Best Defense

What role does the National Guard play in inflating the numbers of our generals?

Best Defense guest columnist investigates the role of the National Guard in inflating the number of generals.

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BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 12: A giant American flag curls in the wind on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Eagle where it is docked in the Inner Harbor as part of the Star Spangled Spectacular September 12, 2014 in Baltimore, Maryland. Celebrating the 200th anniversary of the United States' national anthem, Baltimore's Inner Harbor is hosting tall ships, fireworks displays, concerts, historic tours and other events. The anthem's lyrics come from 'Defence of Fort M'Henry,' a poem written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key after he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry by British ships during the War of 1812. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

By Maj. Doug Krugman, USMC

Best Defense guest columnist

Many people have noticed the growth in general officer/flag officer (GO/FO) billets relative to the size of our military and the Department of Defense has made some minor steps in reducing the number of serving senior officers as it reduces the overall force. During some unrelated research, I stumbled across an area that seems to still be unusually top heavy.

First the math approach: overall the armed forces, including the 4 active, 4 reserve, and 2 guard components, average 1 GO/FO billet for every 240 officers total, or 0.42% of their officer population. (I’m using the officer population as the basis for these ratios to cut down on the decimal places, comparisons are similar if you work GO/FO as percentage of total personnel.) Out of the 10 categories, 6 are slightly below that average (lowest ratio is .28%), and 3 are slightly above it (highest is .56%), and if you stop there your graph doesn’t look exceptional. The Air National Guard skews the graph with just over 1% of its officers wearing stars, or 155 generals for 15,000 officers and 106,000 total personnel.

Now the organizational approach. Every service and component is structured differently for different missions. The Air National Guard varies significantly compared to the three organizations you might expect it to resemble – the active Air Force (.47%), Air Force Reserve (.56%), and the Army National Guard (.46%). I am not a statistician, but when the distance between the Air National Guard and the mean is four times larger than the next biggest outlier in either direction something very different is happening.

The active component Air Force has a higher percentage of GOs than the active Army, about 50% higher. (For today let’s just assume that the other services and components are justified in their officer structures, that is a much longer argument.) The Air National Guard ratio is more than 100% higher than the Army National Guard, which also requires a leadership structure in over 50 locations. If you subtract 54 generals from the Air National Guard under the theory that every state level organization has to have at least one, then they still have a couple dozen more generals than would seem necessary by the active Air Force’s ratio.

I have not worked with the Air National Guard enough to know why, and there may be a valid explanation. It isn’t a result of higher numbers in other officer ranks – in colonels and overall field grade officers they fall back in line with everyone else. I pulled these numbers directly from DoD reports (dated 31 Oct 2014) assuming they only included federally recognized ranks for both guards, though if it did for one but not the other that could also explain some variation.

I do know the politics involved in any conversation about the guard in general. Can someone more knowledgeable than me provide an explanation (beyond just saying Congress) for the number of stars in the Air National Guard?

Doug Krugman is a Marine Corps Infantry Officer and Southeast Asia FAO.  He is currently a student at Marine Corps Command and Staff College. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, United States Government, United States Marine Corps, or Marine Corps University.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at @tomricks1
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