Star Gazing: Why Do We Have So Many Flag Officers?

By Captain James L. McClane, U.S. Navy (ret.) and  Captain Kevin Eyer, U.S. Navy (ret.)


It is entirely possible that the enormous superstructure of the Navy is actually working against maintaining an effective Fleet. We seem to be mired in a time in which counterproductive institutional incentives and dynamics have developed naturally in the absence of an existential threat to focus our efforts, such as a great power competitor. One of these unhelpful dynamics has been the explosion in the numbers of flag officers.

A cursory examination of the historical record makes clear that the number of flag officers serving in the United States Navy operates independently from either the number of ships in service or the number of personnel in uniform. Today, the number of flag officers seems to be more a political concoction or of runaway administrative outgrowth, but has little to do with the sea or the ability to sustain combat operations on it.

In the U.S. Navy, with the exception of the Civil War, there were no flag officers from the American Revolution until the Spanish American War. There were ceremonial commodores when operational protocol called for them, but otherwise no flags. However, the record from the Naval Historical Center beginning with the Spanish American War going to the modern naval era is instructive:

Year Flag Officers Ships in Service Flag/Ship Ratio
1899 (Spanish American War) 19 133 .14
1916 (WWI) 30 774 .04
1944 (WWII) 256 6,084 .04
1953 (Korea) 260 1,121 .23
1972 (Vietnam) 362 654 .6
2012 359 280 1.28

The line was crossed in 1997, at which point the number of flag officers equaled the number of active ships. Today, there is about 32 times the number of flag officers per active ship as there were during WWII, when captains were entrusted to run the Navy with paper, pencil, dial telephones, voice radio, flag hoists, flashing lights, and seamanship. Using personnel figures reveals the flag-to-Sailor ratio increased by a factor of 100 times. What caused these drastic increases?

Explanations and Justifications

There are explanations for this growth. First, there is an institutional “law” which affects the matter. In 1955, the Royal Commission on the Civil Service published a report which explained how the previously inexplicable growth noted across the British bureaucracy was inevitable. The report was based upon what soon became known as “Parkinson’s Law.” According to The Economist, Nov 19, 1955: “The fact is that the number of the (senior) officials and the quantity of the work to be done are not related to each other at all. The rise in the total of those employed is governed by Parkinson’s Law, and would be much the same whether the volume of the work were to increase, diminish or even disappear…Omitting technicalities (which are numerous) we may distinguish, at the outset, two motive forces. They can be represented for the present purpose by two almost axiomatic statements, thus: Factor I – an official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals; and Factor II – officials make work for each other.”  

The study went on to demonstrate Parkinson’s Law, using, in one case, the explosion of Royal Navy admirals, between 1914 and 1928, a period of time in which the number of ships fell precipitously, while a sharp rise in admiralty officials (almost 80 percent) was noted, creating what one called “a magnificent Navy on land.” 

There is even a formula:  x = 2km + p over n, where k is the number of staff seeking promotion though the appointment of subordinates; p represents the difference between the ages of appointment and retirement; m is the number of man-hours devoted to answering minutes within the department; and n is the number of effective units being administered. Then x will be the number of new staff required each year.

This perfect self-licking ice cream cone was replicated a century later in the U.S.. In 2010, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called for the elimination of more than 100 general and flag officer positions as part of his so-called, “Efficiency Initiatives.” Despite a clear plan and subsequent Pentagon assurances that cuts were to be made, the top ranks remain largely intact to this day, and the small number of reductions occurred almost exclusively at the one-star level.

Add to this the fact that a May 2013 GAO analysis found that the number of support staff at DoD’s Combatant Command headquarters grew “by about 50 percent from fiscal years 2001 through 2012.” This created added distance between commanders and warfighters. “In some cases the gap between me and an action officer may be as high as 30 layers,” Gates once stated, resulting in a “bureaucracy which has the fine motor skills of a dinosaur.”

