The cost of too many generals: paying more to get a less effective military.

Summary: This chapter of our series about the US military’s officer corps examines what previous posts described as one of its crippling weaknesses — bloat. Having too many officers runs up the military’s cost while making it less effective. The data shown here should be dynamite blasting DoD from their comfortable niche into reforms. But nothing will happen unless people like you and I pressure them to reform.

“The commanders who lead the nation’s military services and those who oversee troops around the world enjoy an array of perquisites befitting a billionaire, including executive jets, palatial homes, drivers, security guards and aides to carry their bags, press their uniforms … Their food is prepared by gourmet chefs. If they want music with their dinner parties, their staff can summon a string quartet or a choir.” (Washington Post)

The Number of Officers per 100 enlisted personnel: 1901-2013

The Number of Officers per 100 enlisted: 1901-2013
Star Creep“, Third Way, 7 January 2013.


  1. About our bloated roster of generals.
  2. We can’t win wars, but our generals have prospered.
  3. Comparing our Army to successful & unsuccessful armies of the past.
  4. Other posts in this series about our officer corps.
  5. For More Information

(1)  About our  bloated roster of senior officers.

Too many officers makes promotion slow, forces the expansion of busywork, slows the organizations ability to learn and act, runs up its cost, and inflects many other kinds of damage. The latest in the long list of reports documenting this self-inflicted damage is by Third Way: “Star Creep: The Costs of a Top-Heavy Military“, Ben Freeman, 7 January 2013. Opening:

A top-heavy military undermines military effectiveness because it slows decision-making, impairs adaptability, and funnels resources from the warfighter to administrative personnel. Troops on the battlefield succeed despite these layers, not because of them.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates often bemoaned the DoD’s top-heavy and bloated bureaucracy. He once complained, “In some cases the gap between me and an action officer may be as high as 30 layers,” and this results in a “bureaucracy which has the fine motor skills of a dinosaur.”

And we have so many generals and admirals:

Percent Change in the Number of Active Duty Military by Rank from 2001-2013
Percent Change in the Number of Active Duty Military by Rank from 2001-2013
Star Creep“, Third Way, 7 January 2013.

(2)  We can’t win wars, but our generals have prospered.

Excerpt from “General and Flag Officer Requirements”, the testimony of Ben Freeman (Project on Government Oversight) before the Senate Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Personnel, 14 September 2011:

Since World War II ended, the number of general or flag officers per uniformed personnel has been increasing — reaching an all-time high in 2010 of nearly 7 general and flag officers per every 10,000 uniformed personnel. This is an increase of more than 0.5 a general or flag officer per 10,000 uniformed personnel than when the war in Afghanistan began; 1.5 more than when the Cold War ended; and 5 more than when World War II ended, as Figure 1 shows.

There has been a fairly constant increase in the ratio of general and flag officers compared to all other uniformed personnel since the end of the Cold War, even though the military underwent a contraction during the 1990s and an expansion following the onset of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As of April 2011, there were 964 general and flag officers. By comparison, at the end of the Cold War the U.S. had 1,017 general and flag officers. Thus, there has only been a nominal decrease in general and flag officers even though the number of active duty uniformed personnel has decreased by roughly 28%, the Air Force flies 35% fewer planes, and the Navy has 46% fewer ships in its fleet. In sum, the number of general and flag officers has barely fallen despite double-digit percentage drops in the size of the forces they command.

This trend towards a top-heavy force structure continued during the post-Cold War drawdown from 1991 to 2001. During this time period, the DoD cut just over 600,000 uniformed personnel — a decline of approximately 30% — but only 146 general and flag officer positions were eliminated — a decline of less than 15%. Thus, the remaining general and flag officers were responsible for commanding far fewer personnel when the war in Afghanistan.


The increase in the very top brass — 3- and 4-star officers — further illustrates star creep within the DoD. The number of 3- and 4-star general and flag officers has increased since the Cold War ended, as depicted in Figure 3. In 1991, there were 157 3- and 4-stars. By April 2011 they had swollen to 194—an increase of 24%. We have more 3- and 4-stars now that at any point since the Cold War ended. Since 1991, no DoD personnel group has grown at a faster rate. From 1991 through April 2011, officer ranks shrank by more than 56,000 (19%) and enlisted personnel decreased by nearly half a million (30%).

… The rise of the top brass during the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan compared to other DoD personnel is noteworthy. From 2001 to 2011 the number of officers per 3- and 4-star general or flag officers dropped by 172 and the number of enlisted personnel per 3- and 4-star officer dropped by 1,253.

… The rise of the top brass during the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan compared to other DoD personnel is noteworthy. From 2001 to 2011 the number of officers per 3- and 4-star general or flag officers dropped by 172 and the number of enlisted personnel per 3- and 4-star officer dropped by 1,253.

