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America's Four-Star Problem

The next administration’s top priority must be a dramatic reduction in the four-star overhead.

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U.S. General and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley addresses a press conference after the Ukraine Defence Contact Group meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Ramstein, western Germany, on September 8, 2022. (Andre Pain/AFP via Getty Images)

Reflecting on the Battle of the Bulge during December 1944 and January 1945, Troy Middleton, former VIII Corps commander, said, “Patton’s principal worth was that he kept things moving. He kept everybody else moving—not only his juniors but his seniors. Otherwise, during the Battle of the Bulge, there would have been a tendency to play Montgomery—to dress up the lines instead of getting in there and hitting the Germans hard.”

Middleton’s observations are sound, but in 1939, the Army’s senior leaders had already selected the unpopular and irascible Patton for retirement and obscurity. Patton was not the only one. In the 1920s, the Army’s senior leaders sidelined Colonel Billy Mitchell and Brigadier General Adna Chaffee. Mitchell wanted to develop air power. Chaffee wanted to build the armored force. Thanks to the outbreak of wars in Poland and Western Europe, the ideas survived, and Patton survived, but only barely in time to be used in World War II. 

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Today, the potential for high intensity conventional warfare between great powers looms large. The next president and his administration must recognize that high intensity conventional warfare demands much more character and competence than they will find in another cohort of three- and four-star “Yes Men” with brush cuts, and bright eyes wearing a uniform from the distant past (minus its gold buttons). 

Adding more money to an already bloated defense budget will also not fix the problem. Still finding new senior officers who are focused more on service than promotion; senior military leaders with minds receptive to fundamental change in warfare is easier said than done. To understand why change must be imposed from above, Alfred G. Meyer developed a typology of leadership that explains the progressive evolution of leaders in a large military, political or industrial establishment from creative revolutionaries to plodding bureaucrats that maintain the institution. 

  1. Revolutionaries (1918-1942). The revolutionaries create the system. In the absence of conflict or crisis, they are usually neutered, and their influence suppressed, but their concepts and ideas triumph when war threatens. 
  2. System Builders (1942-1991). The system builders translate the creative visions of the revolutionaries into practice. They recognize how wrong-footed the Armed Forces are and make profound changes in structure, equipment, organization, and, most important, thinking. 
  3. System Maintainers (1991-Present). System Maintainers succeed the System Builders and become the ardent defenders of the system they inherited. Today’s three- and four-stars constitute the latest generation of system maintainers. They are satiated, convinced the system works perfectly because it rewarded them with promotion.

For the current generation of system maintainers, a fundamentally new military system with new organizations for a new kind of war is not only inconceivable; the idea is offensive. And therein lies the problem.

In conflicts like those in Iraq and Afghanistan where the application of overwhelming American firepower substitutes for tactics and strategy because there are no enemy armies, air forces or air defenses to fight, the historic outcome is a collection of enormous headquarters manned with far too many generals or admirals. Even worse, the headquarters tend to fill up with weak, untested, but politically savvy senior officers or “Power Point Rangers,” as the saying goes.

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The numbers of four-star generals and admirals currently in the U.S. Armed Forces illustrates the problem. For a force of 1.1 million active-duty Service Members, the current U.S. Armed Forces are commanded by 40 four-star generals and admirals. 

For readers who may think this command overhead is normal, they should know that for most of World War II when there were 12.2 million Americans in uniform, the nation relied on 7 Four Stars to command the Armed Forces: Marshall, MacArthur, Eisenhower and Arnold for Army Ground and Air Forces; King, Nimitz, and Leahy for U.S. Naval Forces. Admiral Leahy, a former Chief of Naval Operations, served as President Roosevelt’s senior Military Advisor who interpreted FDR’s strategic guidance, but held no designated command. 

Marshall deliberately kept the numbers of four stars to a minimum saying, “I don’t have time to argue.”  More than 77 years after WW 2 it’s time to reinstate Marshall’s wise policy. The growth of numerous agencies, technical support organizations, and high cost logistical and acquisition programs have driven the rank and experience required to command operational fighting forces into a very small corner.

Marshall’s insistence on streamlined command and control, on simplicity of orders, and on unity of command is more relevant than ever. Instantaneous, redundant space-based communications, surveillance, reconnaissance, intelligence, and missile technologies have wrought profound change in the way military operations can be conducted. The next administration must revisit the 1947 National Security Act and The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act. 

The 1947 National Security Act resulted from the victory in the Second World War. It was designed to harmonize all the U.S. Armed Forces’ capabilities. Instead, it fostered bitter budget fights, single-service thinking, and dug deeper ruts for senior officers to follow. Goldwater-Nichols subsequently created a command structure that is no longer suited to the new multipolar international system.

The Services expect, get, and spend a predetermined piece of the funding pie, fostering waste and redundancy. Too much force structure remains wedded to the WWII designs modified in 1947. New force designs and new technologies that could be exploited to streamline command and control and make operations more effective are excluded from consideration.

Other problems are caused by secretaries of Defense whose priorities were too often been driven by the politics of apportioning money and technology to the “right people,” or social engineering, and far less to the ruthless pursuit of building forces that can fight. The Biden administration’s divisive, racially charged policies and “woke” LGBT agenda may be the worst of these given their impact on military morale, discipline, readiness, and recruiting. 

These points notwithstanding, the next administration’s top priority must be a dramatic reduction in the four-star overhead and a commensurate reduction in the numbers of regional unified and functional commands. System maintainers can’t do the job. 

America’s military future must be shaped by two kinds of generals and admirals: System creators and builders; those who can theorize and design, and those who can harness people and technology with the ability to lead and inspire. These are the desired attributes that transcend the drill field, the parachute jump, or the routine exercise. Once the overhead is substantially reduced, these are the leaders the civilians-in-charge that populate the next Administration must identify and appoint. In a word, Alfred Thayer Mahan’s advice to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt remains valid: “No Service can or should be expected to reform itself.”

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