Army Has Major Deficit
Robert Kaplan often refers to the “Iron Majors,” the mid-career officers who have chosen the Army as a career and serve in its key staff positions. Ann Scott Tyson reports that we’re running low.
The Army’s growth plans and the demands of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are contributing to a shortfall of thousands of majors, critical mid-level officers whose ranks are not expected to be replenished for five years, according to Army data and a recent officers survey.
Majors plan and direct day-to-day military operations for Army battalions, the units primarily responsible for waging the counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Throughout the Army, majors fill key roles as senior staff members, putting together war plans, managing personnel and coordinating logistics.
The gap in majors represents about half of the Army’s current shortage of more than 4,000 officers, and officials say there are no easy solutions to the deficit. “We need more officers, and we are pulling every lever we can,” said Col. Paul Aswell, chief of the Army’s personnel division for officers.
The Army’s plan to expand its ranks by 65,000 active-duty soldiers by 2012 — to a total active-duty force of 547,000 — is increasing the service’s demand for captains and majors. The Army is currently about 15 percent short of its goal of 15,700 majors, and the gap is expected to surpass 20 percent in 2012, according to Army data.
An officer pins on the gold oak leaves of a major somewhere around the 11th year of service. By that point, he’s past the point of no return and is highly unlikely to resign from the service until he’s eligible to retire after 20 years. So, yes, that’s always the critical part of a career.
I was part of the 1988 year group (i.e., those commissioned as 2nd lieutenants in 1988) which, along with the 1989 and 1990 groups, were heavily cut during the post-Cold War drawdown. Indeed, those groups faced shortages at major when their turn came in the late 1990s because the Army cut too deep a decade earlier and many young officers resigned on their own to take advantage of a booming economy or out of distaste for routine peacekeeping deployments.
Those serving as or coming up for promotion to major now got commissioned in the mid- to late-1990s, which means they came in expecting to serve in a peacetime military but to do some peacekeeping or stabilization duty from time-to-time. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, obviously, changed that for those who stayed on active duty beyond their initial tour of duty.
Those who will come up for major in 2011 and 2012 will be mostly those who started their commissioning programs before the 9/11 attacks and got commissioned right as the War on Terror was about to kick off. They’ve therefore spent their entire careers either deployed to war or with that imminent possibility a routine part of their careers. It’s not surprising, then, that some sizable number decided another line of work might be a better choice.
But here’s the thing: There’s no evidence that this is happening in droves. Indeed, most of those captains got out as soon as they were eligible. Strange as it might seem, officers — and enlisted soldiers — who serve in combat zones continue their careers at a higher rate than their non-deployed peers.
The Army says its data do not currently show majors or other officers leaving the force at accelerated rates. “Our loss rates are fairly stable, and the growth is what’s killing us,” Aswell said, referring to the Army expansion effort, first announced in January 2007.
But a recent survey of more than 400 majors at the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., indicates that could change in coming years. “There is a tipping point that we have started to reach,” said Maj. George B. Brown III, who conducted the survey and has discussed the problem with Army officials. “There is a much larger percentage of officers . . . planning to get out right at 20 years, and once they are gone, they are gone,” said Brown, a graduate student at the college.
But that’s not a problem with majors but of colonels. Those staying in beyond the twenty year mark are typically those selected for brigade command or comparable assignment and who have dreams of stars in their future. And there’s no evidence whatsoever that we’re having difficulty filling senior billets.
“We are overworked because of the shortages and have nothing to look forward to but another rotation to Afghanistan or Iraq, so everything weighs towards getting out,” Brown said, adding that upon retiring in their early 40s after 20 years in the Army, majors receive half their base pay and can begin civilian careers. “It’s almost like a perfect storm.”
I’m pretty sure Brown didn’t actually say that. Unless an officer has substantial prior enlisted service, he’s been promoted past major, to lieutenant colonel, well before the twenty year mark. That’s especially true in recent years, when promotion to major and lieutenant colonel has been all but automatic. (That‘s a serious problem, which I’ve addressed previously.)
The other problem, which Aswell points out, is that we’re trying to grow the force, reversing part of the early-1990s drawdown. As I’ve noted many times, you can’t magically upscale the military overnight. To be sure, you can bring in more lieutenants and privates given the right incentives. But it takes years to grow field grade officers and senior NCOs. In the meantime, the Army is making do with less-than-pleasant options.
Because of the shortage of majors, the promotion of captains is now nearly guaranteed: Well over 90 percent have been selected for promotion to major in recent years, compared with the Army’s goal of 80 percent. “The Army would prefer to promote officers at a lower rate to encourage high performance,” Aswell said.
This month, results are expected from the first Army promotion board since the Vietnam War era to reach into the ranks of captains and promote the most qualified candidates two years earlier than the norm.
In addition, the Army is assigning captains to serve in jobs normally performed by majors, and in some cases, majors who have been promoted to lieutenant colonel must stay in their current jobs longer, Aswell said.
But this is what the Army has always done in time of big wars. Whether we’re talking about the Civil War, World War II, or Vietnam, we commissioned less-than-qualified lieutenants and promoted people up the ranks faster than we’d have liked, often putting people into positions of responsibility for which they weren’t ready. In WWII, we had lieutenant colonels in their mid-20s. Unless we’re going to maintain a standing force capable of a WWII-style engagement — or eschew major wars — that’s simply going to be the reality forevermore.