Since the 1990s, two of the three largest armed forces in the world, those of Russia and China, underwent tremendous personnel reductions. In both nations a far higher percentage of officers were fired or retired than the far more numerous enlisted troops. One reason for this approach was the lack of NCOs (non-commissioned officers), as in sergeants and naval petty officers. The third largest force in the world, the United States, also went through some reductions but increased the proportion of officers. The U.S. always had a large number of NCOs but the rising number of officers relative to enlisted troops has become a problem that defies solution.
In America the ratio of all troops to all officers went from about twenty to one in 1900 to ten to one in 1945, and four to one today. This ratio has steadily gotten worse. In 1960 it was seven to one and that fell to 6.5 to one in 1977 and kept declining as more enlisted jobs were taken over by contractors. The lowest ratio is in the Air Force due to the large number of pilots and the high proportion of very technical jobs. Contractors could have taken over a lot of officer jobs but that was one foreign custom the U.S. avoided.
The enormous growth in technical jobs, and the difficulty in recruiting and keeping the needed techies, has led to more officer jobs, and cash bonuses for both officers and enlisted personnel in hard to fill slots. Many technical jobs that enlisted troops handled were converted to officer positions in order to make it easier to attract and keep specialists. Supply and demand keep these officer jobs, or cash bonuses, in play. Many of the additional admirals and generals are in charge of very technical operations that require a lot of skill and experience to carry out. Sometimes the military cannot find qualified people to fill these jobs, and just puts in an available general or admiral and hopes for the best but those hopes are rarely realized.
Another problem was that reducing positions for admirals and generals is compromised by the fact that these senior officials are those who make the decisions about who gets cut. Any effort to cut the fat in the senior ranks tends to quietly fail. An example of this occurred a decade ago as many American troops were withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan and a RIF (Reduction In Force) took place. The plan then was to cut flag officers (admirals and generals) by about five percent. Some cuts were made but then those lost flag officer jobs slowly reappeared.
On closer examination it was discovered that there weren’t just more flag officers but more officers in general. And some of the reasons for that were very practical. Higher rank had become a recruiting and retention tool. The number of these senior officers was not the main problem, but how they were used. For example, during World War II, a lot more technology was adopted by the military, and that required some hard-to-get and expensive talent to supervise development, operation and maintenance. The military can't use many cash incentives, but it can offer rank and all the flattery and respect that goes with it. This works in commercial firms and politics and it worked in the military.
Leadership and management issues aside, the bean counters know that each senior officer position eliminated will save several million dollars. The salary and benefits for the senior officer is only a small part of this. The big expense is for the staff, fringe benefits and office space required to show the proper respect. But it’s not just about money, it's about leadership, and sometimes less is more.
The situation is different in Europe, where there is a tradition of using civilians for many administrative jobs. China recently adopted this approach to reduce the growing number of officers. The civilian administrative and technical specialists who were part of the military, wore uniforms and had rank and pay equivalent to equivalent ranks of senior NCOs and officers all the way up to high- ranking generals. In Germany these civilians were called Beamten (officials) and the system was established so the number of Beamten could be greatly expanded in wartime to provide needed specialists in areas like medicine, meteorology (weather prediction), logistics (procuring food, clothing and equipment), legal, education, research, construction, finance, maintenance and repair of heavy equipment and so on. The rank insignia on beamte uniforms were similar to but distinct from what officers and senior NCOs wore.
Bematen do not have military title or authority of officers, although junior troops often cannot tell the difference and saluted beamte they encountered. Beamte only have authority, not command, in their specialty and often supervise large numbers of non-uniformed civilians and coordinated activities with managers and executives of civilian firms providing goods and services to the military. During World War II over 100,000 Beamten worked for the German military and towards the end of the war many of them, especially those who were retired officers or NCOs were converted to officers because of the shortage of officers in the last year of the war.
The current Chinese military has two million personnel plus, so far, about 30,000 “Beamte” which the Chinese call “contract civilians” or “civilian cadres (supervisors)”. There are many more non-uniformed civilian employees that the contract civilians supervise. Many of these work for provincial recruiting and administrative organizations that handle conscription and volunteers for the military. Like the Germans, the Chinese Beamte are considered officer level officials who wear uniforms with special insignia, are paid at rates similar to officers and provide a force of experienced Beamte that can be rapidly expanded in wartime. The Chinese beamte work on three-to-five-year employment contracts. Many more civilian technical specialists never have to wear a uniform at all, like computer security personnel, because that sort of thing is not popular with the hacker types. These specialists often move on to other jobs and are no longer useful to the military. The Chinese follow the skills, not civilians or officers seeking a career.
The American system is different and the Department of Defense has 750,000 civilian government employees. Most of these are never expected to serve with the troops although some do and the civil service (GS) ranks are used to determine what level accommodations these civilians receive if working with the military overseas or a combat zone. These civilians are usually given combat uniforms with no rank insignia. So are other civilians attached to the military in a combat zone, like journalists. But this is much less “militarized” than the beamte system developed by many European armies during the 19th century. The system continues in some countries into the present although most now use the less formal American system for civilian employees of the military. China found the German World War II system more useful for their needs, especially since the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) occupies a special position in the Chinese military similar to the German Nazi Party during World War II. Like the Germans the Chinese favor military veterans for Beamte jobs but only if the vets have the necessary technical or educational skills as well.