“Star creep” refers to the immense growth in the number of general and flag officers—generals and admirals—since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Government Accountability Office has found that the number of general and flag officers grew by eight percent between fiscal years 2001 and 2013. This growth has been tremendously costly in financial terms given the pay and benefits these officers receive, not to mention other taxpayer-funded amenities, such as housing, travel and per diem payments, and large staffs. But there are also consequences for military effectiveness as the increased number of officers at the top increases military bureaucratization, leads to lethargic decision-making, and leaves less money for those actually doing the fighting.

So what can be done about this problem?

The simple solution is to cut. In a November 2013 New York Times “Room for Debate” forum, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Celeste Ward Gventer made just such a suggestion. She argued that reducing the number of general and flag officers would save money and make more room for younger officers to seek advancement, rather than opting to pursue opportunities in the private sector where they would not face the “surfeit of ‘flagpoles’” in front of them. Looking at today’s military, and given the Pentagon’s inability to even determine how many or what type of personnel it needs for its headquarters staff, she is undoubtedly correct.

But the story does not end there. Another national security crisis has the potential to spark another general and flag officer binge, just as it did after 9/11. Moreover, while even leading officials at the Department of Defense see the need to reduce the number of people at the top, nobody knows what future security challenges will require. Tim Kane, an economist with the Hudson Institute, made just that point in the same 2013 “Room for Debate” forum and Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments echoed it in another forum last year. Kane argued,

The very idea of having a cap on the “right” number of generals is the wrong way to think about, let alone manage, the Pentagon’s manpower. … Nobody knows what the optimal ratio of generals will be in 2025, let alone 2040. If the Pentagon wants to plan for that future, the smart strategy is a flexible personnel structure that can accommodate more, or less, expertise as needed.

Both Kane and Harrison called for a move away from the “closed system” that epitomizes the military’s personnel structure. This transition would mean allowing more mid-career entries at higher ranks appropriate to skill levels reached in the private sector and allowing combat veterans and others who previously spent time in uniform to return to service after working in the private sector. As Kane noted in the conclusion of his piece, such returnees would be in good company. After all, George Washington returned to command the Continental Army after seventeen years out of uniform.

These proposals are important today because it seems Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is considering making them a reality. As Andrew Tilgman of Military Times reported,

In describing the “force of the future,” Carter suggested breaking with key traditions that define military careers and culture. For example, he suggested promotion boards should give less weight to seniority and place more emphasis on merit by allowing the most talented young people to move up in rank more quickly.


“[We] have to look at ways to promote people based not just on when they joined, and even more on their performance and talent,” Carter told an auditorium of high school students at his alma mater, Abington High School, in suburban Philadelphia.


Carter also questioned the custom of making all service members start at the bottom ranks. Instead, he said the military should allow well-trained people to begin military service in the middle of their career and grant them an automatic midcareer rank to reflect their civilian experience and skills.


“The military’s rank structure still dates back to when Napoleon was invading Europe 200 years ago. There are some good reasons for that, but for certain specialty jobs, like cybersecurity, we need to be looking at ways to bring in more qualified people, even if they’re already in the middle of their career, rather than just starting out,” Carter said.

It is clear the star creep that occurred after 9/11 is a major problem. Secretary Carter should continue the efforts to undo the damage by reducing the number of general and flag officers currently serving. Simultaneously shifting to a system that allows greater flexibility in the military’s personnel and promotion system might not solve the Pentagon’s over-bureaucratization, but it will hopefully ameliorate the inclination toward star creep if a security crisis occurs in the future.