Why does the military grow? Because the tail wags the dog.

Summary: The great expansion of the US military, begun by Reagan and boosted by GW Bush after 9/11, has shifted into retreat due to the lack of threatening great powers and the end of our mad occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Now begins the equally fierce papers war to determine what gets cut in our vast armed forces. Experience suggests that our dysfunctional military will cut muscle, not fat.

This is the second in a series about the leadership of the US military, the people who will determine the effectiveness of our military in the ago of 4th generation war. (1st of 2 posts today.)

“It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
— Opening sentence of “Parkinson’s Law“, C. Northcote Parkinson, The Economist, 19 November 1955. He describes Britain’s creation of “a magnificent Navy on land” to replace its fleet.

Admiralty Statistics from "Parkinson's Law"

Parkinson wrote using data from long ago. Let’s shift forward to today, with a recommended reading about our billion-dollar-per-year national defense system: “Pentagon bureaucracy grows as troops are cut” by Tara Copp (Washington Examiner, 25 January 2015). To understand this strange but sad phenomenon we have an analysis by a guest author with experience in these matters..

“Why does the force continue to grow?
Because the tail wags the dog.”

By Danny Hundley (Colonel, USMC, retired).


During the 8 years I worked in Manpower (Officer Assignment Branch) at Headquarters Marine Corps I helped develop the Joint Duty Assignment Management Information System. I know that if the military did not have some of the best Manpower processes in the world, the bureaucracy would be much worse than it is now.

So how is the tail is wagging the dog? Manpower is being cut by the bureaucrats without regard to mission. The services attempt to take into account the mission requirements when making cuts but the Congress does not. It just says cut. Also, the Congress continually legislates new requirements that necessitates growing staff to answer the mail. For example, when Goldwater-Nichols became law, the Congress had many requirements for annual reports.

These reports were never required before. To make matters worse, many of the reports required the services to keep data that it had never been required to keep before. Goldwater-Nichols was many years ago but the politics and off-the-cuff requirements still come faster than any physical capability to react. Anyone who understands what is required to maintain proper personnel requirements to meet mission, knows the ability to do a mission is easily destroyed when manpower cuts are required without sufficient time to determine impact to mission.

We can tear down proper manpower structure for military organizations much more quickly than we can build it, especially when we do not properly consider standing down mission requirements as we cut.


Soldiers of the armed forces marching
Boots on the ground; to DoD they’re less important than officials behind desks!

The statement in the article, “it would make sense that as active duty forces drawdown, so would the staff managing them”, can only make sense if the work load for the staff has decreased accordingly. I really doubt that it has. Actually, I would be very surprised if their work-load has not increased significantly.

How many additional bureaucratic reports are now being required of the staff that is to be cut? What additional work is the staff trying to accomplish to realign quickly changing structure so missions can be accomplished? I could write a book about all of the dominoes that fall when trying to accomplish this very fuzzy mission of saving money through Manpower cuts – especially when there is inadequate time to consider mission impacts. Bottom line – mission is supposed to determine manpower not the other way around.

The article stated that the “GAO found that the Pentagon doesn’t have a requirements process to determine whether its headquarters personnel levels are appropriate, and it doesn’t periodically reassess personnel to see if staffing levels are correct.” Whomever from the GAO made this statement needs to explain it. What do they mean when they say “the Pentagon”?

All of the services have a significant amount of structure at the Pentagon and I know all the services have such processes. I’ve worked with them. Also, one does not “reassess personnel to see if staffing levels are correct.” To determine if staffing levels are correct, one reassesses the mission.

The tail wags the dog

The statement that, “on the civilian side, unless significant personnel cuts are made, the Pentagon will have to keep taking sequestration savings from its procurement and modernization accounts”, illustrates some fact but it mostly illustrates a huge lack of understanding.

  1. Some cuts in procurement comes from the fact that less equipment is needed because there are fewer people to use it.
  2. The cuts will often result in mission realignments or changes that will cause cuts in procurements and possibly changes in when and where the procurements need to be made.

Focus must be on mission. Requirements for procurements must be made based upon mission. We’re cutting manpower, so what mission is being cut? We’re cutting procurements so what mission is being cut? Also, do the procurement cuts match the manpower cuts? Of course, there are times when Congress people will require the services to buy equipment for which they have no requirement. In other words, the service has no mission for the equipment. Thus, the service must use resources to maintain non-mission equipment. I can only guess why our politicians do this. I can’t imagine a reason that could be legitimate.

