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More general officers mean more aides and bigger offices — and that has the top-heavy Air Force in the Pentagon's crosshairs.
Not even the Army has more generals when the number is compared to end strength, according to an analysis of personnel statistics. Nearly two dozen general officer billets in the Air Force are already on the chopping block, put there by Defense Secretary Robert Gates himself.
Almost since its founding in 1947, the Air Force has inflated its brass-to-airman ratio by either adding generals, cutting airmen or both. In the last seven years alone, when it began drawing down the force in earnest, the service cut nearly 43,000 airmen but added 44 generals.
Gates took aim at the nation's nearly 1,000 generals and admirals earlier this year, proposing to slash more than 100 general- and flag-officer positions militarywide. The senior officers, he argued in a memo, drive up operating costs because of "extra staff and amenities that, by tradition, follow high rank."
"The primary purpose behind this shift is to create fewer, flatter, more agile and thus more effective organizations," he said at a news conference announcing the cuts.
At the end of fiscal 2010, the Air Force employed 315 general officers and the end strength stood at 329,323, or one general for every 1,045 airmen. The Army, by comparison, had only three more generals — 318 — but had 231,000 more troops. The ratio of general-to-soldier: one general for every 1,764. The end-strength numbers don't include service academy cadets and general officers. Air Force Times analyzed force levels at the end of each fiscal year, the data provided by Air Force Personnel Center.
The top-heavy structure has proponents, though, who base their argument on three points: the high number of generals represents the addition of joint and wartime billets; the technical expertise on which the service relies so heavily; and assures a rank structure is in place to train and command airmen since the service repeatedly draws down, then builds up the force.
The service had 308 general officers as of Feb. 28, the most recent statistics the Defense Department provided. Current law allows the Air Force to have 208 general officer billets, and the defense secretary can designate up to 324 general and flag officers for joint positions — at least 76 of those must come from the Air Force, 85 from the Army, 61 from the Navy and 21 from the Marine Corps.
Other exemptions allow for the promotion of more general officers, such as a regulation that doesn't count retiring officers on terminal leave against the cap.
Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz pointed out both the number of generals and the general-to-airman ratio are set by Congress to make sure both the services and the joint commands have enough senior leaders.
In a written statement, Schwartz acknowledged the drop in the general-to-airman ratio but noted the change has occurred because of the increase in joint assignments.
This year, Schwartz said, more than one-third of Air Force generals are filling joint positions.
Along with Congress and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Schwartz said, "we regularly review the number of senior officers required to perform these missions and have adjusted accordingly when appropriate."
Up and down
Throughout Air Force history, the number of general officers has fluctuated. The service typically has more generals during wartime and fewer in peacetime.
The ratio of general officers to airmen, though, has grown steadily for the past 25 years.
For example, the service employed 333 general officers in 1990, a year before the Soviet Union collapsed. The ratio stood at 1-to-1,593.
The service whittled general billets over the next decade — part of the short-lived "peace dividend" — and reached 271 by the end of fiscal 2000. During the same time, the Air Force also cut almost 180,000 jobs to reach an end strength of 351,375. The general-to-airman ratio dropped to 1-to-1,296.
The next decade saw 44 general officers added but 21,737 airmen cut despite a mid-decade buildup that added tens of thousands of jobs.
Rank inflation is not unique to the Air Force. The Navy's active-duty end strength dropped from 380,000 in 2003 to 328,074 today. And yet the number of admirals shrank by 16 in the past 10 years.
Employing generals isn't cheap. Each receives regular military compensation — basic pay; food and housing allowances, which are untaxed; and the tax advantage of the allowances.
Of the Air Force's 315 generals on the books at the end of fiscal 2010, 12 had four stars — the number established by law. Brigadier generals totaled 158, making up the largest group. The number of lieutenant generals stood at 41 and the number of major generals was 104.
A brigadier general with 22 years of service, for example, receives $183,153.61 annually. A major general with 24 years earns $202,418.62 and a lieutenant general with 28 years earns $218,977.76. A four-star general tops the pay chart with $225,497.94.
For the general officers, the Air Force spent at least $60.4 million annually on salary alone. The exact cost can't be determined because of several variables such as the changing number of generals and the different time in service for each officer.
And the dollars really add up when perks and aides are taken into consideration, according to Gates.
Getting rank inflation under control would lead to significant savings, according to the defense secretary as well as a former Pentagon budget official.
Raymond DuBois, DoD's director of administration and management during the Bush administration, estimates reducing a billet by even one star could save as much as 20 percent. A lieutenant general has a smaller staff, fewer contractors and travels more modestly than a four-star, for example.
"A four-star has an airplane. A three-star often doesn't," DuBois, now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Air Force Times. "Can a three-star get an airplane when he needs it? Not always. Does a four-star get an airplane when he needs it? Always. Many times he'll already have a G5 sitting on the runway, gassed up. There are the kinds of costs that are fairly significant when you add them all up."
