Jewish World Review Feb. 21, 2002 / 9 Adar, 5762

Jack Kelly

Jack Kelly
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Consumer Reports

Saving our military from itself -- A SIMPLE change in military retirement could make our armed forces more efficient and less expensive, while improving the lives of the troops.

Our military is the best in the world. But our armed forces suffer from bureaucratic bloat. We have too many officers, and the officers have too much grade.

Last November, there were 1,388,752 people in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, of which 216,488 (16.2 percent) were officers. Officers comprise 10.4 percent of the Marine Corps; 15.7 percent of the Army; 14.2 percent of the Navy, and 19.5 percent of the Air Force.

The Marines are considered to be the most efficient and warrior-like of our armed forces, so it is unsurprising the Corps has the fewest officers.

Army Major Donald Vandergriff, in a paper that duplicated earlier findings by the Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld, noted that "the historical percentages of tactically excellent ground forces have generally been in the range of 4 to 6 percent since the time of the Roman legions."

Just as the expansion of the number of professional sports teams dilutes the quality of play, a bloated officer corps diminishes the quality of leadership. But the larger problem is where superfluous officers serve.

Only half of Marine officers serve in the Fleet Marine Force. But that's better than in the Army, where only 45 percent of officers serve in combat, combat support, or combat service support units. In the Air Force, 63 percent of officers serve in the Air Expeditionary Forces. Most of the others are in headquarters, or in the training establishment.

We have many headquarters, with large staffs. In the U.S. military, 38 percent of officers are majors or above. There are more than 14 colonels in the infantry, armor and artillery branches of the Army for every brigade there is for them to command.

Too much staff is worse than a waste of money, if staff officers are conscientious. They spend too much time bugging those who actually hold command, and engaging in turf battles.

A study two years ago by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that only 36 percent of lieutenants and captains planned to make the Army a career, down from 52 percent the decade before.

Pentagon analyst Chuck Spinney thinks the reason was because "a growing number of junior officers are offended by an inflated rank structure that decreases professionalism, rewards incompetence, (and) creates demeaning busy work."

The retirement system may be the largest contributor to officer bloat. Under the old rules, a servicemember had to serve for 20 years to qualify for a pension, which accrued at the rate of 2.5 percent of basic pay per year. But 20 is too far away to help much with first or second term retention.

Retirement doesn't begin to exert its magic appeal until about the time it would be helpful if more officers left.

If we forced officers out of the service before their pensions vested, we'd be ruining their lives, and they don't deserve that. So we create staff jobs for them.

There is no problem so bad that Congress can't make worse. Congress made military retirement worse in 1986 when it reduced what a 20-year retiree would get, and rapidly increased the rise in pension benefits towards 30 years of service. This encouraged more superfluous field grade officers to stay around longer.

The right thing would be to reduce to 15 years the time a soldier must serve before earning a pension. This would spur first and second term retention, and cause a voluntary thinning of the force when we need it to be thinned.

A study the Air staff did when I was in the Air Force secretariat indicated a 15-30 retirement system (with a 2 percent multiplier to 15; 3 percent from 16 to 30), roughly would double the second career earnings of retirees, while reducing expenditures in the retirement account by more than 10 percent.

Greater savings could be achieved by putting an end to the bloat. Junior officers could be left in command positions longer, increasing their experience and the confidence their troops have in them. And they'd have fewer staff weenies peering over their shoulders.

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© 2002, Jack Kelly