Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) asked for a rare moment of audience participation at a Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support hearing on March 29.
“Let me ask how many people in the room work for the Defense Department or one of the branches of the military—if you'd raise your hands,” requested McCaskill, chairwoman of the Subcommittee.
A peek at the archived webcast (at the 86:43 mark) shows that several individuals in the front row of the audience raised their hands. Based on my experience attending hearings with Defense Department witnesses, I’d bet that many others in the audience raised their hands as well.
“That's a lot,” she responded.
“I have hearings with a lot of different federal agencies and typically they don't bring as many people to meetings or to hearings,” McCaskill said, “and I'm trying to figure out why we need so many people to do this and the culture behind that.”
She took the opportunity to jab the military on this at the hearing, which was on finding efficiencies in the Defense Department. “I'm trying to figure out what all these people do and why they all need to be here at one time. It seems to me that there could be efficiencies, that they would be doing other jobs right now besides sitting in this hearing room.”
It’s one of those relatively rare moments at a congressional hearing where a typically bland issue comes alive.
“It's part of the challenge about the brass creep that the secretary of defense talked about. And it's part of the challenge of trying to flatten the organization and reduce the number of flags and all of those things,” she added (referring to flag officers as “flags”).
Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke to Newsweek last year about his beef with “brass creep.” Newsweek described the problem this way:
“Roughly translated, it means having generals do what colonels are perfectly capable of doing. Generals require huge staffs and command structures: three-star generals serving four-stars, two-stars serving three, each tended by squadrons of colonels and majors.”
POGO has long tracked this issue and strongly advocated for changes to combat brass creep and save taxpayer dollars. Our last report on the topic was released in 1998.
The worst offender of all the military services is the Air Force. Scott Fontaine of Air Force Times had a solid story on this today (he ended his story by recounting McCaskill’s comments). I haven’t been able to find the story for free online, so I’ll post some choice passages from Fontaine’s excellent piece, which is on the front page of Air Force Times:
- “The U.S. Air Force has more general officers per capita than any other U.S. service, and that has led Defense Secretary Robert Gates to put nearly two dozen such billets on the chopping block.”
- “In the last seven years alone, the service has shed nearly 43,000 airmen while adding 44 generals.”
- “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. For comparison, the Army had only three more generals — 318 — but had 231,000 more troops, for a ratio of 1 to 1,765.”
- “The service had 308 general officers as of February 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 another 208 general and flag officers for joint positions — and at least 76 of those must come from the Air Force. 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.”
- “The service typically has more generals during wartime and fewer in peacetime, but the ratio of general officers to airmen has grown steadily for the past 25 years.
“For example, in 1990, the year before the Soviet Union collapsed, the service had 333 generals, one per 1,594 troops.
“The service whittled generals and troops over the next decade — part of the short-lived “peace dividend.” By the end of fiscal 2000, the numbers stood at 271 and 351,375, a ratio of 1-to-1,296. The first decade of the 21st century added 44 generals and cut 21,737 troops.”
- “Of the Air Force’s 315 generals on the books in 2010, 12 had four stars, 41 had three, 104 had two, and 158 just one. 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.
“The Air Force spent at least $60.4 million on its generals in 2010. 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.”
- “Raymond DuBois, who directed DoD’s 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,” said DuBois, now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. ‘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 three kinds of costs that are fairly significant when you add them all up.’”
Nick Schwellenbach is POGO's Director of Investigations.