Overhauling The Officer Corps to build a military that can win wars

Summary: American has the most powerful military the world has ever seen, by almost every metric. Yet we have failed to win every major conflict since Korea. For the reasons why we should look to its leadership, the officer corps. This is the 3rd post this series. {2nd of 2 posts today.}

In place of that optimax of 5% that the {Mobile Infantry} never can reach, many armies in the past commissioned 10% of their number, or even 15% — and sometimes a preposterous 20%! This sounds like a fairy tale but it was a fact, especially during the XXth century.

— From Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959). 17% of active duty US military were officers as of 2012 (per DoD).

How many enerals do we have?
How many generals do we have?

Overhauling The Officer Corps

By David Evans

We’d be better off without West Point” is the title of a January 25th essay by Scott Beauchamp in the Washington Post ‘Outlook’ section by an Army veteran. He argues that all of the military academies — Annapolis, the Air Force and Coast Guard academies — as well as the Army’s venerable institution — have outlived their usefulness and ought to be shut down.

This subject regarding the future of the academies has come up before, when Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA) was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Congress had passed legislation restricting newly-appointed officers to reserve commissions. The new lieutenants and ensigns would first prove themselves for 4-5 years in the operating forces before being integrated into the ranks of officers with regular commissions. At a stroke, the service academies were stripped of their authority to award regular commissions upon graduation. Nothing ever came of Nunn’s obvious questions concerning the future role of the academies.

Rather than turn them into museums, the academies could be re-oriented to junior officer training after commissioning. This reformulation would be part of a much larger overhaul of the officer corps that is overdue. Officers’ capability for innovative leadership has been declining for years. “Dry rot” in the officer ranks is a pejorative too often used by many officers themselves — primarily by those frustrated with the proliferation of officers, the emphasis on appearances rather than the substance of professionalism, and the failure to foster true war fighting skills.

Having served as a career officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, and having covered for the Chicago Tribune our military deployments to liberate Kuwait and to support famine-relief in Somalia, a few thoughts about procuring officers and fostering their development come to mind.

General's hat

How many officers do we need?

Those warriors in whom “special trust and confidence” is reposed (the words on the officer appointment certificate) ought to be in the minority. A truly select few — perhaps 5% of total strength should suffice. Thus for every 100,000 enlisted personnel, they would be led by a maximum of 5,000 officers. This relationship would mark a dramatic reduction from the present ratio of one officer for every six or seven enlisted personnel.

In the present situation, the proliferation of officers stunts the development and authority of senior non-commissioned officers. The proliferation of officers also narrows each officer’s expertise.

As an officer on the staff of the Secretary of Defense, I was often engaged in inter-service discussions about force structure and manpower issues. Coming from the relatively small Marine Corps, I brought to the table not only manpower management experience but qualifications as an infantry, artillery, naval gunfire air spotter and nuclear weapons target analyst officer. I would frequently be sitting across the table from an Air Force delegation of a half dozen colonels, each of whom was capable of addressing only a part of the subject at hand. If one officer was absent, the discussion had to be deferred until the missing colonel could attend. The compartmenting of Air Force officers was frankly unbelievable; it was an impediment to rapid and informed decision making.

It should be pointed out that the leanest officer/enlisted ratio in the last century was in the 1930s Marine Corps: one officer per 30 enlisted (3%). This prevailed at a time when the Marines were pursuing great innovations in tactical air power and amphibious operations.

Getting to a leaner ratio of 5% could be accomplished by drawing down officer strength over, say, ten years, by reducing input at the front end and by increasing retirements (and inducements to encourage retirements) at the back end. Officer pay would be increased 25% to 30%; a net savings would occur due to the smaller officer population and reduced turnover. The 5% limit on officers would apply to active duty, National Guard and Reserve Component structure separately.

While this drawdown is under way, other ingrained aspects of officer management should be rationalized. For example, the Air Force has more colonels and lieutenant colonels than second and first lieutenants. This bloat is primarily one of flow management in which an officer zips through the junior grades and then languishes at the senior grades.

