How Many String Quartets Do We Need to Fight a War?

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, education and food for Bloomberg View. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper's letters editor.
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In an excellent overview of just how the U.S. Defense Department budget gotbloated to the bursting point, Bloomberg News's Gopal Ratnam gives us this gem: "The size of the Joint Chiefs of Staff office has more than tripled to 4,244 in 2012 from 1,313 in 2010, according to the Pentagon's annual manpower report."

To be fair, this is in part because many employees of the now-shuttered Joint Forces Command were transferred to the joint chiefs office. Yet the surging size of the office illustrates that weapons programs and foreign wars aren't the only stressors on the Pentagon's finances -- taxpayers are spending ever-more on generals and admirals. On the heels of David Petraeus's unseemly exit from the Central Intelligence Agency, the military brass is uniquely vulnerable to charges of living a rock-star lifestyle.

According to a report from the Project on Government Oversight, an independent watchdog group, the "star-creep" is heaviest at the very top. As the group's Ben Freeman told Congress in September:

The three- and four-star ranks have increased twice as fast as one- and two-star general and flag officers, three times as fast as the increase in all officers and almost ten times as fast as the increase in enlisted personnel ...

On average, there are now approximately 185 fewer enlisted personnel per general in the Air Force and 400 fewer enlisted per admiral in the Navy than there were just ten years ago. Similarly, there are more than 40 fewer officers per general or flag officer in both the Air Force and Navy today than there were in 2001.

To soften the blow of having fewer men and women under their command, the generals do get a few perks,according to the Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Greg Jaffe: "executive jets, palatial homes, drivers, security guards and aides to carry their bags, press their uniforms and track their schedules in 10-minute increments. Their food is prepared by gourmet chefs. If they want music with their dinner parties, their staff can summon a string quartet or a choir."

It's easy to mock the lavish lifestyle, and to forget the long, poorly paid and dangerous slog required to reach the top of the military flagpole. Generals work very hard, and could do far better in the corporate world. But given the tremendous paring the budget is going to take this year, even if the threatened $45 billion in sequestration cuts never comes through, the Pentagon's shared sacrifice will need to include those with a string of stars on their shoulders.

(Tobin Harshaw writes editorials for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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