The U.S. military says it’s ready to reduce the number of its highest-ranking, highest-paid officers and rein in some of the perks that came with the positions during a decade of war spending.
The services are moving forward with a previously announced plan to cut at least 144 generals and admirals — nearly 15 percent — following a surge in the number of positions during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey.
Military services are already trimming troops and civilian employees while moving off a war footing, and the Department of Defense is under intense pressure to find savings due to automatic cuts imposed this year by Congress. Some lawmakers and experts have zeroed in on the military’s high-dollar leaders.
Though the DOD claimed money is not at the heart of the cuts, spending on officers has become excessive with the free flow of funds during wars, creating bad habits that need to be curbed, Dempsey said during a recent visit to Japan.
“We got in the habit of surrounding general officers with a level of support that was probably excessive in some ways,” he said.
The perks for generals and admirals include lavish quarters, personal jets, chefs, speech writers, security details, aids and schedulers.
“What’s it going to look like if somebody sees you staying in the Ritz-Carlton … for four days and doing one hour’s worth of work?” he said.
Cost has not been the military’s only problem. A series of scandals has rocked the services and called into question the ethics and character of some top officers.
Last year, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned the military to keep the brass in line after expense account abuse came to light by the general formerly in charge of U.S. Africa Command, adultery by retired Gen. David Petraeus, and accusations of rape and sexual abuse by Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, former deputy commander for support of the 82nd Airborne Division.
Dempsey said the behavior needs to be reined in as part of the personnel reduction and that generals and admirals will be subject to character review boards.
The DOD declined to discuss potential savings, but the cuts in officers could save the department hundreds of millions of dollars, according to some estimates. A reduction of 200 general and flag officers would bring the country back to Cold War staffing levels and could save $800 million over a decade, according to a paper on wasteful spending published last year by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
Coburn said the military had 2,000 generals and admirals overseeing 12 million troops at the close of World War II. Today, there are about 1,000 of the officers and fewer than 2 million U.S. servicemembers.
Ralph Cossa, a retired Air Force colonel and president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Pacific Forum in Hawaii, said reducing the number of generals makes sense alongside plans to cut thousands of other servicemembers.
The Army and Marine Corps are aiming to reduce their ranks by 100,000 troops and may shrink even more due to federal budget cuts.
Cossa said the military should not cut from the bottom of the ranks only.
“If you have a reduction in forces, you should also have a reduction in generals,” he said.
But Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a personnel and readiness spokesman for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, said that is not necessarily the case.
Improvements in technology have reduced the number of military personnel required for many missions but not reduced the need for generals and admirals, Christensen said.
“For example, the number of sailors comprising a strike group has reduced significantly as compared to a battle group of the 1990s,” he said. “Nevertheless … the magnitude of responsibilities inherent in the leadership of a strike group will always require an admiral.”