Army Offering Bonuses to Retain Officers

The Army is bribing its captains to stay in the service.

The Army is offering cash bonuses of up to $35,000 to retain young officers serving in key specialties — including military intelligence, infantry and aviation — in an unprecedented bid to forestall a critical shortage of officer ranks that have been hit hard by frequent deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Army officials said that lengthy and repeated war-zone tours — the top reason younger officers leave the service — plus the need for thousands of new officers as the Army moves forward with expansion plans have contributed to a projected shortfall of about 3,000 captains and majors for every year through 2013.

In response, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates approved the unusual incentives last month as a temporary measure for this fiscal year, and over the past three weeks, more than 6,000 Army captains have accepted cash awards ranging from $25,000 to $35,000 in exchange for committing to serve three more years.

In a speech at an Army conference yesterday, Gates said that holding on to today’s combat veteran officers is vital to reshaping and rebuilding the force for the future — and this could mean rethinking Cold War-era promotion policies. “There is a generation of junior and mid-level officers and NCOs [noncommissioned officers] who have been tested in battle like none other in decades,” he said. “These men and women need to be retained, and the best and brightest advanced . . . to use their experience to shape the institution.”


According to Army data, the overall attrition rate for captains averaged 12.2 percent from 1999 to 2007. But the estimated captain deficits for the past year were pronounced in some fields that require heavy deployments, such as military intelligence, where the Army is short 10 percent; transportation, where the gap reaches 21 percent; and aviation, where the shortfall is 11 percent.

Army officials said the projected officer shortage is mainly the result of the Army’s plan to add 65,000 active-duty soldiers to its ranks — including more than 6,000 captains and majors — by 2010. The cash incentives for captains are unprecedented in scope and size, and are intended in part as compensation for soldiers’ long separations from their families.

I agree with Thomas Barnett that money alone won’t fix the retention problem. Further, while I support bonuses to get young enlisted troops to re-up, I’m leery of doing so for the Army’s leaders.

We’ve had an all-volunteer force since 1973 and the good has far outweighed the bad. We’re seeing now, though, the effects of a long-term war on the system. While many soldiers are eager to go to combat to “do what we trained for,” long deployments are devastating to family life.

It’s far from clear, though, what the alternatives are. The Army exists to fight our nation’s wars and, unpopular though it now is, our elected leaders chose to fight this one. Increasing the size of the Army lessens the burden on individual soldiers but exacerbates the difficulties of recruiting and retaining enough people.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, National Security, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    I think they should all be paid double what they’re getting now, so this doesn’t trouble me.

    Particularly with the private mercenaries’ offering so much moola.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Basically, we either need to deploy less or have a much larger army.

  3. ses5909 says:

    What a topic, and definitely one that hits close to home. I used to be enlisted in the Navy and I have a husband who is an MI officer in the Army so we know very well about retention bonuses and the effect it has on the service as well as the soldier and the families.

    You speak of an all-volunteer force which we definitely have but I don’t understand how the issue of a retention or enlistment bonus takes away from that. I joined as an arabic linguist back in 1993 and I got a sign-up bonus because of the job I chose to take. Did that bonus have any effect on my enlisting? No, but it was nice to have considering I did what would be considered a very important job but made about $1k a month. Not very much to live off of when you live in the beltway.

    Fast forward 14 years and I am now a civilian but my husband is still in the Army and is now an officer, or a “leader”, and we are actually presently faced with the decision of if we should take this option. Each individual and family needs to weigh all of the options. There is more to the offering than just the lump sum payment. Another option is to accept your choice of duty station if you agree to the next 3 years.

    I am going to bet this decision has a lot to do with the families and keeping the families happy. If the family is happy, the service member is usually happier and if a choice of duty station or a lump sum will help people endure the time away and hardship that has happened and is still to come with back-to-back deployments, then who’s place is it to really judge that?

    From a retention standpoint it is a great business model. I can tell you that on most MI officers, at least 500k is spent in training them…at least. Would you rather see 35k to retain that great experience or would you rather start fresh?

