There are too many generals and admirals in the American military, or are there? In 2010 the leadership in the U.S. Department of Defense, sought to do something remarkable; reduce the number of “flag officers” (generals and admirals) as part of a plan to deal with sharp budget cuts. American troops were pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan and much less was being spent on those conflicts. This seemed to present an opportune time to reduce the number of flag officers 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.
But another cause for the growing number of senior officers is bureaucratic rot. This is a phenomenon in all large organizations, be they commercial or government. The United States did not have a large peacetime military until the late 1940s, in response to the threat posed by the Cold War with Russia (the Soviet Union and its allies). While lean and efficient when created, organizations tend to grow bloated and less efficient as they increase in size and age. Additional layers of command make it more difficult to get anything done, even for strong willed people at the top of the command pyramid. The Department of Defense was not immune to the disease, and efforts to impose a cure have not succeeded.
The historical pattern of growth in senior leadership is quite clear. At the end of the World War II, there were 5,400 troops for each admiral or general. By the end of the Cold War in 1991, there were 3,400 troops for every admiral or general. Despite the reduced size of the American military in the 1990s by 2010 there were about 3,000 troops for each of these senior officers. This made it more difficult to get things done because more senior officers meant more layers of bureaucracy you had to go through to get a decision made. In World War II there were fewer than ten layers of bureaucracy between most soldiers or sailors and the top military commanders. Now there are over twenty layers and the number is increasing. Much effort has been put into making decisions more quickly using better communications and powerful software. There have been some successful efforts to mitigate the damage inflicted by all those layers. One of these was the establishment of regional combatant commands where one senior general or admiral was the senior leader and had a lot of autonomy on how to use the forces he controlled.
It's not just problems with too many generals and admirals. The ratio of all troops to all officers has gone from about ten to one in 1945, to six to one today. This ratio varies from service to service. In the Marines the ratio is 8.8:1, the Navy is close behind at 7:1, trailed by the army's 6.1:1, and the Air Force, with an extraordinarily low ratio of only 4.4:1, just half that of the marines. The low Air Force ratio is due to the large number of pilots and the high proportion of very technical jobs.
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. Supply and demand keeps 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. Another problem is that cutting positions for admirals and generals is complicated by the fact that these are the men (and, increasingly, women) who make the decisions about who gets cut. Any effort to cut the fat in the senior ranks will get interesting and likely not succeed. 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.