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Those at the top have stayed immune to the decades-long forces that have shrunk the fleet. But that is changing.
Under pressure to reduce bloat, the Navy’s top civilian OK’d a plan Aug. 20 to shelve 32 flag officer jobs over the next four years in a move that will drop the number of admirals and has lengthened the odds of making flag, the uppermost echelon of responsibility and prestige.
The overhaul will cut the number of flag officer billets to 151 by fiscal 2017 but it does not reduce four-star posts or the Pentagon’s joint billets, which have seen dramatic growth. The plan also downgrades the rank of many positions, which will take effect when the current jobholder leaves.
“These were tough, and I want to emphasize, tough, robust and spirited discussions,” said Adm. Mark Ferguson, vice chief of naval operations, of the yearlong billet review necessitated by Pentagon leaders and the realities of contracting budgets. In an Aug. 20 interview announcing the changes, Ferguson said that the most difficult decisions had been to shutter one submarine group, cut out one fleet job and drop the rank of a third.
Submarine Group 2, the Groton, Conn.-based overseer of attack submarines, will be disbanded. The 5th Fleet-based Expeditionary Strike Group 5 will be led by a Marine. And the Patrol and Reconnaissance Force in 5th and 7th fleets will be headed by a Navy captain.
The initiative is an attempt to reverse so-called “brass creep” — the bureaucracy’s tendency to amass admirals and one that critics say has gotten out of hand in the post-9/11 era. The tally of admirals has already dropped from its high-water mark of 257, set in 2010, but it is still a far cry from what it was at the end of the Cold War and the days of a much larger fleet.
In 1990, for example, there were 2,051 sailors for every admiral, a closely watched ratio used to assess organizational structure.
In 2013, there are 1,166 sailors for every admiral, nearly double the proportion. (That’s based on the current enlisted end strength and the Navy’s total of 227 admirals, as of Aug 21.)
Officials say the growth is largely the result of the increase in joint billets, which have been on the rise for decades and will not be addressed directly through the Navy’s restructuring.
Navy flags include those who serve with the Marine Corps, Ferguson stressed.
“We do all the medical care for the Marine Corps. ... We do all the chaplain support for the Marine Corps. We run a lot of the acquisition support, such as in aviation, for the Marine Corps,” Ferguson said in the interview in his Pentagon office. “So I think we had to balance the fact that we’re just not providing flag officers to the Navy, but we have all these other ancillary things we have to support for the Marines and for the broader department.”
Two years into its own initiative, the Pentagon has eliminated 34 joint billets and expects more positions to be cut after the Afghanistan withdrawal, a defense department spokesman said in an email.
By law, the Navy must provide at least 61 admirals for joint billets. Ferguson said he expects the number of flags serving in joint billets will decline, but made clear that these decisions will be set by the Pentagon and lawmakers.
“I would anticipate if there are 20 percent reductions levied as [Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel] has indicated, that there will be some reductions in the joint numbers,” Ferguson said.
Navy officials expect the flag cuts to save several million dollars a year in pay, benefits and staff costs; admirals will garner $38.7 million in basic pay alone this year, according to budget documents.
Each of the services has to cut its flag and general officer numbers over the next five years. The Navy’s plan will take effect for each billet once the officer in that position leaves or retires. Ferguson said the Navy expects to select six more cuts or downgrades next spring that will depend on the upcoming budget request.
A few positions fared well in the overhaul. The Navy upped the director of assessment’s division to a two-star and created a new two-star post for a deputy surgeon general.
The plan changed frequently during the development and briefing process over the past year. For example, a plan to lower the head of the Navy’s internal watchdog agency to two stars was ultimately rejected.
Officials said the final cuts signaled that Navy’s leadership was leading by example, with the chief of naval operation’s OPNAV bureaucracy at the front of the pack with 11 flag cuts and dropping one three-star billet to two stars, the highest level reduction.
“The single largest reduction that we did was on the CNO’s staff,” Ferguson said. “The secretary of the Navy removed one of his two flag officer billets.”