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Brass bloat? Critics debate cutting number of U.S. generals, admirals

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To find cuts in America’s massive military budget, some Republicans want the diet to start at the very top of the food chain.

Key GOP leaders have recently floated the idea of trimming the number of generals and admirals serving in the armed forces, arguing that the ratio of high-ranking officers to enlisted personnel has ballooned out of control and may actually be an impediment to the readiness of the fighting force.

The roughly 900 generals and admirals on active duty today is far fewer than it was in past eras, but the percentage of those officers compared to the number of enlisted troops is near the highest level in modern military history, according to Congressional Research Service (CRS) data.

Some analysts caution that merely pushing top officers into an early retirement would have little impact on raw budget numbers. Bigger savings could be found by cutting their staffs or perhaps even the bases, commands or operations that they lead. But that type of broad dismantling of military infrastructure would raise a whole new set of questions with significant national security implications.

Still, some Republicans say the issue deserves a fresh look, particularly at a time when they believe the Defense Department has proven itself ill-equipped to properly spend the roughly $847 billion in taxpayer dollars allocated to it in the most recent defense budget bill.

The argument is playing into the clash between conservative lawmakers on the Hill and and they say in an increasingly “woke” Pentagon under Mr. Biden, with commanders more focused on enforcing COVID vaccines, promoting diversity and inclusivity in the ranks and targeting recruits with pronounced conservative and nationalist views than on building an effective fighting force.

“Frankly, maybe if we would focus our military spending on the soldiers and not having so many generals — the ratio of general officers to enlisted individuals now is so out of whack from where it used to be in our military,” Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a recent interview on “Fox News Sunday.”

“Maybe if we focused on that, helping the troops who do so much of the work out there for our great country, and maybe focus on getting rid of all the woke policies in our military, we’d have the money we need to make sure our troops get the pay raise they deserve, we have the weapons systems and the training that needs to be done, so we’re ready to deal with our adversaries around the planet,” he said. “That’s what we want to focus on.”

Mr. Jordan’s office did not respond to a request for comment seeking clarification on exactly what such a move might look like, or whether he and other House Republicans might float specific legislation to that effect in this Congress.

Beyond the political minefield that comes along with any discussion of military budget cuts, it’s clear that the notion of cutting generals and admirals is divisive within conservative circles. The idea has certainly had its Republican champions, such as the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona, but other conservative voices believe it may be the wrong approach.

“Let’s say we wake up tomorrow and there’s zero [generals and admirals]. You’ve saved about $1 billion. That’s not nothing, but on the other hand you can’t run an organization without the senior leaders,” said retired Army Gen. Tom Spoehr, now the director of the Center for National Defense at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It’d be like a corporation saying, ‘We’re cutting all of the C Suite guys.’ It’s mostly symbolic.”

“The actual count of generals or admirals hasn’t gone up that much. What has gone up is the ratio of these senior guys to the troops,” he said in an interview. “The reason that happened by and large is because we cut the forces, not because we grew a bunch of generals.”

A growing imbalance

Indeed, historical data show that as the total U.S. military force has decreased, the percentage of generals and flag officers as a percentage of that total has gone up.

In 1965, there were 1,284 generals and flag officers in a total force of nearly 2.7 million, according to CRS data. Those generals and officers constituted about 0.048% of the total force.

By 1990, the number of generals and flag officers dropped to 1,054 in a total force of just over 2 million — about 0.052%.

In 2018, there were 921 generals and flag officers of a total force of 1.3 million, or about 0.07%.

The ratio could grow even more “out of whack,” as Mr. Jordan describes it, with individual military services struggling to meet their annual recruiting goals.

By historical standards, the World War II era offers the starkest contrast to today’s figures. During the war, there were about 2,000 generals and flag officers of a total force of roughly 12 million, a ratio of about 1 general or admiral for every 6,000 troops. Today’s figure is closer to 1 officer for every 1,400 troops, according to Marine Corps Col. Gregory McCarthy, who penned a 2017 report on the subject for National Defense University’s Joint Force Quarterly and described the transformation as “rank creep.”

“Although historical numbers are inexact guides and future threats could radically change circumstances, the case for reduction is strong,” he wrote.

The study came on the heels of a major push by McCain to cut the number of generals and flag officers by about 110. In the proposal as part of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, he wrote that “the size of the general and flag officer corps has become increasingly out of balance with the size of the force it leads.”

In the years since, the idea has mostly gone quiet. Mr. Jordan’s comments suggest Republicans may once again be willing to put it on the table, but specialists say it’s difficult to determine exactly how effective it would be as a cost-saving measure.

“There is not a lot of money to be saved by cutting generals unless you also do away with the organizations that they are in charge of. That raises a variety of additional questions,” Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Washington Times.

“However, reducing the number of generals would ripple through the organization and thereby would reduce the number of senior military officers,” said Mr. Cancian, a retired Marine Corps colonel. “By having fewer senior military officers, decision-making might speed up. There could be value in that, regardless of dollar savings.”

It’s difficult to imagine how the raw number of generals and flag officers could be reduced without significant changes to how the military operates. Simply getting rid of a general would likely require reductions in size — or perhaps the wholesale elimination — of the offices, commands and posts they lead.

For example, late last year the Army announced a new post in Germany to coordinate the flood of new U.S. military aid to Ukraine. That post is led by an Army three-star general. Removing that general would help balance out the ratio of officers to enlisted troops but would result in little raw-dollar savings, and it would leave the Army’s new post without a leader.

Analysts say there are hundreds of other examples.

“No one would argue we don’t need that guy,” Gen. Spoehr said of the general leading the Ukraine office in Germany. “The Army keeps a three-star in Israel to maintain a military connection with that country. That seems like good value to me.”



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