to keep its
combat officers during the war on terror, it's had less success with non-combat
officers (who comprise over 80 percent of all officers). Combat arms officers
(infantry, armor, artillery, aviation) see the current war as a rare chance to
actually do that they have spent years training for. Even though multiple tours
in combat zones are hard on families, the combat officers have a sense of
mission, and the knowledge that combat experience will help them later in their
But the majority of officers do jobs that are
similar, often identical, to those of civilians. Logistics, communications and
administration officers are getting hammered by much higher workloads, and more
combat than they ever expected. Transportation officers are under a lot of
pressure, because in Iraq, transportation units often double as combat units,
because of the constant danger of ambush and roadside bombs.
But the biggest problem with non-combat officers is
that, a decade ago, the army was paying a lot of them to leave the army. The
army shrank by a third during the 1990s, as it reconfigured itself to a
post-Cold War force. Leaving the army was more attractive to non-combat
officers, because they generally had better employment prospects in the
But there was another, more serious, problem with
non-combat officers. Most of them came from ROTC (college programs), and ROTC
has not been able to keep up with the demand. Part of this is because most
college faculty are hostile to the military, and ROTC. This has been reducing
ROTC programs for decades, although there has been some shifts in the last few
years. However, even though ROTC programs pay a large chunk of the students
education costs, not enough students are enrolling. Thus ROTC is 16 percent
short of its enrollment goals.
This is made up by increasing the use of OCS
(Officer Candidate School). Given the record high quality of enlisted personnel,
there's little problem getting enough volunteers for the 14 week course. But
that just turns junior NCOs into lieutenants. The new officers have to learn
the technical side of their new job. For troops in the combat arms, it takes
less time to get through the infantry officers basic school than it does to
learn how to be a signals or logistics officer. For most combat support jobs, a
lot more technical knowledge is expected from officers. A college degree is
more important for a combat support officer, than it is for a combat officer. A
lot of these new officers are eager to get a college degree, if they don't
already have one (an increasing number of enlisted troops have four and two
year degrees). But that takes time, for most of these new officers have to
attend college part time at night.
To make matters worse, Congress has ordered the
army to expand by 40,000 troops. That means another 8,000 officers are needed.
That's not just another 8,000 new lieutenants, but also lots of captains,
majors and colonels. So officers are getting promoted more quickly to fill the
new jobs. That means a few officers who shouldn't have been promoted, are.
Given the small number of officers involved, that will have a negligible effect
on the overall performance of the officer corps.
On the plus side, the army has been expanding the
number of officer jobs since the end of the Cold War. It used to be that there
was one officer for every five enlisted troops. Now it's closer to one officer
for every four soldiers. This is called "officer bloat", and is an ancient
problem with armies. Part of it has to do with the growing need for more
technical specialists, who need college degrees. You can only get these people
to join the military if you make them officers. But in many cases, experienced
NCOs can handle the job. For some support jobs, if you are missing an officer,
you can bring in a civilian contractor. Both of these solutions are used all
the time. Using them some more won't hurt. Many armies avoid the officer bloat
by simply using civilians (civil servants, not contractors) for jobs that the
U.S. Army wants an officer handling. This is one of many problems the military
has with its huge non-combat force. There is, however, a trend towards
returning to the ancient custom of filling many of those support jobs with
civilians or contractors. Trying to fill all those jobs with uniformed
personnel is an experiment that, over the last century, has had lots of
problems, and the current army officer shortage is just one of them.