Figure 5 compares the growth of 3- and 4-star officers to other categories of military personnel. The 3- and 4-star ranks have increased twice as fast as 1- and 2-star general and flag officers, 3X as fast as the increase in all officers, and almost 10x as fast as the increase in enlisted personnel. If you imagine it visually, the shape of U.S. military personnel has shifted from looking like a pyramid to beginning to look more like a skyscraper (i.e. higher ranks having fewer lower ranking personnel under them rather than more).


While star creep is the general trend across the military, there have been considerable and counterintuitive variances across the services since September 2001. Figure 6 tracks the number of general and flag officers per 10,000 uniformed personnel in each branch of the military from September 2001 to April 2011.  The Marines have the fewest generals and are also the leanest force (but still top heavy compared to historical Marine force compositions), averaging just over 4 generals for every 10,000 uniformed personnel.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Air Force is the most top-heavy branch with almost 10 generals for every 10,000 airmen. In other words, the Air Force is 2.5X as top-heavy as the Marines, and in absolute terms they have more than 3X as many generals as the Marines. With 312 general officers, the Air Force is tied with the Army for most general and flag officers of any service, even though the Air Force has approximately 237,000 fewer uniformed personnel than the Army.


For taxpayers concerned with an ever-expanding DoD budget, star creep adds to DoD costs. This is due in large degree to the costs that that surround general and flag officers, such as staff, contractors, and travel, which tends to increase significantly with higher ranks.

… The direct compensation cost of officers also increases with their rank. In just basic pay, when a colonel (Navy captain) with over 20 years experience becomes a brigadier general (rear admiral – lower half), their pay jumps from $110,674 to $138,488, an increase of more than $27,000 per year.30 Costs increase further when other parts of an officer’s compensation package are included, such as allowances for subsistence, housing, and tax benefits. A major general (rear admiral) with 30 years of service and a family of four receives a compensation package worth more than $206,000 annually, and if they are promoted to a three-star lieutenant general (vice admiral) their compensation package increases to over $225,000.

——————— End excerpt ———————

(3)  Compare the US Army to successful & unsuccessful armies of the past

These slides are from a PowerPoint presentation by Donald E. Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired) about Officer Manning: Armies of the past.  He makes a powerful case that larger ratios of officers to enlisted ranks makes an army more effective.  That’s unfortunate, for since WWII our military has gone the other direction.  Click on these to enlarge.

(4)  Other posts in this series about our officer corps

  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”.

(5)  For More Information

(a)  Articles about our dysfunctional officers corps:

  1. Officer Inflation: Its Cost to the Taxpayer and to Military Effectiveness“, Project on Military Procurement, October 1987.
  2. More Brass, More Bucks: Officer Inflation in Today’s Military“, Project On Government Oversight, 1 March 1998.
  3. General and Flag Officer Authorizations for the Active and Reserve Components: a Comparative and Historical Analysis“, Library of Congress, December 2007.
  4. Petraeus scandal puts four-star general lifestyle under scrutiny“, Washington Post, 17 November 2012.

(b)  Government Reports:

  1. General and Flag Officer Requirements Are Unclear Based on DOD’s 2003 Report to Congress, Government Accounting Office, April 2004.
  2. DOD Could Make Greater Use of Existing Legislative Authority to Manage General and Flag Officer Careers, Government Accounting Office, 23 September 2004.
  3. Post-Government Employment of Former DOD Officials Needs Greater Transparency, 21 May 2008.
  4. DOD Needs to Periodically Review and Improve Visibility Of Combatant Commands’ Resources“, GAO, 15 May 2013.
  5. Star Creep: The Costs of a Top-Heavy Military“, Ben Freeman, third way, 7 January 2013.
  6. DOD Needs to Update General and Flag Officer Requirements and Improve Availability of Associated Costs“, GAO, September 2014.

(c)  If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information about this vital issue see other posts about our military leaders, and especially these posts…

  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. Do we need so many and such well-paid generals and admirals? By Richard A Pawloski (Captain, USMC, retired).
  5. How officers adapt to life in the Pentagon: they choose the blue pill.
  6. Why does the military continue to grow? Because the tail wags the dog. By Danny Hundley (Colonel, USMC, retired).
  7. Overhauling The Officer Corps. By David Evans (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired).


5 thoughts on “The cost of too many generals: paying more to get a less effective military.”

  1. Top-heaviness is a very common trait of Western military organizations. The UK has had more admirals than warships for years already (if you are ready to put admirals in charge of tugboats, then the Royal Navy still has more ships than admirals, though), and the multiple and generous perquisites granted to plethoric generals in various European armies provide fodder for outrage from time to time.

