Tenure Flag Officers

     Most servicemen agree the US military has too many Generals and Admirals, collectively referred to as "flag officers".  Does the US military need 919 active duty flag officers serving the equivalent role of corporate vice presidents?  That's one flag officer for every 1536 servicemen.  Since the 9-11 terror attack, the Pentagon has added 4 additional four-star flag officers, 23 extra three-stars, 5 extra two-stars, and 12 extra one-stars. We have as many flags officers commanding the 1.4 million GIs today as we had during World War II when 12 million were in uniform!

Active Duty Flag Officers
as of
Feb 28, 2009
Marine Corps
Air Force 
TOTAL ACTIVE MANPOWER 549,153 331,768 201,031 329,980 1,411,932
GIs per FLAG OFFICER 1783 1442    2422 1107 1536

     This is a complex issue mostly driven by overlapping headquarters.  Therefore, this proposal will focus on better career management of flag officers in the US military, with four recommendations for legislative change.

1. Each Armed Service will produce an annual report with the specific title and role of each flag officer, including the number of personnel that officer commands and the annual budget he oversees.

    Congress currently allows each service a fixed number of officers for each grade, so the validity of numbers like "152 one-star Army Generals" is questionable.  No corporation has an arbitrary number of vice presidents.  The Department of Defense needs to review the role of each "vice president" and produce valid rationale, which can be compared and debated.  For example, why is the head of Navy nuclear power a four-star Admiral?  The four-star grade should be limited to members of the Joint Chiefs and Commanders of the Unified Commands, which would total 16 rather than 38 today.  While the Armed Services may consider this annual report a burden, this is information they should prepare and review themselves.

2. The sense of Congress is that flag officers should spend at least three years in each position.  Therefore, the Department of Defense will provide an annual report with a detailed explanation as to why any flag officer was reassigned within three years.

     Undersecretary of Defense David Chu told the US Congress in March 2003 that "...chief executive officers of a business serve an average of eight years on the job.  In contrast, the average tour length for the military senior leadership is between 22 and 31 months."  Congressmen have noted that commanders at bases in their states or district seem to change every year, which causes confusion.  Most have concluded that frequent transfers cause confusion throughout the US military.  

      Congress could mandate three-year minimum assignments for flag officers, but our military needs the flexibility to immediately transfer officers.  However, a reporting requirement will remind the armed services that Congress is watching to ensure premature transfers are rare. Therefore, service chiefs will avoid early transfers since they do not welcome public review of questionable games of musical chairs.  For example, a few years back the Marine Corps selected its first three-star female General.  Not to be outdone, the Navy quickly selected its first female three-star Admiral, who had just been promoted two months prior.  She must have been quite impressive during her two-months as a two-star Admiral to warrant that quick promotion.       

     Politically favored "golden boys" will also become evident.  For example, Generals like Colin Powell spent just a few months in charge of key commands to appear qualified for nomination as Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs.  Even though Powell proved competent, frequent changes of command disrupt the effectiveness of military units.  This proposal will not prevent political games, but will discourage them.  Congressmen accept that urgent reassignments are necessary at times, but will ask questions if weak excuses for dozens of premature transfers appear in the annual report.  A requirement for this annual report will be a minor burden, and should be since it will encourage command stability.  Ideally, the annual report will simply state that no flag officer was transferred during the year without having served three years.

3. Flag officers cannot be forced to retire until age 62, except for disability or misconduct.

     Fewer than 1% of career officers are promoted to flag officer.  However, once that lofty goal has been reached at around age 48, almost half of these O-7s are not selected for O-8 and forced to retire around age 52.  Then, the half promoted to O-8 fail promotion and are forced out four years later.  So it's no surprise that flag officers are fearful to upset anyone and often retire to accept jobs with defense contractors.  They love the military and status as a flag officer, but this position is usually temporary. While Donald Rumsfeld headed the Department of Defense in his 70s, flag officers his children's age were forcibly retired because of "the system".

