Brass Creep: A Defense Ailment Ripe for a Budget Cure

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates earlier this year proposed cutting 102 general and flag officers as part of a broad efficiency initiative to wring $100 billion out of the Pentagon's overhead costs to spend on troops and weapons. Gates lamented the problem of "brass creep" -- the proliferation of positions for generals and admirals relative to the overall number of troops -- and said too many flag officers were doing work that could just as well be done by colonels and majors.

On Wednesday, Ben Freeman at the Project on Government Oversight shed some light on the phenomenon. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee panel on personnel, he said today's top-heavy force structure is unprecedented.

"The top officer ranks, general and flag officers, have grown faster than lower officer ranks, and three- and four-star positions have increased faster than all other components of the DoD's force of uniformed personnel -- a phenomenon we call star creep."

Since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in 2001, every service branch has increased its number of top officers, but surprisingly, the Air Force and Navy each have added more brass than the Army and Marine Corps combined, despite the fact that the ground forces have borne the greatest burden over the last decade. What's more, the Air Force and Navy added those stars as they were cutting more than 70,000 sailors and airmen from the ranks. Over the same period, the Army and Marine Corp added more than 117,000 troops.

"The Air Force has a historically low number of planes per general and the Navy is close to having more admirals than ships for them to command," Freeman said.

All those stars cost a lot of money. POGO is recommending that the General Accountability Office investigate the root causes of brass creep and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta identify more cuts to the senior ranks.

"The U.S. military is more top-heavy than it has ever been," Freeman said. "The average general or flag officer is commanding fewer personnel than they ever have and many are not commanding troops for battle -- they are commanding legislative aides, dentists, lawyers and chaplains."