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.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Best of OTB, Military Affairs, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. legion says:

    Well, regarding WWII officers, I believe many of those attrition promotions were brevets – i.e., they wore a higher rank, but held a permanent grade (and were paid as) something lower; they reverted back to their permanent grade after the war (if they stayed in at all).

    And as for the shortage of field-graders, when I was an AF captain in the late 90s, I was already hearing horror stories about how the Army couldn’t hold onto its captains & were losing them in droves. It doesn’t take many brain cells to figure out that if you’ve got a shortage of captains in year X, you’re going to have a shortage of majors in year Y… This really shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone in uniform.

  2. The need for higher quality mid-career officers is probably more acute during times of war because “quality” arguably matters more during wartime than peacetime. Once (if) peace returns, this problem probably disappears.

  3. MAJ Brown says:

    The story published by the Washington Post missed the mark, but not by much. The major issue is the loss of the LTCs (now MAJs) at the 20-year mark (and almost 40% are prior service). The survey that I conducted indicated that 60% of those officers that came in the Army in the early to mid-90s plan to retire at just 20-years of service or less… This is a major knowledge/experience drain on our military. Nothing is being done to encourage these officers to stay in, yet the shortage of these officers is already over 15% and growing. Some specialty branches are already manned under 50%; when do we hit the breaking point?

    At best, perhaps this story by Ms Tyson will generate some open discussion on the issue.

    I’d be happy to give you a copy of my study.

    MAJ George Brown

  4. Jim Henley says:

    James, it sounds like you’re saying the structural problem is that whatever Army the young officer thought he was joining is almost guaranteed to be a vastly different organization a decade later, which is what makes Major such a bottleneck. Is that it?

  5. James Joyner says:

    James, it sounds like you’re saying the structural problem is that whatever Army the young officer thought he was joining is almost guaranteed to be a vastly different organization a decade later, which is what makes Major such a bottleneck. Is that it?

    Jim, yes, that’s a huge part of it. And it’s neither the Army’s fault nor the young officer’s: Shit happens and the Army, even more so than any of the other Services, changes quickly to adapt.

    Beyond that, though, the Army is a bureaucracy with near zero external entry at the mid levels. I could, theoretically, join the State Department or most other governmental bureaus as, say, a GS-14 based on my education and experience. Aside from doctors and lawyers and such (which, I’m given to understand, one’s mama should encourage you to be rather than, say, a cowboy) there’s no way to join the Army at a rank above second lieutenant.

    This means that, the new lieutenants of 2008 is the only pool from which the majors of 2019 can be drawn (give or take a year group). If the Army doubles in size, there simply aren’t going to be enough captains in the pipeline to promote to major. Conversely, if the Army cuts their ranks by a third, a lot of good officers will have their careers ended at the rank of captain because promotions to major will go back to 60-65 percent range.

  6. James Joyner says:

    The survey that I conducted indicated that 60% of those officers that came in the Army in the early to mid-90s plan to retire at just 20-years of service or less.

    But that’s pretty much always been the case, no? Almost all officers retire as LTCs even if they have decent prospects of making COL.

  7. MAJ Brown says:

    Typically 20% of the officers get out at 20-years (most LTCs). But add in the shortage we already have in all the ranks, plus the number of prior service, will send the US Army into a much worse situation than we have now. MAJ shortages will increase to 20% and LTC shortages will increase to 30% with many of the branches much worse than others.

  8. Tlaloc says:

    or eschew major wars

    Hey…there’s a thought.

    Okay, maybe not all wars, maybe just all those ones that really don’t pose any kind of existential, or even serious, threat to us.

    Here’s a short list of modern examples:
    Iraq again

    (Yes I am including “police actions”)

  9. Living in Leavenworth, where my husband teaches at CGSC, I’ve met more than my fair share of majors. Ten years ago when my husband first taught there his students were interested primarily in life-long service and, yes, many of them dreamed of stars.

    Now? A surprising number look at hitting their 20 as a stepping stone toward the financial security that will let them explore career interests they’d deferred while in the military.

  10. And now there’s news about the military’s retirement bonus enticing members entering their 15th year of service to take deep cuts in future retirement.

    Take the bars, stars, stripes and c**t cap off for a minute, James, and ask yourself — as I have — how recently promoted majors must be seeing their future with the Army under such a light.

    Back when I grew up as an Air Force Brat the whole notion of entering the service involved putting one’s life on the line for one’s country and, in return, knowing one’s future was secure (thought not necessarily plush) in return.

    Now? Well, now the military’s starting to adopt the business model Rummy pushed for all of his years in office. The effect? Those who risk the most are most likely to be treated poorly by a growing segment of our population (damn libs) AND who are now finding out that Uncle Sam is behaving like, well, a Dutch Uncle.