Intransigent, perhaps, but the services have their own explanations for the necessity of ever-increasing numbers of general and flag officers, as well as Senior Executive Service (SES) personnel. According to a February 2016 CRS report entitled, “General and Flag Officers in the U.S. Armed Forces:  Background and Considerations,” one frequently cited cause of the increase in senior personnel has been the increase in “joint” requirements that followed enactment of the Goldwater-Nichols Act (GNA) in 1986. In other words, we’re hamstrung by a law not of our own making.

Another rationale used to explain the increase has been an increased focus on forging coalitions with other nations. This has, in turn, generated a demand for senior military leaders to conduct coordinated planning, training, and operations with their peers from foreign nations. The proofs of this rational seem to be missing, as the military worked with large coalitions in the past – in World War II, for example – without a glut of senior officers.

There are also inescapable issues connected to the organizational structure of the military, which includes certain positions regardless of overall size of the military. There will be a Chief of Naval Operations regardless of force size. A similar case can be made for many senior persons who serve on the Joint Staff, the Service Staffs, the Combatant Commands, and certain defense agencies. According to the CRS, “Given the organizational structure of the Armed Forces—some of which is required by law—the amount of management ‘overhead’ does not necessarily change in direct proportion to the size of the force.”

However, according to the CRS:

“Prior to the creation of DOD by the National Security Act of 1947, military services were separate entities with distinct missions, frequently in competition with each other for resources. Although the establishment of DOD brought services together in a single organization, those services continued to organize, plan, and operate relatively independently, and they maintained separate, direct chains of command over their respective parts of the operational force. In turn, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) was a spokesperson for the Joint Chiefs, but exercised little authority over his fellow Joint Chiefs. In practice, this meant that services trained, planned, and executed operations separately from each other, or at best side by side. Prioritization, including associated resource decision-making, took place primarily within the Military services, rather than across DOD as a whole; and there was little if any room for DOD to benefit from economies of scale.”

What Goes Up and What Goes Down

While the military, writ large, is clearly more sophisticated than it was in the past, and while political, acquisition, and joint/combined organizations impose a greater demand than ever before for senior representation, it is still hard to understand how the number of flag officers and senior executives are sustained in the Navy with intractable fervor even as the active ship list has declined by about 70 percent.

With specific regard to the Navy, what do the numbers suggest? Why is there no apparent flag statistical correlation with active ships or Sailors? Should we understand this disproportionate growth in flag officers to be worrisome or simply a necessary development? At least in the Surface Force, the growth of flag/SES numbers has been matched by a demonstrable and steady decline in readiness. This decline seems to have been relatively unnoticed and unremarked upon by leaders until very recently when many appeared to be taken by surprise that ships were poorly maintained, trained, and sailed without required certifications.

If, as has been claimed, this number is the absolute necessity in order to keep the Navy on a level playing field with the other services – for both dollars and influence – then can’t these senior persons also do a more meticulous job of running things inside the Navy? 

It seems that “The Navy” has less and less to do with the active fleet and more to do with something else. A part of the problem of ineffectual leadership may lie in what criteria are being used for flag selection. Increasingly, and over many years, flag activities have less to do with actual fleet operations and more to do with extra-Navy relationships. The entering argument for flag-selection has moved (at least in the case of surface warfare) away from, “sustained, superior performance at sea” and toward the question of, “what can you do for us in Washington if we make you an admiral?”

It is commonly understood that, regardless of record, an officer without substantial experience in Washington is unlikely to move beyond a first command. Those officers who stay with the fleet, without also keeping a weather-eye on good Washington tours, and an associated accretion of powerful advocates, end up being viewed by boards as insufficiently broad, which is tantamount to non-selection. Whether they are the sorts of persons that are wanted to fight the nation’s battles at sea or not is hardly of interest. Instead, what is of interest is: Can they can influence a budget? Plan future manning? Are they acquainted with the interests of industry and congress? Are they thoroughly familiar with the employment of power and influence beyond the Navy’s lifelines? Are they polished? Do they fully support Navy policy, regardless? But whether they are skilled in ship maintenance, anti-submarine warfare, or operational-level warfighting and tactics is of little (or at best secondary) interest despite how vital these grassroots-level skills are toward crafting viable policy. Instead what we have built is a bloated generation of leaders who are better at fighting bureaucracies than wars.

