Joint Chiefs Chairman Resists Calls to Cut Number of Top Brass

Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, receives a briefing on the torpedo system on board the USS Alaska at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Ga., on May 20. (DoD photo/D. Myles Cullen)
Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, receives a briefing on the torpedo system on board the USS Alaska at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Ga., on May 20. (DoD photo/D. Myles Cullen)

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford pushed back Friday at critics who think there are too many people like him -- generals and admirals -- taking up space in a downsizing military.

"No, right now it is not my sense that we have too many general officers," Dunford said in a wide-ranging interview with Breaking Defense.

Proposals in Congress to cut the number of general and flag officers are part of what's holding up passage of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017.

The White House recently cited a plan by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to cut the number of generals and admirals by 25 percent as one reason for a threatened veto.

Dunford appeared open to working out a compromise with McCain and others on the size of the general officer corps in coming years, while maintaining that the current number of generals and admirals was not excessive.

"We're still working with both the Senate Armed Services and House Armed Services Committees to come up with a proposal that meets their requirements for reform, right-sizes the force to include our general officer population, and at the same time allows us to maintain military effectiveness," Dunford said in the interview.

"So we're going to go back and look at this issue, and work with Senator McCain and others to make sure we get it right," Dunford said of the dispute over how many generals and admirals the military actually needs, which dates back to World War II.

For that war, there were about 2,000 generals and admirals overseeing 12.2 million military personnel by 1945, according to the National World War II Museum. Now there are more than 900 generals and admirals for an active-duty force of about 1.3 million.

As of June this year, there were 418 one stars, 315 two stars, 136 three stars, and 37 four-star active generals and admirals -- or a total of 906, according to Pentagon personnel statistics.

In May, the Senate Armed Services Committee charged that the military was becoming top heavy with high-ranking officers and proposed cutting 222 of the 886 generals and admirals, or about 25 percent.

The committee recommended that the number of four-star billets be reduced from the authorized 41 to 27. Under the proposal, four-star officers would be limited to the chairman, vice chairman and other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including the head of the National Guard Bureau.

Four-star rank under the committee's proposal would also go to combatant commanders; the commander of U.S. Forces-Korea; one additional billet the president could nominate as a four-star joint command (such as the current mission in Afghanistan); and three four-star billets each for the Army, Navy and Air Force, to be filled as they choose.

"Over the past 30 years, the end-strength of the joint force has decreased 38 percent, but the ratio of four-star officers to the overall force has increased by 65 percent," the committee said.

"Especially at a time of constrained defense budgets, the military services must right-size their officer corps and shift as many personnel as possible from staff functions to operational and other vital roles."

Defense secretaries in both Republican and Democratic administrations periodically call for reducing the ranks of the general officer corps, but their efforts have had minimal impact.

In 2011, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates put out a memo calling in part for "efficiencies that impact 140 of the Department's 952 general and flag officer positions," but nearly 900 remain in a smaller military.

In addition, the military keeps creating four-star billets out of what had traditionally been three-star commands. In 2013, the Defense Department turned U.S. Army Pacific, or USARPAC, into a four-star command from a three-star command for Gen. Vincent Brooks, now commander of U.S. Forces-Korea.

The issue of how many generals and admirals the military needs will have to be addressed as budgets and the overall size of the force continue to shrink, said Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense for personnel during the Reagan administration.

"We all know that overhead costs are eating us alive," said Korb, a military analyst at the Center for American Progress. "The idea that a colonel can't do the job of a one-star really doesn't make a great deal of sense."

As for the four-star billets, "it's not just a question of cutting the number -- it's a question of all the support they get" in aides, drivers and the like, Korb said.

"What McCain is trying to do is cut the overhead and this is one way to start, because once you do this, it has a ripple effect."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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