     The solution is to allow all flag officers to serve until age 62. This is already the case for four-star flag officers, so why not one-star officers?  Why has age made it necessary for a one-star in charge of a recruit training base to retire at age 52, while the Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs can serve until age 62?  Flag officers were selected as the top 1% of career officers, so why are most involuntarily retired in their mid-50s?  If political leaders are unhappy with the quality of flag officers, they should not treat the symptom and retire them, but treat the disease by improving the selection process for promotion to 0-7.

     Allowing all flag officers to serve until age 62 will make them "tenured" just like university professors.  Once promoted to O-7 at around 48 years of age, flag officers will be assured a full career.  This will allow them to voice their honest opinions without fear that someone will retire them. They can disagree with more senior officers, political appointees, and Congressmen without fear of instant retirement.  Of course they may not be promoted again, but life as an 0-7 until age 62 is nice.  This will allow flag officers to focus on their mission without worries about post-retirement plans or passing bad news upward. 

     In addition, this will allow better management of major procurement programs. Currently, those flag officers in charge transfer every couple years to gain wider experience to qualify for promotion, or they may get promoted or fail promotion.  With a full career system, the Air Force can offer the two-star position as program manager for the F-35 to a fighter pilot with the understanding it will be a "career ender", meaning the Air Force expects him to spend his last eight or so years in that position until retirement at age 62.  In many other fields, flag officers will develop an interest in a project and prefer to stay in that position for years to ensure success.

4. The highest permanent grade will be O-7 as of October 1, 20XX.  Officers may assume higher temporary grades automatically with the position filled.

     One problem with proposal #3 is that political leaders and service chiefs would lack flexibility with flag officer assignments if all can remain until age 62.  If a four-star officer is not doing well, there are few other slots to move him.  It may also be difficult to promote promising young officers to key positions.  The solution is to allow flag officers to be "demoted" by moving them to less prominent positions.  This is possible if all flag officers remain O-7s and wear stars depending on their assignment, clearly defined each year by recommendation #1.  This simplifies paperwork, eliminates the odd "frocking" game, eliminates time-in-grade retirement problems, and reduces political games.

     The Senate must still approve promotions to O-7, and should retain the right to approve four-star assignments.  However, the pressure game played by Senators to deny promotions to officers who fail to heed their demands causes turmoil.  Careers of distinguished officers are often ruined because a single Senator is unhappy with the outcome of a contract, investigation, or action, so they personally block their promotion to O-8, O-9, or O-10.  However, if flag officers remain O-7s, promotions cannot be blocked. This proposal will allow a flag officer to be "demoted" by moving him to a lower position to appease a powerful Congressmen or political group.  While this should be uncommon, it is far better than the current practice of forcing flag officers to retire.  A few years after the political storm has passed, he may be quietly moved to a higher position and wear more stars.       

     This will be the most radical change, yet one flag officers should support.  This eliminates promotion boards for O-8, O-9, and O-10 and allows tremendous flexibility.  Promotion boards will be replaced by "Assignment Boards" that keep tabs on flag officer preferences and match each flag officer's experience with service needs.  It will not be uncommon for flag officers to seek positions which interest them even if requires a "demotion".  This is not allowed today, so many senior flag officers retire because they are unhappy with their assignment.

     Flag officers may submit a specific list of preferences.  This already happens informally today, however, the inability to "demote" officers limits flexibility.  During the Korean War, Marine Corps Commandant General Clifford Cates finished the standard four-year tour as top Marine, yet chose to remain on active duty and revert to three-stars in order to command Marine Corps schools in Quantico.  Allowing flag officers to move up, down, or over to where they can serve best will greatly improve the US military.  Moreover, providing flag officers "tenure", will provide them with the same political protection as university professors.

                                                     Carlton Meyer  editorG2mil@Gmail.com

2009 www.G2mil.com


Military Personnel: General and Flag Officer Requirements Are Uncertain
Based on DOD's 2003 Report to Congress. GAO-04-488, April 21, 2004.