The armed services should be given the goal of 5% officers. Service chiefs will no doubt strenuously object that they cannot fill all of their billets. Fine, let them downgrade as they wish the number of billets and the grades at which they are to be filled. In the Army and Marine Corps there are more lieutenant colonels than there are battalion-level command slots for them. This superfluous population of officers does not foster operational excellence. It does, however, contribute to the proliferation of bureaucracy and non-essential headquarters.

Attribute Matrix for Officers
Attributed to General Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord, from “Germany: Selecting Officers“, US Naval Institute Proceedings March 1933. By the Quote Investigator.

Selecting officers

The present arrangement also downgrades the importance of enlisted service before commissioning. Every person who aspires to the leadership ranks of an officer should demonstrate a willingness to first follow orders in the enlisted ranks. Future officers would thereby witness both good and terrible examples of military leadership and morale, they would experience directly the capabilities and limitations of their weapons and equipment, and the lessons would be burned into their consciousness for life. On a personal note, as a newly-minted second lieutenant, it took this writer, commissioned without prior enlisted service, about three to four months of close association in Viet Nam to be fully comfortable associating with and leading Marines; this “learning curve” is unacceptable when lives are on the line.

At least three years of service in the enlisted ranks should suffice to assure two years in the operating forces (an Aegis fire control technician in the Navy undergoes a year’s training before assignment to a ship, so one year of training would be followed by two years at sea).

If, at the completion of three years service, the individual aspires to commissioned rank, three recommendations must be solicited from seniors — two from E-7s and above in the enlisted ranks, and one from a commissioned officer above the grade of O-2.

Aspirant packages would be submitted to a respective service selection board, which would earmark the most qualified. The individuals selected would be sent off to accredited civilian universities for their bachelor’s education. While undergoing such classroom work, they would continue to draw their enlisted salary, but they would not wear the uniform on campus. Expenses associated with education (tuition, books, etc.) would be borne by their parent military service.

By this means, those truly desiring and demonstrating suitability would receive a more democratic, informed and higher quality education than through the cloistered halls of the service academies.

Upon graduation from university, the aspiring officer would be commissioned. His years of service as an enlisted person would count for pay and retirement. Every newly-commissioned officer would be sent to the former military academy campuses for Basic Officer Instruction (BOI). There, he would receive six months of fundamental instruction in areas such as tactics, supply, communications, administration, military justice, and so forth necessary for success as a junior officer. Specialized training elsewhere would follow (flight, artillery, nuclear power, etc.). The junior officer would then be assigned to his first operational unit.

At the tenth anniversary of commissioning, the officer would be eligible to retire from the service. Retired pay would increase from a minimum at 10 years time-in-commissioned-service to a maximum at the 65th birthday, the period to be set for mandatory retirement.

Former officers would be given significant preference for hiring either as Defense Department civilian officials or in other branches of the federal government (assuming they meet hiring criteria). Not a marginal 5% to 10% edge, but at least a 30% preference should be applied.

West Point Coat of Arms

Military education

At approximately 12 years of service, officers would be eligible to compete for Intermediate Officer Education (IOE). Performance of duty would weigh heavily in the selection, but the criteria would include the score on a written examination covering subjects one would expect a junior officer to have mastered.

At IOE, emphasis would be placed on brigade and division-size operations, and their equivalent in the Navy and Air Force. The campuses and resources presently devoted to the Army, Navy and Air Force war colleges would be re-oriented to IOE. The words “war” would not be allowed. For example, the Naval War College would be renamed the Navy Intermediate Officer Education School.

At IOE, after action reports from the Korean Conflict forward to Operation Iraqi Freedom would form the grist of study material. The equipment, operational and tactical errors of the past would be addressed, with the view to NOT emulating them in the future.

For example, a review of the Marines’ fighting withdrawal from the Chosen Reservoir during the Korean Conflict would reveal that units depended heavily on the Browning Automatic Rifle for its sustained and reliable firepower while dirty and in subfreezing cold. This lesson has been largely overlooked in development since of the M-16 and the squad automatic rifle (SAW).