The ‘pro' side
Among the defenders of the status quo are those who argue the nature of today's military has necessitated the growth of general officers in all services — especially in joint and wartime billets.
U.S. Forces-Iraq has 21 general- and flag-officer billets that will disappear when American troops leave the country at the end of the year. Another 20 general and flag officers are assigned to the war in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon also created other billets in response to today's wars, such as two positions in the Office of the Defense Representative-Pakistan, the commander of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and the director of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization.
"They've grown for a reason," said Thomas Donnelly, director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. "It's always worth re-evaluating if they're still necessary, but because we're involved in a rather larger number of smaller wars, it's not surprising the headquarters require experienced, strategically savvy and politically sensitive commanders."
Other proponents argue for a need to keep senior officers in place — especially amid drawdowns — in case the U.S. must rapidly build up its military. The Air Force has repeatedly built up its force and drawn it down throughout its history, often in response to wartime needs or because of budgetary pressures.
By keeping a high level of command structure, some argue, it will be easier to build up rapidly in case the country faces a crisis that requires a large number of troops.
Still others talk about the high level of technical expertise that runs throughout the Air Force. It has more officers per capita than any other service, and by the time some pin on their star, they could already have decades operating on a single weapons system.
For example, former Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper retired in 2005 with more than 5,000 flight hours — 1,400 of which were combat hours. He flew the C-7, C-17, C-20, C-37, F-4, F-15, F-16 and F-22, as well as trainers.
Thirty retired Air Force lawyers wrote top lawmakers to urge them to protect the one-star staff judge advocate jobs at Air Mobility Command, Air Force Materiel Command and Air Combat Command. Gates wants to reduce those positions to colonel billets. No other service legal structure took a similar hit, according to the lawyers.
Retired Lt. Gen. Jack Rives, who served as the Air Force's top legal officer until his March 2010 retirement, told Air Force Times the cuts would harm the service's strides toward diversity and the remaining billets would establish a de facto process of picking the three-star position eight years earlier.
Rives argued a brigadier general in those positions is about more than just prestige: The advice of a one-star carries more weight than that of a colonel.
Gates' plan to save money eliminates, downgrades or reallocates 130 general officer billets; of the jobs, 22 are nonjoint and nonwartime authorizations in the Air Force.
In his statement, Schwartz addressed the targeted jobs as well as 45 senior civilian executive positions that the Air Force will eliminate as part of Gates' plan to improve "efficiency."
"Our review of senior officer and civilian positions demonstrates the Air Force's commitment to maintain the appropriate amount of senior officer leadership in the right force mix to ensure mission success while demonstrating the proper stewardship of the resources entrusted to us by the nation," he said.
Among the cuts are six wing commander positions, which will be reduced to colonel positions; special assistants at Air Force Special Operations Command and Air Force Space Command; and a one-star deputy legislative liaison. All moves will take place when the general already in the job leaves.
Other positions on the chopping block were already going to go away eventually. The two-star billet overseeing the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal and three positions to train the Iraqi military will be cut. The timetable for one position facing the cut, Air Forces Central assistant deputy commander, is tied to the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.
Figuring the ratio of general officers to airmen after the implementation of Gates' plan is difficult to calculate because of variables such the possible passage of legislation to save the billets, staffing of joint positions or changes in end strength — drawdowns or buildups.
Still, if Gates implemented his plan immediately, the Air Force would still have the lowest general-to-troops ratio of the services — one general officer for every 1,123 airmen.
Bloat in the upper ranks of all services has been a longtime pet peeve for Gates and a handful in Congress.
"How many of our headquarters and secretariats are primarily in the business of reporting to or supervising other headquarters and secretariats, as opposed to overseeing activity related to real-world needs and missions?" Gates asked in a May 2010 speech.
Lawmakers, too, have been critical of the growth of general officers. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., slammed the military's "entourage culture" at a budget hearing March 29.
At the end of questioning, she asked for a show of hands of how many in the room worked for the Pentagon. The department's comptroller and three service undersecretaries brought along about 20 military and civilian aides.
"I'm trying to figure out what all these people do and why they all need to be here at one time," McCaskill said. "It seems to me that there could be efficiencies if they [were] doing other jobs right now, besides sitting in this hearing room."
Gates, who plans to retire later this year, is acting so forcefully on cutting general officers because "the ratios are out of whack — and have been for some time," DuBois said.
"There are some reasons for that, but the real question that needs to be posed is: As we draw down in Afghanistan and Iraq, and as the budgetary pressures on the Pentagon will eventually result in active-component end strength, is there a plan to reduce the number of general and flag officers accordingly?
"That ought to be the question posed to the Pentagon."