After Thanksgiving, waistlines aren’t the only things that are bloated–the Pentagon’s top ranks are fattening at an alarming rate.

Despite a plan set forth by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to rein in the Department of Defense’s (DoD) increasingly top-heavy force and assurances from Pentagon personnel that these plans were being enacted, the U.S. military is still adding top brass faster than you can say tryptophan.

In September, I testified before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel about the military becoming increasingly top-heavy as a result of growth in the proportion of general and flag officers at the Pentagon. This trend, which we at POGO dubbed Star Creep, is costly to taxpayers who have to foot the large bill for every new general and admiral. It also hinders military effectiveness by leading to what Gates referred to as a “bureaucracy which has the fine motor skills of a dinosaur.”

My fellow witnesses at the hearing—several generals and admirals as well as former Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Clifford Stanley—assured the concerned Committee that they had everything under control. They cited Gates’ Efficiency Initiatives, which purportedly eliminate 102 general and flag officer positions, as evidence of the DoD’s commitment to combating Star Creep. Stanley confirmed to Chairman Jim Webb (D-VA) that Gates’ successor—Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta—supported these efforts and, “has accepted the policies and the things put in place by his predecessor.” (Stanley tendered his notice of resignation in late October.)

What Senator Webb and I did not know at the time—and perhaps Stanley did—was that Gates’ initiative to cut general and flag officers had already come to a screeching halt. Data that were released recently on the DoD personnel office’s website tell the tale.

New personnel data

When POGO began its analysis of Star Creep, the most recent data available to the public were from April 2011. Thus, when I presented Chairman Webb our recommendation that Secretary Panetta work to fully enact Gates’ Efficiency Initiatives to combat Star Creep and heard the other witnesses declare their support for the initiatives, I had no way of knowing that the DoD had already completely reversed course on Gates’ efforts.

Seventeen general and flag officers were scheduled to be eliminated between May and September through Gates’ Efficiency Initiatives. But the DoD didn’t reduce its top brass at all. Instead, six generals were added from May to September, increasing the number of general and flag officers from 964 to 970.

Moreover, from July 1, 2011 — Panetta’s first day as Secretary of Defense — to September 30, the Pentagon added three four-star officers. Coincidentally, this is precisely the number of four-star officers Gates cut during his final year as SecDef, from June 2010 to the end of June 2011. Thus, in just three months, Panetta undid a year’s worth of Gates’ attempts to cut the Pentagon’s very top brass. It’s doubtful that Gates would consider Panetta’s current rate of adding a new four-star officer every month conducive to efficiency.

One of these new four-star officers is Admiral Mark Ferguson, who became vice chief of naval operations and consequently a four-star admiral less than a month before he testified at Senator Webb’s hearing. Ironically, this beneficiary of Star Creep wrote in his prepared statement that the “Navy supports these efficiency actions and anticipates additional review to reduce or merge flag officer positions.”

At the hearing he expanded upon this, stating that “We [the Navy] remain absolutely committed to create a more agile, flexible, and effective flag officer staff structure.”

Apparently, this support and commitment to flag officer efficiencies includes adding admirals.
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