Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, U.S. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of the Air Force, Michael B. Donley, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, Air Force Gen. Mark A. Welsh III and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, James A. Roy arrive at the Air Force Chief of Staff Transition Ceremony where Welsh succeeded Schwartz as the 20th Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Joint Base Andrews, Md., August 10, 2012. (DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley)

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has been pushing for the past few months a narrative holding that the military services have too many flag officers — specifically too many four-star staff billets — and that this reality is both expensive and counterproductive.

This makes him the second defense chief to take aim at this particular issue in recent years. Robert S. Gates openly lamented what he saw as a culture of corporate extravagance amongst the services, with too many generals and admirals tended by bloated coteries of executive assistants, chefs, maids, musicians, speechwriters, and groundskeepers, all hauled around the globe aboard a fleet of exorbitantly appointed private jets fueled from a bottomless well of taxpayer largesse.

Ultimately, Gates’ best efforts didn’t put much so much as a dent in the problem. In the few years since he championed a policy to reduce flag officer bloat, the overall size of each military service has declined sharply while the number of flag officers has stayed basically the same, resulting in an even more top-heavy ratio of generals-to-troops than before.

Nowhere is this top-heaviness more grossly evident than in the Air Force, which is not only smaller than ever before, but has a greater proportion of generals to everyone else than at any point in its 70-year history. To many observers, it’s little shock that this imbalance coincides with the rise of crippling micromanagement, seemingly unbreakable bureaucratic inertia, and policy choices that don’t make any sense to ordinary airmen doing the service’s daily work.

In the last three years, the Air Force has slashed 20,000 airmen from the ranks, leaving itself critically understaffed in every career major area. In that same time, it has trimmed just 9 generals. Or to put it differently, for every 2,200 airmen given their walking papers, a solitary general has been gently tucked into a comfortable retirement.

If the argument for more generals is that their intellect and experience are important to organizational problem solving, their inability to solve the manning problem despite flashing red warnings of its impending arrival is an indictment of that notion. 

Here are some interesting numbers that help demonstrate the extreme imbalance between senior leaders and all others in today’s Air Force.

In 1952, at the height of the Korean War, the then-youthful Air Force had 320 generals overseeing a service of nearly one million airmen. This was the high-water mark for scope of responsibility, with one general for roughly every 3,000 of the rank and file. Over the course of the following four decades, that ratio would decrease to about one general for every 2,000 airmen … as the service got smaller but inherited more missions, plans, and obligations requiring managerial oversight.

Goldwater-Nichols reform, passed in 1986, created a new bundle of joint organizations, growing the senior ranks even as the services got lighter and leaner overall. This drove the ratio of generals to airmen even lower. This seemed to make sense to defense experts at the time, given the increasingly complex and coordination-intensive character of modern warfare.

In 1991, as the service masterfully executed the decisive air campaign of the first Gulf War (a campaign notably hatched by a Colonel and his staff rather than a general officer), the Air Force was half the size it had been in 1952, but with the same number of general officers. Span of control had been halved, with one general for every 1,576 airmen.

This is worth noting, because it’s the last time anyone can recall the Air Force being in great health as an organization, with a stable value system, appropriately aligned incentives, and a strong focus on core competencies. In the quarter century since, the service has been on a continual trajectory of organizational decline that has accelerated toward collapse in recent years. In that span of time, the Air Force has decreased in size by 200,000 airmen … while reducing by only 25 generals.

As a result, there are today only 1,038 airmen for each general officer serving on active duty, according to numbers provided by the Air Force Personnel Center. This is 34% less span of control than during Desert Storm and one-third that enjoyed by senior officers during the Korean War, the service’s first war fought as an independent institution.

For today’s Air Force to give generals as much span of control as they were given during the first Gulf War, the service would require an end strength of nearly 470,000 airmen. Alternatively, the service would need to rid itself of 101 general officers.

Think about that for a second. We have 101 too many generals. And this is under a relatively charitable analysis that endorses a 1991 “modern warfare” organizational structure rather than a more traditional 1952 model that expected generals to exercise big power broadly and and across a wide expanse.

