By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 17, 2008
The Army's growth plans and the demands of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are contributing to a shortfall of thousands of majors, critical mid-level officers whose ranks are not expected to be replenished for five years, according to Army data and a recent officers survey.
Majors plan and direct day-to-day military operations for Army battalions, the units primarily responsible for waging the counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Throughout the Army, majors fill key roles as senior staff members, putting together war plans, managing personnel and coordinating logistics.
The gap in majors represents about half of the Army's current shortage of more than 4,000 officers, and officials say there are no easy solutions to the deficit. "We need more officers, and we are pulling every lever we can," said Col. Paul Aswell, chief of the Army's personnel division for officers.
The Army's plan to expand its ranks by 65,000 active-duty soldiers by 2012 -- to a total active-duty force of 547,000 -- is increasing the service's demand for captains and majors. The Army is currently about 15 percent short of its goal of 15,700 majors, and the gap is expected to surpass 20 percent in 2012, according to Army data.
The shortfall is forcing the Army to promote captains more quickly to the rank of major, even though the service is also about 10 percent short of captains. While the Army projects that it will fill the captain shortage by 2011, it will continue to have a deficit of majors until 2013, according to Aswell.
Some majors predict that the gap could widen because of repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Those missions, some of which have lasted more than a year, are leading many of them to plan to retire from the Army.
"A lot of my retirement plan hinges on the deployment cycle and the war on terror as it exists today," said Maj. James Blanton, an infantry officer who returned in 2007 from a 15-month deployment to Iraq.
The Army says its data do not currently show majors or other officers leaving the force at accelerated rates. "Our loss rates are fairly stable, and the growth is what's killing us," Aswell said, referring to the Army expansion effort, first announced in January 2007.
But a recent survey of more than 400 majors at the Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., indicates that could change in coming years.
"There is a tipping point that we have started to reach," said Maj. George B. Brown III, who conducted the survey and has discussed the problem with Army officials. "There is a much larger percentage of officers . . . planning to get out right at 20 years, and once they are gone, they are gone," said Brown, a graduate student at the college.
"We are overworked because of the shortages and have nothing to look forward to but another rotation to Afghanistan or Iraq, so everything weighs towards getting out," Brown said, adding that upon retiring in their early 40s after 20 years in the Army, majors receive half their base pay and can begin civilian careers. "It's almost like a perfect storm."
Other majors said the shortage means they are continually pulled into war-fighting jobs and have less opportunity to attend schools required for promotion or to take jobs that expand their horizons.
"As I look to the future, I see the choices I am offered narrowing and the freedom of decision I had start to go away because of the shortages," said Maj. Kim Nash, a transportation officer. "I was originally scheduled to get my master's and go teach, and that was derailed by deployments; that window is gone for me now."
Brown's research found that nearly half of the specialty branches are so lacking in majors, they would be considered not ready for combat under Army reporting requirements. The shortage of majors is more pronounced in some branches than others, with a shortfall of 24 percent in military police and 27 percent among military intelligence officers. The Army's transportation branch has the greatest shortage, fielding less than 50 percent of the majors it requires.
Brown's study shows that the percentage of majors leaving the service increased from 3.75 percent in 1998 to 6.48 percent in 2007. "The exodus is expected to continue as more officers are leaving sooner because of the strain multiple deployments are having on families," Brown concluded.
The Army agreed that the rate rose through 2006 but said it fell in 2007 and remains within historic norms. Army personnel officials also challenged some of Brown's survey methodology. Even so, an Army critique provided to The Washington Post acknowledged that the survey "may provide some insights into current sentiment" among the classes that Brown sampled at Leavenworth.
The survey of majors found that more than half of those responding cited family needs, the desire to settle in one place and numerous wartime deployments as reasons to leave the Army. It also suggested that monetary incentives could be effective in persuading more majors to stay longer. But Army officials said that such a program, while considered in 2007, is not an option because it would be prohibitively expensive.
Instead, the Army's strategy is to shore up the ranks of captains, offering $35,000 bonuses and other unprecedented incentives in a program launched last year. That program so far has led nearly 14,000 captains -- about 1,000 fewer than the Army's goal -- to sign contracts to stay three years longer.
Yet Brig. Gen. Michael S. Linnington, commandant of cadets at West Point, said groups of Army captains recently returned from Iraq have told him that long deployments -- not bonuses -- are central to their decisions. "The whole Army is pretty tired," he said.
Because of the shortage of majors, the promotion of captains is now nearly guaranteed: Well over 90 percent have been selected for promotion to major in recent years, compared with the Army's goal of 80 percent.
"The Army would prefer to promote officers at a lower rate to encourage high performance," Aswell said.
This month, results are expected from the first Army promotion board since the Vietnam War era to reach into the ranks of captains and promote the most qualified candidates two years earlier than the norm.
In addition, the Army is assigning captains to serve in jobs normally performed by majors, and in some cases, majors who have been promoted to lieutenant colonel must stay in their current jobs longer, Aswell said.