As a retired military officer I note with both interest and alarm that our armed forces are becoming ever more top-heavy and expensive. A USA Today front-page article says that pension benefits are now so lavish that some of the brass are making more in retirement than they made on active duty. The justification for this is retention of expertise. However, an independent watchdog organization, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), points out that,

Star Creep

“for the first time in the more than 200 years that the U.S. has had a standing military, there are fewer than five enlisted personnel for every officer. In other words, today’s military is the most top-heavy force in U.S. history.”

In recent Congressional testimony , a POGO official had this to say,

“This progression towards a more top-heavy force is a burden for taxpayers and military commanders. The cost of officers increases markedly with their rank, so taxpayers are overpaying whenever a general or flag officer is in a position that could be filled by a lower ranking officer. The costs involved are more than just compensation for that officer; the subordinate personnel assigned to and overhead associated with a general or flag officer, particularly three- and four-star positions, are the greatest additional expense. Additionally, some military personnel experts say unnecessarily top-heavy organizations with excessive layers of “middle management” hinder military effectiveness as they slow decision cycles. (SecDef Robert) Gates claimed that “in some cases the gap between me and an action officer may be as high as 30 layers,” and this results in a “bureaucracy which has the fine motor skills of a dinosaur.”

How many Generals and Admirals does it take to wage war? I know of no way to quantify an answer to this question but I do know from my own service career that there has always been a clear distinction between “General” officers and “Field-grade” officers. The latter operate in the field where the action is, and the top brass generally (pun intended) set broad strategy, manage resources, and otherwise push paper.

Personally I would have thought that the the brass in the Pentagon would have reached a critical mass of diminishing returns under the Peter Principle a long time ago, but there appears to be no limit in sight.  I wonder, will there someday be one General officer for every enlisted person?   (Even in my time, over 30 years ago, we in the field referred to the Pentagon as the “Puzzle Palace” for its apparent disconnect from our realities.) Seems to me the situation is redolent of the recent book, Top Secret America which details the explosion without apparent limit of the military industrial complex that General Eisenhower warned of.

English: Gen. of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower...

General of the Army Eisenhower, via Wikipedia

POGO calls the phenomenon “Star Creep”, a subset of Brass Creep. (How many Generals and Admirals does it take to catch underwear bombers? Possible answer: a lot fewer than to rebuild hopelessly backward Islamic countries in our own political image.)  Will the  President address the problem, assuming his re-election and successful withdrawal from Afghanistan?  I’ve heard nothing about it, if so.  Would any of the GOP nominee field do so?  My impression is that only Ron Paul wouldn’t make it even worse.

I submit Star Creep is something the electorate needs to be aware of. George Patton, not to mention the unassuming Ike, would be astounded at what has happened.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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10 Responses to Creep

  1. PiedType says:

    I’m really disappointed to hear this, but not surprised. It sounds like every corporation in America, and a lot of smaller organizations, too.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Exactly, Pied, it is the same phenomenon. I believe that technology is a factor in both military and civilian organizations – there are more complexities to manage. There is a huge industry in the D.C. beltway massaging, tweaking and lobbying endlessly for all manner of weapons systems and their peripherals, such as training. Like cancer, it will grow without limit as long as it’s fed.


  2. ansonburlingame says:


    I agree, whole heartedly with the thrust of your blog, that we have too many general/flag officers for our force size. But I do not agree that it is technology driven. It is driven by politics.

    There are 10’s of thousands of “questions” today, inside and outside Washington about defense related issues. But no one in Wash can address those issues except for general or flag officers. Send a knowlegdable Navy Captain or Army Colonel to brief Congressional staffers and he/she is ignored. Has to be a flag officer to do the briefing/sign the letter in response to issues, any issues.

    Take a man out of the fleet, a man that has been making life and death decisions (during wartime at least) for years and send him to Wash. He cannot make ANY decisions without them being “chopped” time and time again on ANYTHING.

    We now have Admiral billets in Wash for simply crazy things, like overseeing “diversity”, etc. My guess is a flag officer will soon be assigned to oversee relations in the fleet related to homosexuality for example.

    The job of an Admiral is to command groups of ships AT SEA in wartime, or it used to be so. Now we have almost as many Admirals in the Navy as we have ships, in total. The real numbers are slightly over 200 in each category, ships and flag officers in the Navy, as I recall. Crazy, expensive and clogs up the decision making pipeline for EVERYTHING, even the trivial things, really trivial things.

    There is a VERY easy fix for this situation. Clean house in the Pentagon and surrounding Wash offices. And I mean really clean house. The Joint Chiefs should be 4 star billets for sure, making 5 4 star billets, total in DC. Each of those “chiefs” is also the head of their respective services plus the Chairman.