Solutions and Ideas

Flag numbers cannot be easily drawn down once established. Nevertheless, a new path forward must be described. That path includes cultural changes, which can only be effected from the top-down.

First, board precepts should be altered to reward at least a few of those officers who are more regarded for their operational/waterfront excellence than their experiences in front offices. More stars need to go to officers who are intimately connected to the fleet and with developing warfighting tactics, rather than with the Washington milieu. Rather than asking simply, “What can he or she do for us in Washington,” perhaps another important question should be, “Who do we want to fight our wars?”   

Second, hard questions should be asked with regard to whom, exactly, we are putting in charge of the actual procurement and maintenance of ships. Engineering Duty Officers (EDs) and Acquisition Professionals (APs) are the unquestioned flags of who actually runs the bottom-line acquisition of ships, as well as their maintenance. It seems odd that these are also officers that have had few command-at-sea (EDs) or a major command-at-sea tours (APs).

Third, meaningful command opportunities for captains, beyond major command, should be established. It makes little sense to give our most experienced surface force captains the choice of either making flag, going to an obscure, heavy-lifting staff job, or get out. As it is, most of the few “sequential major commands” are either shore- or training-based, and kept firmly under the thumb of closely connected flags. Our real ship experts leave, almost to a man, if they don’t make flag, and those who do stay are generally only doing so to prepare for their next career. On the other hand, many would stay if they were offered positions commensurate with their background and experience, positions in which they could bring their expertise to bear on cracking hard problems on warfighting tactics or waterfront operations, and not carrying out more simple staff functions for a bureaucracy that has outgrown its administrative usefulness.

Fourth, cut the number of SES positions. Certainly, one may ask what these SES personnel can provide that uniformed personnel cannot. Continuity? Stability? Unfortunately, it seems as if these terms have become euphemisms for the sort of bureaucratic paralysis and risk aversion, in the name of self-interest, which increasingly plagues the services but especially the SES. Consider replacing these persons with long-serving captains, post-major command, and allow them to remain in place for multiple tours (as opposed to indefinitely as is the case with SESs) if necessary.

Finally, the real bureaucracy – the self-licking ice cream cone  –  needs to be cut. Not just flag officers and senior executives, but their counterparts across the services should be a primary target for a congressionally-mandated mission/task review, with resultant manpower and infrastructure reductions, as well as an across-the-board reduction in flag and SES-level requirements. There are several approaches available. First, former Secretary Gates’ Efficiency Initiatives should be fully implemented. Second, caps on the total number of general and flag officers, instituted by President Bush in 2001, should be reinstated and tied to the size of the force.

While there may be certain institutional and bureaucratic reasons for maintaining the number of senior personnel in the service, the evidence seems to suggest that these leaders are increasingly remote from, and unable to address the issues of, the fleet – and the same is probably true in the other services.

Captain James L. McClane comes from a Navy family. His service afloat since 1964 includes DD, DDGs, CGs, and with Aegis destroyer and cruiser commands. He was the commissioning combat systems officer of USS Ticonderoga (CG 47). His service ashore includes sequential major commands of Afloat Training Group Atlantic.

Captain Kevin Eyer served in seven cruisers, commanding three Aegis cruisers: USS Thomas S. Gates (CG-51), Shiloh (CG-67), and Chancellorsville (CG-62).

Featured Image: YOKOSUKA, Japan (Sept. 7, 2011) – From left, Adm. Patrick M. Walsh, Vice Adm. Scott R. Van Buskirk and Vice Adm. Scott H. Swift bow their heads during the benediction at the U.S. 7th Fleet change of command ceremony held on the flight deck aboard the command ship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kenneth R. Hendrix)

9 thoughts on “Star Gazing: Why Do We Have So Many Flag Officers?”

