Attrition: The Officer Shortage and Officer Bloat

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March 15, 2007: 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 careers.

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 civilian world.

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.

 


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