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"Star creep" — an increase in flag and general officers at a time when the military as a whole is shrinking in size — is receiving attention from a key Senate panel, but there is no immediate indication that any specific actions will be taken.
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee's personnel panel, said he is studying historical trends to determine why senior ranks are growing but is not ready to do anything about it.
"This is not intended to be an adversarial hearing," he said Wednesday as defense and service officials appeared before him to discuss how needs are determined. "This is an area we are just beginning to get a look at."
But while Webb may not be ready to act, one witness said something is definitely amiss.
"The average general and admiral has nearly 500 fewer uniformed personnel under command today than in 1991," said Ben Freeman of the Project on Government Oversight, a federal watchdog group.
"This progression towards a more top-heavy force is not without consequences," he said. "The cost of officers increases markedly with their rank, so taxpayers are overpaying whenever a general or flag officer is in a position that could be filled by a lower-ranking officer."
The Defense Department's top personnel official, Clifford Stanley, said cuts are underway in the top ranks, but added that DoD intends to keep some cushion in that area in case emerging needs require quick changes in capabilities and commands.
A total of 103 positions will be eliminated, 50 in the next two years and the rest tied to reductions in overseas contingency operations, said Stanley, the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C, the subcommittee's ranking Republican, agreed that "this idea of a top-heavy force is something we should be concerned about." But Graham said he also has concerns that DoD is carrying too many senior civilians, which could warrant study of Senior Executive Service positions.
Some 964 flag and general officers are in the force today, down from 1,017 at the end of the Cold War. The total force, however, has dropped by 600,000, a much steeper decrease.
The 30-percent drop in the overall force against a 5-percent drop in flag and general officers has created what Freeman called "star creep." He endorsed Graham's idea of also studying growth in senior civilians.