Does The US Military Have Too Many Generals?

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Left to right: Navy Adm. Kurt W. Tidd; Defense Secretary Ash Carter; Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly applaud during the change-of-command ceremony for the U.S. Southern Command at the command's headquarter in Miami, Jan. 14, 2016.
U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro

On May 12, the Senate Armed Services Committee proposed some pretty substantial cuts to the military’s general and flag officer corps. As part of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2017, the provision proposes cutting the number of generals by 25%, or 222 of the Department of Defense’s 886 generals and admirals.


According to the committee, the number of general and flag officers has “become increasingly out of balance with the size of the force it leads.”  

As of Feb. 29, there were 411 one stars, 299 two stars, 139 three stars, and 37 four-star active generals and admirals, with several more appointed recently. The ratio of officers in the military to the total force size has grown from 15.69% in 2000 to 17.54% in 2015.

The Daily Beast reports that there are 12 generals commanding the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq. That’s one flag officer per 400 troops. That’s about the size of two infantry companies, which are typically led captains, not someone four or more pay grades above.

Related: 5 Epic Military Leadership Fails Of This Decade »

“Over the past 30 years, the end-strength of the joint force has decreased 38 percent, but the ratio of four-star officers to the overall force has increased by 65 percent,” wrote the committee. “Especially at a time of constrained defense budgets, the military services must right-size their officer corps and shift as many personnel as possible from staff functions to operational and other vital roles.”

According to Time, part of the problem is that there are many generals who are now doing jobs like legal, medical or public affairs, that used to be done by a colonel. In addition to cutting down the overall number of admiral and general officers, the committee is taking aim at its four-star ranks in particular.  

The Senate Armed Services Committee, led by Sen. John McCain, wants to cut their ranks by 34%, from 41 to 27. Those who remain would include the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including the head of the National Guard Bureau; the combatant commanders; the commander of U.S. forces in Korea; one additional joint billet nominated by the president, like the four-star command currently in Afghanistan; as well as three additional four-star billets each for the Army, Navy, and Air Force to be filled as the services choose.

It almost goes without saying, but the higher the rank, the more money you make. As reported by Time, in the case of a four-star general, the basic annual pay comes out to $181,500, so eliminating some of these positions frees up that much in more in DoD dollars, not to mention the fact that general officers are often flanked by numerous aides, and those with three or four stars may even count other one or two-star generals and admirals among their entourage.

There’s also the issue of redundancy, with four-star generals and admirals falling under the purview of other four stars.

The Army recently had a three-star position in the Pacific elevated to a four-star billet, simply so it could be on par with the Air Force and Navy commands in the area, all of whom report to another four star, Navy Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., with U.S. Pacific Command. Additionally, the four-star general in Afghanistan, Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., reports to U.S. Central Command, which, you guessed it, is also headed by a four-star general.

Gen. Chuck Horner (ret.) commanded the air campaign of Desert Storm (Task & Purpose photo illustration)

When Air Force Gen. Chuck Horner (ret.) took to the podium at the dedication of the National Desert Storm and Desert Shield Memorial site in Washington D.C. last February, he told the audience that people often ask him why a memorial is necessary for a conflict that only lasted about 40 days.

Horner, who commanded the U.S. air campaign of that war, said the first reason is to commemorate those who died in the Gulf War. Then he pointed behind him, towards the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where the names of over 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam are etched in granite.

"These two monuments are inexorably linked together," Horner said. "Because we had in Desert Storm a president and a secretary of defense who did the smartest thing in the world: they gave the military a mission which could be accomplished by military force."

The Desert Storm Memorial "is a place every military person that's going to war should visit, and they learn to stand up when they have to, to avoid the stupidness that led to that disaster" in Vietnam, he added.

Now, 29 years after the operation that kicked Saddam Hussein's Iraqi army out of Kuwait began, the U.S. is stuck in multiple wars that Horner says resemble the one he and his fellow commanders tried to avoid while designing Desert Storm.

Horner shared his perspective on what went right in the Gulf War, and what's gone wrong since then, in an interview last week with Task & Purpose.

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In this March 12, 2016, file photo, Marines of the U.S., left, and South Korea, wearing blue headbands on their helmets, take positions after landing on a beach during the joint military combined amphibious exercise, called Ssangyong, part of the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle military exercises, in Pohang, South Korea. (Associated Press/Yonhap/Kim Jun-bum)

Editor's Note: This article by Richard Sisk originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

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