Any organization, government or private, messes up in a big way when the drive is to cut people without properly addressing the mission of the organization. The only Manpower that should ever be cut is that which is not needed to successfully complete the organization’s mission.

Since Manpower is the biggest cost for many organizations, leaders seeking success should invest in capabilities that will ensure that they have, at all times, the appropriate Manpower and corresponding training requirements to complete mission. When I worked at Headquarters Marine Corps I defended my structure (which was just a few positions) by aligning my structure to the mission. When someone came and said you have to cut personnel, I gave them the list of people and their impact on the mission. They could not make the decision then on cutting mission.

The ultimate desire of our leaders is to spend less. The actions being taken, however, will ultimately result in more spending than any savings recouped via the sequestration.


USMC logo

About the author

Danny Hundley (Colonel, USMC, retired) spent almost eight years working at Headquarters Marine Corps in the Manpower Department. Later, he served as the Director of Reserve Affairs at the Marine Corps Systems Command where he facilitated the development of processes to ensure procurement of equipment for the Marine Corps Reserve. Colonel Hundley also served many years later as the Senior Manpower, Personnel & Training Analyst for Information Systems and Infrastructure at the Marine Corps Systems Command.

He is a certified acquisition professional with certifications from the Defense Acquisition University in Acquisition Logistics, Systems Planning, Research, Development, and Engineering (SPRDE), Program Management and Information technology.

Other posts in this series

  1. How officers adapt to life in the Pentagon: they choose the blue pill.
  2. Why does the military continue to grow? Because the tail wags the dog. By Danny Hundley (Colonel, USMC, retired).
  3. Overhauling The Officer Corps. By David Evans (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired).
  4. The cost of too many generals: paying more to get a less effective military.
  5. William Lind looks at our generals, sees “rank incompetence”.

For More Information

(a)  Hundley provided a comment with some links to more useful information about this topic.

(b)  See “The Pentagon’s Growing Army of Bureaucrats“, Mackenzie Eaglen (American Enterprise Institute), op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, 29 January  2015 — “Since 2009, the military’s civilian workforce has grown by about 7% while fighting forces have been cut by 8%.”

(c)  About the US officer corps:

  1. The Core Competence of America’s Military Leaders.
  2. The moral courage of our senior generals, or their lack of it.
  3. About military leaders in the 21st century: “Theirs Is to Reason Why”.
  4. Preface to Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions.
  5. Training of officers, a key step for the forging of an effective military force.
  6. Dragging American Military Culture into the 21st Century.
  7. Leadership in action: when resource constraints meet conspicuous consumption, we just ignore the problem.
  8. Careerism and Psychopathy in the US Military leadership, GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired).
  9. How bad is our bloat of generals? How does it compare with other armies?
  10. A step to getting an effective military. We might need it soon.


8 thoughts on “Why does the military grow? Because the tail wags the dog.”

  1. One of the remarkable features of the US military is the REDUNDANCY. The Marines are perhaps the best example (or worst). They want to be an army with an air force but expect the Navy to base them. Of course the other way of looking at it is that the Navy wants an army so it has the USMC. Meanwhile the Army goes deep into expensive but incredibly fragile helicopters because, unlike the USMC, it can’t have fixed-wing fighter craft or transport. Right now the Army and the USMC are competing for supremacy in the US’s PIVOT ASIA expansion.

    And then there is the USAF, blowing more money on a single jet fighter than Russia spends on its total military. And finally the special forces. Americans, like the Nazis, are fascinated with elite troops. But what are they really? Very expensive light infantry with lots of air power backing them up.

    1. Charles,

      You go to the heart of the Pentagon: do generals and admirals give their supreme loyalty to their service or the nation? Since WWII these leaders have often put their service’s parochial interests ahead of the military’s ability to fight. For example, the USAF love bombers and fighters, but transportation and close air support for the army are neglected.

      In WWII the need for integration in equipment, tactics, and funding have been obvious. But the individual services have fought it, with slow retreats forced on them by the President and Congress.

  2. As John Boyd noted, everyone in the U.S. military protects their own rice bowl. An officer’s prestige and pay and chance for promotion rises or falls depending on the funding of the procurement program with which they’re most closely connected. In today’s American military, it’s hardware over people every time.

  3. The years I spent at Headquarters, Marine Corps, and in the Acquisition community provided a close-up experience where political influences often overshadowed what I would call a major point of the article – “Focus must be on mission.” Political influences often overcame common sense. Sometimes the significant fall-out from those influences hampered the ability to do the stated mission. All too often I saw people make judgments based upon perception and I heard Generals say, “Perception is reality.” I know what was meant by that statement but the statement itself was not true.

