Pentagon push to phase out top brass causing much consternation

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 13, 2010; A04

Of all the spending cuts and budget battles the Pentagon is confronting, none is causing more angst than Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates's vow to start getting rid of generals and admirals.

By almost any measure, the military is more top-heavy an institution than it has been for decades. Today, there are 40 four-star generals and admirals -- one more than in 1971, during the Vietnam War, even though the number of active-duty troops has shrunk by almost half.

The number of active-duty generals and admirals of all rank, meanwhile, has increased by about 13 percent since 1996.

It is, as Gates puts it, "brass creep."

But the defense secretary's pledge Monday to cut about 5 percent of the brass is nothing short of seismic for many at the Pentagon. The cuts would be the largest in the upper ranks since a similar squeeze at the end of the Cold War, when the collapse of the Soviet Union prompted the military to downsize.

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The defense secretary has said he also wants to make similar trims in the civilian leadership, noting that the number of people assigned to his office has grown by nearly 1,000 over the past decade.

"Our headquarters and support bureaucracies -- military and civilian alike -- have swelled to cumbersome and top-heavy proportions," Gates said in a speech Thursday to the Marines' Memorial Association in San Francisco, adding that the top layers have "grown accustomed to operating with little consideration for cost."

The push has caused some squealing at the Pentagon, as one- and two-star generals and admirals privately fret that they could be forced to retire early. Up-and-coming colonels and captains worry that fewer plum posts will be available.

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Gates has acknowledged that he faces stiff resistance. "Every flag officer will think I'm after him or her," he told reporters in May, when he first suggested that the brass might need to go on a diet. "But we have to be willing to look at everything."

On Monday, Gates named the first casualty by announcing plans to dismantle the Joint Forces Command, a unit based in Norfolk that coordinates military doctrine among the armed services and is traditionally headed by a four-star commander. He has told aides that they have until Nov. 1 to come up with a list of at least 50 other brass jobs that will get the ax. Officials said that most of the positions probably will be eliminated by attrition.

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Among the likely targets are officers in Europe. U.S military and NATO forces in Europe are jointly led by a four-star commander. In a vestige of World War II, however, the Army, Navy and Air Force have four-star officers overseeing their individual forces in Europe as well.

"The ranks of the major commands there have remained intact since the Cold War," Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Monday. "So is that appropriate? Should we go back and adjust it? Not only the rank structure, but the size of the headquarters and what they do."

Analysts said the brass squeeze won't result in significant savings. Terminating a single general's billet might save about $200,000 a year in salary and benefits, barely a rounding error in the Pentagon's base budget this year of $535 billion.

But they said the effort is necessary as part of Gates's broader drive to stave off budget-cutting lawmakers who argue that defense spending should no longer be exempt as Congress grapples with record deficits.

"He's pretty clearly trying to send a message that the Pentagon is going to get leaner, and that includes the people at the top," said Todd S. Harrison, a military spending expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank.

"If he had done nothing, if he had not trimmed the number of generals, then he would have been more vulnerable to the argument that the Department of Defense is fat and bloated and can take a cut."

Another reason, Gates said, is that the military's decision-making process has become bogged down.

By way of illustration, Gates recounted the beleaguered history of a deployment request that landed on his desk to send a single dog-handling team to Afghanistan. The paperwork first had to be approved by five four-star commanders: the chief of U.S. Central Command, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the Army chief of staff; and the supreme allied commander for Europe.

Analysts said there are some legitimate reasons why the number of brass has increased disproportionately to the size of the armed forces. Some commanders have been activated temporarily from the reserves to take part in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The military has also placed more emphasis on joint operations involving all the armed services, resulting in more high-level commands.

Raymond F. DuBois, a defense official during the George W. Bush administration, said he would advise Gates to take a methodical approach by targeting 20 percent of all four-star commanders and reclassifying their jobs as three-star generals and admirals. Then he would take 20 percent of the three-star officers and take them down to two stars, and keep doing the same until the ranks are flattened out. "Start with the top, don't start with the bottom," he said.

But DuBois added that he would be reluctant to cut many one-star jobs, which he said are necessary to keep as career incentives for ambitious colonels and captains.

"In a military that needs to retain its best and brightest," said DuBois, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "it is an enormously important retention factor."

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