WASHINGTON—High-ranking officers now command fewer troops on average than their predecessors so their $100,000-plus salaries should be among the first to go as the Defense Department wrestles with a $350 billion budget cut, experts say.
From 1991 to 2011, the number of uniformed personnel has decreased by 28 percent to roughly 1.4 million, based on military data. But the number of generals and admirals—the majority of whom earn between $100,000 and $150,000 a year in base pay—has decreased by less than 10 percent to 970.
The average general has nearly 500 fewer uniformed personnel under his or her command today compared with 1991, according to a recent report from the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit government watchdog group.
“You have the very highest ranks increasing much faster than all the ranks below them,” said Ben Freeman, a national security fellow at the Project on Government Oversight. “It just seems to get progressively more and more bloated the higher you get.”
Freeman testified before Congress last month about what he calls “officer inflation,” pointed out that higher ranking officers not only earn more money than other officers, they also require larger staffs, adding to the overall cost.
The Department of Defense said it recently conducted a review of the rank structure, and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates approved eliminating 103 general and flag officer positions and reducing the rank of 23 more. In addition, 10 positions were restructured to joint organizations.
However, the statement did not address when the positions would be eliminated.
Winslow Wheeler, a defense expert at the Center for Defense Information, a liberal think-tank, wasn’t impressed with the review.
“It’s a teeny weeny step in the right direction,” he said in an interview. “Gates had the smarts to identify the problem; he didn’t, however, have the spine to really do something about it.”
Nathan Freier, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said as the military has expanded it has just added layers of bureaucracy rather than transforming with each expansion.
“In certain respects, it is important to have these high-level military officers and their substantial staffs,” Freier said. “But we probably are at a point where we can take a fresh blank sheet of paper, look at global command and control structures and find areas of economy.”
But Dan Goure, a defense expert at the conservative Lexington Institute, called the idea of eliminating the most expensive officers “stupid.”
“It may be that in modern warfare [the military]require more officers per man than ever before,” he said. “Don’t cut top to bottom. Cut side to side. Reduce the military’s role in nonmilitary operations. “
A defense budget expert in the White House suggested that a top-heavy military is not only an added expense, but may hurt the force.
Too many generals and admirals may inhibit operations by limiting agilityand responsiveness, the official said.
Freier offered both sides of the argument.
“The more commands that you have around the world, the more the individual commands can focus on priorities,” he said. “The fewer commands you have, the more you are required to make even greater strategic choices which in the end will enable you to focus more on issues and threats that are truly important.”
The withdrawal of troops from Iraq this year and Afghanistan by 2014 offer a chance to re-think the command structure, he said.
But Wheeler doesn’t think the opportunity will be seized.
“In the past when we have downsized we have made these things worse, not better, and I’m concerned that the bureaucrats at the top will be quite active in protecting themselves at the cost of manpower reductions at the wrong end of the scale: at the bottom.”