This bloat explains so much. It explains inordinately complicated organizational structures that have multiple chains of command running to and from individual bases, with multiple wing commanders on the same base answering upward to generals operating from different headquarters. This is dumb beyond belief, and it causes myriad issues for airmen trying to get the job done.

It explains why bases are constantly playing host an endless string of self-important visitors who consider themselves entitled to tour facilities and operations while being fussed over by honor guards and base leaders.

It explains the stubborn persistence of frills like bands, show choirs, demonstration teams, professionally produced ad campaigns, star-studded conferences and symposia, executive officers, aides-de-camp, and huge staffs. It also explains the existence of a fleet of private jets larger than the entire air forces of several developed nations.

It explains the politicization and political correctness of the contemporary Air Force, given that generals are political beings, and having an overabundance of them allows each to push politically-driven policies further down the scale than otherwise.

But most of all, it explains the organizational dysfunction that grips the Air Force. “Decentralized execution” is a punchline these days, because it’s impossible for lowly senior NCOs and squadron commanders to move an operational inch without constantly reporting their progress and receiving direction from several thousand miles away. Generals are immersed inappropriately in tactical minutiae, which makes sense on some level given that competition for actual strategic-level issues is overcrowded by the presence of too many stars on too many staffs. In default of being able to focus on issues suited to their rank, generals look for ways to exert themselves, and field units pay the price.

The generals and senior civilians of the Air Force have built themselves into a situation where they have the capacity to invent more work than can possibly be absorbed by the understaffed and overworked organizations they’re supposedly supporting. Given that most of them have been away from the field for a long time, they also usually lack the perspective to realize the impact of their actions. This is a manufactured organizational disaster for units in the field.

This isn’t really about individual indiscipline or ego, although these things can make the problem worse anecdotally. It’s about the reality that how an organization is structured will largely determine how it behaves. Generals are experienced, educated, and accomplished. They are given status, prestige, and latitude to exert themselves to advance the Air Force. They’re not going to sit on their hands and defer that responsibility to others. They’re going to find an outlet for the considerable energy and expertise they bring to their role. In short, they’re going to justify their jobs. This makes it predictable that having too many of them will overload everyone else.

How do they do justify their jobs? Well, they get involved in operations or functions well below their level, over-handling things best left in the capable hands of the rank and file. They conduct visits. They hold meetings. They hold teleconferences. They send emails. They invent and attend in-person conferences and workshops. They invent rules and put policies in place. They sign off on rules and policies invented by others. They ask questions, monitor, and verify what’s going on in their organizations. They exercise legal power. They soak in the limelight of a hard-earned place on the senior management team, enjoying the trappings of status that no one has questioned in a long time.

In short, they exercise positional authority, and do so maximally rather than modestly. Which is why having too many generals results in a gross imbalance of authority across the structure of the Air Force, with too much of the service’s fate tied to formal edicts from on high and not enough flowing from the exercise of expertise-driven authority in the middle ranks.

There’s only so much authority to go around … so much power and decision making that can be absorbed by those doing the actual work. When too much of this power is burglarized by administrators, not enough remains for bona fide supervisors. This is the heart of the USAF’s organizational malady, which persists because of structure more than any other particular reason. It explains why Captains and Lieutenant Colonels are frustrated, why NCOs have forgotten how to lead, and why senior enlisted managers struggle to enforce a panoply of unnecessary and often inexplicably idiotic rules and policies. Things that sounded great in a swivel chair at a staff headquarters but make no sense anywhere in the real world.

Now throw in the fact that airmen are more deferential to rank than they should be … and add to that the fact that the service is currently locked into a no-mistake culture that ends careers over style differences … and it’s not difficult to comprehend how the bloat of generals has led to the slow-motion strangulation of morale and productivity among everyone else.

Secretary Carter is onto something, but his proposals don’t go nearly far enough. The way we should be looking at this as a military establishment is by asking what we expect of our most senior leaders and working backward from that target to a structure that makes sense. The current structure most decidedly doesn’t.

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