    They are also considering the future leaders of the Army. if all of the Captains are getting out, who will be left to lead when it is time?

    Just look at some of your past articles to try and understand why. I don’t think it’s a bad thing and 35k isn’t really going to be enough to make anyone stay in that wasn’t already considering it anyway. Most Army captains, who have been deployed, could make a lot more than their current salary provides for them as a civilian, and no, I’m not talking as a merc. My husband gets job offers almost weekly because of his experience but he’s not in it for the money or the glory. He has a love to serve as do many people today.

    Sorry to ramble, this obviously hits home 🙂

  4. So a “bonus” is a “bribe”? I thought a bribe is paying someone to do something illegal. Are you saying that enlisting in the armed services is an illegal activity?

    Captains are like the middle managers, right? Are you saying that these guys should not be paid bonuses? Should work for free? Are you saying that the military shouldn’t offer the same incentives as the private sector? Help me follow your logic here James.

  5. yetanotherjohn says:

    When I was a relatively low level manager, I received a raise and a $50,000 sign on bonus to change companies (they paid it $25,000 the first year and $25,000 the second because unlike the Army, the company couldn’t prevent me from quiting the day after I cashed the bonus check).

    Did the company do this because they didn’t know what to do with all the cash on hand or because they wanted to see me carrying big bags of cash? No. They did it because in the prevailing market conditions that was what it was going to take to close the deal (and they wanted the negotiating capabilities that got them to sign off on the bonus to be on their side of the table).

    There will be captains who would have signed up anyway who will gladly pockety the extra. There will be captains who were on the fence who will decide to stay because of the bonus. And there will be captains who will leave despite the bonus. The bottom line is that when hiring a volunter force you have to pay market rates. Now that isn’t just cash. Part of the pay is in terms of risk/security, excitement of the work, prestige, side benefits like travel, etc.

  6. Jim says:

    James, your intro statement is insulting and the first sentence in the quoted article is a lie.

    These aren’t bribes, any more than a Christmas bonus or a promotion or an improved health insurance benefit is a bribe. People are rewarded for doing a good job. People in assignments that are critical to a company’s success or bottom line tend to get rewarded more. This is not breaking news.

    The first sentence in the article is a lie. Retention bonuses are not “unprecedented.” In a later sentence, the writer calls them “unusual.” Which one is it?

    I was offered a seperation bonus from the USN in 1993. Pres. Clinton paid me to get out. The Navy was drawing down from a 600-ship target to a 300-ship target. But guess what? While paying me, an aviator LT, to get out, they were paying some of my buddies (sub and nuke surface LTs) to stay in. One year salary, about $40K.

    Retention bonuses have been a part of US Military recruitment strategies for decades.

  7. Tom says:

    Comment in violation of site policies deleted.

  8. JKB says:

    This is a straightforward personnel management issue. The Army is increasing its strength in a timeframe that requires retention of more mid-grade officers. You can’t just hire off the street so have to keep those you have while you seed the 2nd LT pipeline. But you need those who are at the decision point of ten years of staying on for retirement or moving on. So you add an inducement to encourage them to give three more years. To get them over the hump so to speak where they will see the value of remaining on duty to their 20 and the 2007 influx off JOs will be coming online as newly minted Captains to assume the job in any case.

  9. ibfamous says:

    all you have to do is give them a real mission, with a true purpose and they’ll stay. the ranks are full of people who are willing to sacrifice for a good cause, but give them this ignorant mess and the private sector looks pretty damn good.

  10. iaintbacchus says:

    I got a $16k bonus the first time I re-upped in the Marines and there wasn’t even a war on. This isn’t anything new. That was in 1983. I’d just returned from Lebannon. I feel like I had probably had it coming. I KNOW these guys do.

  11. Robert says:

    Tom at 1:02 nailed it.

  12. Christopher says:


    James, you are absolutely pathetic. Please please move to Canada.