  1. I’m afraid that the authors appear to have misinterpreted one of Parkinson’s examples. They refer to “the explosion of Royal Navy admirals”. Parkinson does no such thing, referring to “Admiralty officials”, i.e. everyone working at the Admiralty offices in Whitehall, be they naval officer or civil servant. The number of flag officers was regulated by order in council. In July 1914 the total stood at the authorised total of 95. In November 1918, even with limits temporarily released to improve the flow of promotion, the total stood at 104, and by December 1920 was back to 98 (including three special promotions to Admiral of the Fleet).

    Parkinson’s use of the number of Admiralty officials is totally dishonest however. In 1914 the total authorised stood at 1,802 (not 2,000), including over 100 tea ladies! At the end of the Great War this had increased to over 10,000. It is a fact that prior to the war the Permanent Secretary at the Admiralty (the senior civil servant) had repeatedly complained about how overworked his staff was and had always struggled against the Treasury to obtain funding for more personnel. The massive increase in numbers should be seen as belated recognition of a deficiency rather than an exercise in wasteful bureaucracy.

  2. A far more useful measure of ratios is of flag officers to the rest of the naval force. Given that by law the Navy may only have 160 active duty flag officers, and given that the current authorized naval force strength is 322,900. That is a ratio of senior executives to rank and file of 1 in 2,108. That is an extraordinarily small fraction of senior executives in relation to the to rank and file, far lower than in American business, with typical job titles including general manager, vice president, and corporate executives.

    1. By your logic it seems that things are as they should be but the currently emerging problems show otherwise. The fact is that fleet readiness is in decline and something is broken. Broken needs fixing. If we go to a naval war, it will be too late to fix.

      1. The example of George Marshall is instructive. When he became Army Chief of Staff shortly before the US entered WWII, he immediately reformed the generals’ ranks – not by adding or subtracting billets, but by putting the right people in the jobs. Drawing on his experience and observation, he selected for ingenuity, independence of though, action, initiative, and field effectiveness. Those long passed over and about to retire were suddenly elevated to flag rank, alongside their juniors “deep-selected” over those with greater seniority and connections.

        Though we have been at war for 18+ years, our services still suffer from the common shortfalls of peacetime – including a flag corps that is, more often than not, selected for seniority, connections, bureaucratic and political skill, and ability to stay out of the headlines. These deskmasters may be excellent at hoarding a larger slice of the budgetary pie for military programs, but impotent in the press of combat.

        Frankly, I think the size of the flag corps is largely irrelevant compared to the qualities of the human beings wearing all that braid.

  3. More flag officers than ever before, and more problems with fewer real solutions than ever before. Lost a lot of people under these peoples leadership. We don’t even have throttles on the ships anymore . . . until we LOST some of these people. Common Sense comes to mind? Too many chiefs, and too many chefs comes to mind. Lean and mean this Ain’t!!!

  4. Excellent article, should be required reading for the Senate. If eliminating one flag officer would provide more tools and equipment to the fleet, it would be well worth the effort.

  5. I would be curious about the relative tenures of present flag officers vice those of previous eras. Do modern flag officers rotate more frequently, and do they spend more of their senior-ranking years preparing for further promotion?

    What I fear is that the increased number of flag billets means that more officers spend more time working to gain qualifications necessary for the next job rather than focusing on the current one.

  6. I think the navy now has a expansive air operation, training facilities and research commands that were not around till after WWII. Even now I agree there are to many admirals in 3 star positions.

  7. Shore duty flags and 06s – biggest concern is the Fitness Report. Best path to best report is change something… gives illusion of progress. In my career as an engineer with Navy i have been part of the illusion many times under various Flags – Each Flag had a catchy
    title for their illusion of progress – i have seen my command be re engineered, restructured, reorganized, realigned,… and I have seen programs created that sound great but change nothing – BOSS is a classic. Means Buy Our Spares Smart (As if your predecessor was dumb i guess). I could go on.

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