Or consider the Operation Desert Storm after action report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) which found the hardy A-10 attack jet flew with a mission capable rate of 97% and performed an impressive variety of missions: close air support, interdiction, reconnaissance, Scud missile hunting and destruction, all while demonstrating a remarkable ability to absorb damage from ground fire and return to base. As one Air Force general remarked to this writer in Saudi Arabia at the time, the A-10 “saved our assess.”

After action reports are especially useful because they are written immediately after a campaign by officers and officials determined to establish “ground truth” before the record is influenced by armed service and political interests.

At approximately 25 years of service, applications would be entertained for the National War College. “War” here implies the term’s fullest usage, from multi-service campaigns to the supporting aspects of national strength. Officers aspiring to attend would be required to submit a 5,000-word paper on any military subject, explaining its importance to today’s military.

The student body at the National War College would be comprised of a mix of military officers and civilian officials from other federal departments. Approximately a 50/50 split between military and civilian students seems appropriate for effective cross-fertilization of experiences and ideas. The thinking here is that war involves the total mobilization of the nation’s military, social, educational, financial, agricultural, manufacturing, transportation, scientific and judicial power.

The National War College at Ft. McNair would serve as the campus. The Industrial College at this campus would be folded in to the National War College.

The National War College curriculum would address our nuclear weapons employment doctrine and the strengths and weaknesses of our mobilization and prosecution of World War II. For example, students would find that the present peacetime draft registration does not clear the way for rapid force expansion. Rather, the limiting constraints are (1) the preparedness of the training base to absorb hundreds of thousands of recruits, and (2) constraints on the industrial base to provide platforms and weapons for mobilized divisions, ships and air wings.

The curriculum would also address intelligence, and how the nation’s spies consistently over-rated the capabilities of the Soviet Union’s military and the strength of the Soviet economy. Not for nothing was the Soviet economy described by one wag as “Upper Volta with rockets.”

The critical need for more honest and unbiased intelligence will be impressed on students to avoid unnecessarily militarizing the U.S. economy.

For military officers, only graduates of the National War College would be considered for command of various theaters (e.g., CENTCOM). As well, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would be a war college graduate.

Eagle General

About generals

In this revised career-building matrix, general officers would be limited to one per every 5,000 officers. Generals would not wear special uniforms. They would wear stars, but no other special identification (no extra-wide trouser stripes, badges or accoutrements).

In this scheme for officer selection and development, there would be no warrant officers. Those presently serving as warrant officers could revert to E-7 though E-9, or they could apply for augmentation as O-2s, or they could elect to retire (if eligible).

No billet presently deemed sacrosanct for officers would be immune from change. For instance, the notion that pilots must be officers would come under severe scrutiny as the military departments worked to achieve no more than 5% officer end-strength.

About medals

Badges and medals would be severely restricted, to accord the greatest visibility to demonstrated heroism in combat.

  • Medals currently handed out for participation in a campaign would be restricted to ribbons only.
  • The Good Conduct Medal (presently awarded only to enlisted service members) would be stricken; good conduct is a given.
  • The POW medal would be folded in to the Purple Heart. Although not a heroism award, the Purple Heart was founded by George Washington and ought to be continued.
  • Awards for superior staff work, such as the Meritorious Service Medal or the Legion of Merit, would be stricken.
  • The only medals authorized for wear would be the Bronze Star through and including the Medal of Honor, signifying laudatory performance in the face of an organized and determined foe.
  • Campaign ribbons would be worn above the right pocket. Valorous decorations would be worn in pride of place above the left pocket.
  • “Scrambled eggs” on the barracks cap (lightning bolts, oak leaves, etc.) would be restricted to officers of full colonel rank and above.


These ideas do not necessarily guarantee victory on the battlefield. However, at present, there is NO emphasis on this essential goal, either through the selection, education or grooming of officers.