    Now tell me why we need ANYMORE flag or general officers anywhere else in Wash DC?

    How many FLEETS or DIVISIONS do we have? Obviously each one should be commanded by a flag or general officer. Not sure what the “fleet” equivalent might be in the Air Force but the same logic would apply.

    Then we have the “joint” commands that should be COMMANDED by general/flag officers.

    Bottom line is general and flag officers should COMMAND men and equipment. They should NOT command “policies”. Need a better policy, fine, go ask a COMMANDER what he needs not a staff officer.
    But my God, can you imagine the SHOCK to the system with such ideas!!!



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      We agree on this topic, apparently, except for the role of technology, and I remain convinced that it leverages the star creep. I just can’t see human-resources needs, or perceived needs, being persuasive of adding much brass. But the mysteries of technology are what Top Secret America (TSA) feeds on and so does the Puzzle Palace. BTW, for any other readers who might not be familiar with TSA, the link in the post is worth a look – it’s short and describes it well.


  3. ansonburlingame says:

    To answer Pied’s concern about corporations, I provide my somewhat limited experience on that matter. I worked in/for two major Fortune 500 corporations as a senior executive in both companies. I was a former Navy $750 million annual budget. I did fine, had all the authority needed to make decisions and operate my own company. The corporate “big wigs” NEVER got down to day to day things. They only watched the “bottom line” and held me responsible for it.

    The equivalent level of responsibility in the Navy would have had at least a 3 star in such a position and he would have done no better or worse, in my view, than I did as a civilian. And you can be sure that I did NOT have all the “horse holders” required of a 3 star on his staff!!

    My experence is corporations are not that top heavy simply because of the cost involved.



  4. ansonburlingame says:

    Opps, should have read above “former Navy Captain with a civilian budget of $750 million per year”



  5. ansonburlingame says:


    OK, why does technology require a flag officer to direct. Take a well educated Captain, maybe a Phd in a particular field, or a Master’s with extensive experience, and let him run the technology efforts. DARPA for example is headed (or used to be) by an 0-6 (Navy Captain/Army Colonel for you landlubbers reading this).

    I also of course only address my comments to Navy Line Officers, not specialty officer communities.

    But Navy line officers at the flag level should be doing what they have proven they can do, COMMAND men and equipment, now large groups of men and equipment. The submarine force USED to do exactly that. When I first started serving in submarines the FIRST flag officer in my chain of command was Commander Submarines, Atlantic Fleet. EVERYONE else in that whole chain of command was a Navy Captain or below.

    That 3 star flag reported directily to the 4 star Fleet commander. Two flag officers between me as an Ensign, and Washington DC. Sure is not that way today!



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      That’s just the point, Anson. It doesn’t require a flag officer, but nevertheless that’s how they justify using a flag officer. But, you made me think some more on this – technology equates to money, does it not? The more money involved, the pricier the management required. Same for military as civilian in that regard.


  6. ansonburlingame says:

    Nope Jim,

    I don’t think it is money either. The extra money made by flags over senior “field grade” officers is not that big a difference. People in the military aspire to flag/general officer ranks as a matter of prestige or status or more likely, POWER. RHIP (rank has its privileges) means a lot to military folks, career folks. And to “fail” to achieve flag rank is a sign of just that, failure, to many military officers.

    What really motivates a senior Navy Captain to “hang in there”, maybe in an assignment that he detests? The ones that I knew did so simply to wait for the flag list to come out the next year to see if they were on it. Money did not motivate them, it was the “star” that did so.

    I am sure that is hard to understand for civilians, the meaning of a simple collar device. But for men and women in the military in the senior field grade ranks, that collar device is almost everything to them and their egos, again not the money.

    Money itself does not motivate a man to run for President. No way. It is RHIP with POWER being the “p” in such a case. Look at Romney as a simple example, a man with more money than he could possibly spend.

    I never encountered a military officer that aspired to becoming the President. But I knew a LOT of them that aspired to flag/general officer rank. THAT motivated them, at least in the later stages of their careers.

    To enhance that motivation, DOD thus created more and more billets, slots for you landlubbers, to fill with flag officers. And look at what we have today.

    I will also provide an observation from my two years in the puzzle palace. The MOST dangerous thing in that building was NOt an enraged 3 or 4 star on the E-ring of the Pentagon. It instead was the TERRIFIED 1 star that went from his cubby hole in the D-ring to the office of the 3/4 star and got his butt chewed out, again and again. That poor 1 star would come around the corner back onto the D-ring and look for the first 0-6 head to take off.

    And any aspiring 0-6 would simply cower under his desk and wait for the 1 star to cool off.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      You completely missed my point, Anson. The subject was not the motivation to get promoted but justifying to the executive and legislative branches the expense and need for more general-officer billets.


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