    Although the comments made so far, in a way, point to the issue of Mission, the discussion hinges largely on conjecture and/or perception. The real need is to focus on what each Service really needs to do its mission – not rice bowls, conjecture or perception. I’ve seen the impact of rice-bowls, conjectures and perceptions for several decades and they all lead to a much larger collection bowl that is called waste, fraud and abuse. This waste, fraud and abuse often begins with the Congress as a result of conflicting interests and legislation. I think most should agree, however, the answer is not, “Yes, Sir” or “No, Sir, three bags full, Sir.”

      1. What I’m discussing is a multi-faceted issue that has never, to my knowledge, been discussed to any significant degree. It is my contention, however, that foundational information for this can be learned through the study of the Human Systems Integration (HSI) process. This foundational knowledge can then be applied to the issue at hand which is establishing capability to properly develop structure and resources to carry out missions. Within the structure, processes should be properly developed to ensure mission completion. The HSI required for the overall development is, itself, process. This link is to the Naval Post Graduate School’s (NPGS) HSI web site. The NPGS is the only school that offers a Master’s degree in this area. Many other schools around the country offer programs in the area of Human Factors but the study of Human Factors is just a subset of HSI.

        Like I said, HSI is foundational for a proper understanding of many of the significant issues that are causing waste, fraud and abuse. This knowledge and way of thinking results in a clear understanding of cause and effect issues that go beyond what the military has as a focus – “human-centered approach in the design, acquisition, testing, and operation of human-machine interfaces.” The same approach can be used in a much broader way to provide necessary information on the impact of changes.

        Below are some articles that discuss, in some way, waste, fraud and abuse.

        (1) Two Decades of Waste, Fraud and Abuse—Still No Fix, Brianna Ehley, The Fiscal Times, 21 February 2013

        “The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform estimates that the federal government overall lost $261 billion in waste, fraud and abuse in 2012.” – Actually – this article discusses things that have not been included in the stated cost for the waste, fraud and abuse – things such as duplicative missions and enforcement of laws. This is only a beginning, however. There are more issues that have resulted in waste, fraud and abuse becoming institutionalized within our government. Foundational knowledge of Human Systems Integration would make those more obvious.

        (2) Federal government continues to lose billions to waste, fraud and abuse, Angie Petty, Washington Post, 10 March 2013

        This is a somewhat simplistic article that mentions investment in an IT solution for waste, fraud and abuse. Unless, however, the government, in total, changes its way of doing business and establishes task-driven organizations where the tasks are aligned to missions that can be automated, the result will be an exponential increase in waste, fraud and abuse. I remember General Keys once saying to me, “I was told that if we got all these computers we would not need as many people.” I responded with, “General, if all we do is get computers and automate current processes, we will have created the ability to make mistakes faster than before. This means you need more people to fix the mistakes that would not have happened for a while.”

        Here I see where foundational understanding of Human Systems Integration is needed to avoid reinventing mistakes.

        (3) Why Cutting Duck Penis Research is the Wrong Way to think about Preventing Waste, Fraud, and Abuse”, Philip A. Wallach, Brookings, 3 February 2014

        In this seven-part article, which ultimately focuses on reform of the budget process, the author hits some significant issues while discussing Senator Coburn’s effort to highlight waste, fraud and abuse. The author rightly states, “Coburn is right that we should be able to find real savings by targeting waste; but ultimately wrong to imply we can do so through the politically painless means of cutting frivolous and outrageous expenditures.” However, as I continued to read, I see that the author also overlooks processes or ways of doing business that have, by default, resulted in legislated waste, fraud and abuse. A significant example of this, which was not mentioned, is the establishment of the Sequestration. I believe if a proper and full analysis of the result of Sequestration would be done, we would learn that the waste, fraud and abuse caused by Sequestration could exceed the savings. Not only that, it would point to lessons learned that could assist with the author’s real focus, which is to reform the budget process.

        The focus of Sequestration was across-the-board cuts that, among other things, chops significant Manpower structure without a proper analysis of the impact. Implementation of HSI processes could result in a proper focus that could lead to a positive outcome because those concerned would have the information necessary to set priorities. Of course, agreement on those priorities and changes in mission would then be needed.

  4. Pingback: William Lind explains one reason our military can't win wars - Fabius Maximus website (blog) | Bible Prophecy In The Daily Headlines

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