    It would be interesting to have figures in the following cases:

    a) Militia armies (e.g. Finland, Switzerland); traditionally plenty of citizen soldiers, but very few professional officers. In fact, people try to avoid becoming officers, and if they have to, try not to get promoted (which implies spending ever more time in the military as one rises through the ranks, which may be detrimental to the actual civilian career).

    b) Organizations like Al-Qaeda, ISIL or the Talibans; I remember a time where the US was regularly announcing having killed the nr.3 Taliban, which prompted jokes in the blogosphere as to how many nr.3 there were, or about why the nr.2 was always bypassed.

    1. Guest,

      All good points! Chapter 2 in this series opened with an excerpt from C. Northcote Parkinson’s 1955 article describing his law — drawn in part on data for the UK Navy.

      I suspect the comparisons you mention would prove problematic. Armies with large reserve structures often have top-heavy active duty structures. Enlisted and company grade officers can easily be reservists, but that works less well at higher ranks.

      As for irregular forces, they often have different requirements. Often no NCO’s, with officers taking those duties. Or a cell structure, which requires a high number of officers. And the enlisted-officer distinction itself is part of the conventional structure. Mao’s “route armies” had a very different concept of officer, aspects of which Lt Col Evan Carlson attempted to introduce to the USMC via the Raiders.

  2. please allow me to explain something. Sorry if this is long, but it is important. Having a bloated officer corps is a VERY VERY good thing.

    As a general rule, smaller armies tend to loose wars to larger armies.

    Therefore When a war starts, we increase the size of our Army and Navy. This can be a little tricky.

    First it means we need more units and ships.

    This requires re-tooling and expansions and hiring at weapons production plants and shipyards. It can be accomplished in a few months and is not difficult for the government.

    Second more units and ships require men be drafted and trained to be in those units and crew the ships. If the military has everything ready to go, it can take a kid off the street and have him minimally qualified to fight in about 6 to 8 months.

    You will also need people to LEAD and COMMAND those units and shps.

    You can grab the more responsible and intelligent kids from this group and make them junior Non-Commissioned Officers.

    A minimally competent Junior Officer can be produced in a similar amount of time. During WW2 they did it in three months,now it takes a bit longer…/Officer_Candidate_School…)

    Senior officers though are where it get REALLY tricky. Senor commanders you simply can not produce overnight. It requires to many skills, to much knowledge, to much experience.…/promo…/l/blofficerprom.htm

    It takes 18 months time in service before a 2nd LT can be promoted to 1st Lieutenant. It takes between 2 – 4 years of military service before you can be promoted to Captain. It takes about 10 years before you can be promoted to Major. Like the junior enlisted ranks, in wartime this can be sped up a bit (if you saw Band of Brothers you know this). However this leads to mixed results (which you also know if you saw Band of Brothers) that can get good people killed.

    In peacetime, to make a Colonel, it takes 22 years. Again some corners can be cut, but you really can’t be a good colonel unless you’ve actually done the jobs that your subordinate officers are doing. Trust me, during the Civil War we had guys going straight from civilian to Colonel or General. Normally it did not end well… as in they did stupid things and lots of enlisted men got killed for no reason.

    So what you do in peacetime is keep a lot of spare generals and admirals around. You have them doing staff work, or anything else you can do. It looks unnecessary at the time, often times it is, but that doesn’t matter.

    You also keep spare Colonels, because today’s Colonels will be the Generals of the 2020’s and 2030s. ALL the Generals that will be available to the US Military in 2035 are currently Colonels today.

    Same is true for Majors, Captains, etc. IF come 2040 the 135 Airborne Division will be executing a combat drop somewhere in Central China, whomever is going to be in command of the 135th on that day, is currently a Major in the US Army at this very moment.

    What you are really paying them for is to be ready so that if and when the balloon goes up for real, they will be available to command all those new ships, fleets, armored divisions, airborne brigades, etc. that you will be slapping together during the first year of the war.

    THAT is why you want and need to have a “top heavy rank structure” in peacetime. Otherwise your armies wind up being commanded by guys like Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro (Google them), and that is WAY more expensive.

    1. Brenden,

      A bit odd by your reasoning that we won WW2 without having that bloat of colonels hanging around in the 1930s. In fact we had a tiny army in the 1930s, yet managed to grow fast and effectively.

      Also, is a repeat of WW2 a likely scenario? Especially a sudden one, without years to gear up? Almost everybody who has thought about this since 1960 says no, a large scale war between nuclear powers is VERY likely to go nuclear, for obvious reasons.

      So we should keep a force structure that loses wars — as ours has for almost 60 years — to prepare for the past to repeat, however unlikely? When that preparation is not needed even in that unlikely scenario?

      Very odd logic. But got to love citing Band of Brothers as evidence!

  3. 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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