Changing the role of the service academies is but one element of the wholesale adjustments needed to stem rank bloat and endemic parochial thinking among our officers. Quality of thinking and strength of character, not the overwhelming quantity of quite average officers, should be the guiding principles.


About the author

David Evans retired as a Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel. He was a nationally syndicated military affairs correspondent for the Chicago Tribune from 1987 to 1993, widely read for his detailed and hard-hitting coverage.

From 1995 – 2011 he was the editor-in-chief of Air Safety Week, a newsletter covering air safety and security issues.

An example of his work: “Vow to ‘Support Ground Troops’ Rings Hollow“, 10 May 2012.  With more journalists like him the prospects for military reform would burn brighter.

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)  For more about the importance of military education see Martin van Creveld’s Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance.

(b)  Posts about the US officer corps:

  1. About military leaders in the 21st century: “Theirs Is to Reason Why”.
  2. Preface to Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions.
  3. Training of officers, a key step for the forging of an effective military force.
  4. Dragging American Military Culture into the 21st Century.
  5. Leadership in action: when resource constraints meet conspicuous consumption, we just ignore the problem.
  6. Do we need so many and such well-paid generals and admirals? By Richard A Pawloski (Captain, USMC, retired).
  7. How officers adapt to life in the Pentagon: they choose the blue pill.
  8. Why does the military continue to grow? Because the tail wags the dog. By Danny Hundley (Colonel, USMC, retired).
  9. Overhauling The Officer Corps. By David Evans (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired).
  10. The cost of too many generals: paying more to get a less effective military.

(c)  About the skill and integrity of our senior military leaders:

  1. The Core Competence of America’s Military Leaders.
  2. The moral courage of our senior generals, or their lack of it.
  3. Careerism and Psychopathy in the US Military leadership, GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired).
  4. Rolling Stone releases Colonel Davis’ blockbuster report about Afghanistan – and our senior generals!.


4 thoughts on “Overhauling The Officer Corps to build a military that can win wars”

  1. Since the American military now resembles the Soviet GOSPLAN much more than a fighting force, it’s not clear that these suggestions (while mostly laudable) would be accepted by the Pentagon. As John Boyd remarked, “It is not true the Pentagon has no strategy. … The strategy is, don’t interrupt the money flow, add to it.” Colonel Evans talks about improving the Pentagon’s ability to fight and win wars, while the main goal of the Pentagon in 2015 is to slurp up more cash from the pig trough. Thus Col. Evans and the brass in the E-ring are really talking at cross-purposes.

    One point I question involves Col. Evans’ assertion: “Every person who aspires to the leadership ranks of an officer should demonstrate a willingness to first follow orders in the enlisted ranks.” This illustrates one of the most severe pathologies of the American military — namely, a mindless adoration of the chain of command. 3GW armies demonstrated that in order to fight and win battles in fluid military situations, enlisted men and lower-rank officers often had to take unprecedented initiative. Indeed, German military field exercises in the 1930s often required lower-ranking officers to disobey orders to accomplish the stated military objective.

    Such exercises would be unthinkable in today’s U.S. military. Indeed, today’s U.S. army now talks blithely about replacing 30% of their personnel with robots by 2030 — presumably in order to further rigidify the mindless chain of command in which lower-ranking officers become in effect automatons devoid of initiative. This bodes ill for a military faced with highly fluid 4GW.

  2. … and officers will be required always to show respect for their subordinates, and politicians will be prohibited from ever lying, and cotton candy will be served during all 15 minute breaks, and it won’t be called ‘cotton candy’, but instead ‘victory pops’ …

    1. Todd,

      I agree. My reply to these recommendations has always been to ask about implementation (we’re buried in ideas for reform).

      It is a subject of little interest to most Americans. The most frequent comment I used to get was “so what are your recommendations about how to do reforms?” I have written three score posts about these, among the lowest traffic posts of the three thousand on the FM website. We react to suggests about political effort like vampires shown garlic.

  3. Pingback: - My Sandbox Notes

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