There is a potential crisis in the US Army that has received little attention, but is having a critical effect on the military and its ability to continue its high operational tempo: a shortage of US Army field grade officers that entered the US Army from 1991 to 1997.
The reason for the current shortage is not really important: it is likely a combination of the under-accessions of officers in the early to mid-90s; loss of officers being wounded/killed in war; increasing the need of field grade officers due to modularity; officers leaving before retirement because of too many deployments; increasing the size of the military; etc… there is a shortage- no argument: 5% company grade; 17% majors; and 8.5% lieutenant colonels (AC basic branches). This shortage is not equal among all the branches, and is already critical in some.
Much is being done, with some success, by the US Army Human Resources Command (HRC) to increase the numbers of officers entering the service and retaining junior officers. The issue discussed in my thesis is the indications of a growing shortage of field grade officers. The theory is that the shortage of field grade officers is going to get worse over the next few years because little is being done to encourage officers to stay in past 20-years of service. Contributing to this shortage is the number of officers that will reach 20 years in service sooner than their year group peers. This is because over 35% of these majors have prior-service experience (enlisted service time before becoming an officer is credited towards cumulative years).
The retirement rate of officers reaching 20-years of service last year was 20%; the survey conducted for my thesis indicated this will grow as much as 60%. This loss rate suggests that by 2014 the US Army may be short 30% lieutenant colonels and 20% majors. The most critical aspect of this 30% shortage of lieutenant colonels and 20% majors will be that it is not equally distributed across all the branches. By 2014, indications suggest most of the US Army officer branches will face shortages greater than 50% of their requirement for lieutenant colonels and majors.
In other organizations, for example the State Department, an individual could join as a GS-14 (government position equivalent to a lieutenant colonel) based on education and experience. The US military does not have this type of program for most branches. It takes over 15 years to grow lieutenant colonels, so the loss of each lieutenant colonel is significant.
Something should be done to address the issue of such a large number of officers in year groups 91-97 from retiring at the 20 year mark of service. At 18 years of service, most officers start the decision process for retirement. This decision and planning process is done with their family who, with the officer, has become worn down from the high operational tempo of the US Army. At 18 years of service, the Army Career Alumni Program (ACAP) sends a letter to each officer letting them know about services to help them retire from the US Army and find a job in the civilian community. At 18 years of service flight pay goes down for US Army aviators. At 18 years of service Variable Special Pay goes down for dental and medical officers. At 20 years of service, members of the military may retire and receive 50% of their base pay for the rest of their life and maintain many benefits from active duty. Although there are many incentives for the US Army officer to leave the service at 20 years, there is virtually nothing officially being done to encourage officers to stay in past 20 years of service.
The Human Resources Command has many good informal incentive programs that might be better utilized if publicized and controlled by one centralized section. Allowing officers to more easily exchange assignments, across branches, would be an example; transferring to another branch (from full strength branch to one that is undermanned) is another option. These options would be at no cost to the US Army but, require additional staff at HRC dedicated to run this program.
Many of the officers in this research agreed that a monetary incentive of varying types would convince them to stay in the US Army longer. A one-year base pay cash bonus for three years of service was the most accepted option requested from the survey; matching TSP funds up to 10% was number two. A monetary bonus, in the correct amount, and targeted to the branches that are critically short, is undoubtedly an effective method for the retention of the officers to stay past 20-years of service. This is true, not only because the value of non-monetary benefits is not easily recognized by personnel, but also because a system that favors monetary benefits would enhance the freedom of each officer to decide how best to use his/her benefits, thus increasing the value of those benefits.
The one-year base pay bonus for three years of service over 20 years could provide a monetary incentive to officers in branches that are critically short and is already common practice with enlisted US Army Soldiers. An average of 1,400 officers reach 20 years of service each year. At 20 years of service, most officers would be at the rank of lieutenant colonel with a base pay of $88,473.60 a year. This would equal a yearly program maximum cost of just under 124 million dollars, even if every officer was given this bonus after reaching 20 years of service. The cost of the captain menu of incentives program is over three times this amount and one-year base pay is a common bonus to enlisted Soldiers in critical jobs. This program could be used to target specific branches with the greatest shortages, but would require a change in federal law to facilitate this option.
Another way to think about cost of this bonus program is the US Army is short approximately 15% of its authorized strength of majors and 8.5% lieutenant colonials. That means that part of the budget set aside to pay these officers salaries is not being used. In theory (and practice), 85 majors are working harder to do the job of 100 majors, and not getting any extra pay. That 15% of the salary from majors could fund bonuses, or other incentives, for those who are working harder than ever. (Philman 2008) The US Army is short 2,228 majors for a savings to the US Government of over $210 million. This might be an oversimplification, but premise is sound.
The spouses of these officers are also weighing in on the decision to get out; overlooked in the compensation calculations is a complete family focus. There is a popular t-shirt slogan that sells well on post, it reads: “Military Spouse: The Toughest Job in the Military”. The military members pay also must compensate for the loss of income from their spouses. These officers marry smart, competent, career-capable partners, but frequent military moves while effectively single-parenting during deployments; it's next to impossible to also have a viable career. It may not be about the money, but these spouses are comparing their family lives to their brothers, sisters, friends from college, etc. Comparisons are inevitable and many spouses are counting the days until 20-years of service have been met to start their career. If the compensation doesn't keep pace at a family level, in addition to stresses of military service, the spouse is most likely to cast their vote to get out.
The survey I did for this thesis was approved by US Army Command Arms Center and supervised to ensure quality. Out of the 780 majors that were sent a survey, 412 responded giving the survey a confidence level of over 95% (Taylor-Powell 1998) and a confidence interval of +/- 5% for a population size of 15,000. This response allows for an accurate assessment of all the majors in the US Army today. Similar survey results were published in June 2006 by a spouse of a CGSC student for Central Michigan University. (Crist 2006)
The thesis explores the potential critical shortage of officers in year groups 91-97 as they start to reach 20-years of service. These officers are the future lieutenant colonels: the battalion commanders and senior staff members of the US Army. This shortage of lieutenant colonels could move this significant shortage from a hardship to an incapacitating element in the US Army's ability to accomplish missions the nation requires.
It is obvious to me that the situation is troublesome and the indications are that the shortage will get substantially worse. More senior-level discussions on this topic are required. There is an opportunity for action, but less options and assets are available the longer no action is taken.
Something must be done to address the issue of the officers in year groups 91-97 from retiring en masse. There are three categories of effort where improvements can be made in the short, near and long term: conduct an information campaign (short term); formalizing incentive programs already in use (near term); and creating monetary bonus similar to those already in use for enlisted Soldiers (long term). Other drastic options are available to address the shortages, but the second order of effects may be too harmful to the US Army.
(Copy of the full text of “Major Crisis” is available on request)