Getting Rid of Generals Won't Save Much Money, But It's Still a Good Idea

The Joint Chiefs of Staff and several combatant commanders on July 1, 1983. Wikimedia Commons/Department of Defense

A bloated command structure, with four-stars reporting to four-stars, needs a trim.

Proposed reforms to the U.S. military command structure designed to save money likely won't save enough to matter. They could, however, be a good idea anyway.

Six years ago, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced plans to, among other things, shut down Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) and move to cut at least fifty generals and admirals and 150 Senior Executive Service positions over the next two years. This was in reaction to the new “austerity” facing the Department of Defense and was ostensibly going to provide cost savings that could be “reinvested” in the warfighting forces. JFCOM was ultimately absorbed into the Joint Staff and the personnel cuts never came.

Gates' successor, Chuck Hagel, ordered a 20 percent cut in his own staff at the Pentagon as a “first step.” His uniformed counterpart, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, made vague promises of similar cuts in his staff as well as those of the Combatant Commands and the service component staffs that support them. Thus far, little has happened to implement these plans.

Now, Congress is getting involved.

John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been especially vocal for the need to revisit the iconic Goldwater-Nichols reforms. That law, which celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this October, went a long way to breaking down the provincialism between the military services (the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines) by elevating the role of the Chairman and the geographic combatant commanders (the heads of Central Command, European Command, etc.).

His chamber's version of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2017 would, among many other changes, increase the power of the Chairman to reallocate forces between the GCCs and to require the Secretary to “select one combatant command and direct the commander to replace the service component commands with joint task forces focused on operational military missions” in hopes of “improving the integration of operational efforts across the command, streamlining unnecessary layers of management, and reducing the number of staff."

Additionally, the Senate bill would reduce the number of generals and admirals 25 percent across the board., contending that “the size of the general and flag officer corps has become increasingly out of balance with the size of the force it leads” and noting that “Over the past 30 years, the end-strength of the joint force has decreased 38 percent, but the ratio of four-star officers to the overall force has increased by 65 percent.” But, again, the main focus is on budgetary savings to allow leadership to “shift as many personnel as possible from staff functions to operational and other vital roles."

As Brian Palmer noted back when Gates proposed the cuts, getting rid of generals and admirals doesn’t really save much money in the grand scheme of a $600 billion annual Defense budget. That remains true even when one factors in the accompanying support staff that goes with each of those billets.

Further, as Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) rightly notes, the 25 percent figure seems “pulled out of thin air” rather than as the basis of any serious needs assessment.

Still, the proposals are a step in the right direction.

While planning staffs are an essential part of large military organizations, there has been massive bloat in the three decades since Goldwater-Nichols. Partly, that's a function of the law's requirement that officers complete a qualifying joint assignment before being selected for general or flag rank. That, naturally, creates institutional pressure to create qualifying billets. More significantly, the law rightly stripped much of the power that the service secretaries and chiefs had in the budget process. The bureaucratic work-around was to increase the size of the service component staffs at each of the combatant commands in order to ensure service “equities” were constantly looked after in the planning process. While understandable, it not only led to much larger and more expensive staffs than necessary but undermined the chain of command. The (usually four-star) commanders of Army, Navy, Marine and Air Forces in a theater report directly to the four-star geographic combatant commander. But they also answer “indirectly” to their service chiefs, who have Title 10 “man, train, and equip” authorities. The two masters are in constant tension.