Last year, Congress allowed the Navy "relief" from its statutory promotion grade tables by increasing the number of overall 0-4 to 0-6 manning by 6%. The Navy considered this essential to meet its manpower requirements. In the January-February 1997 Perspective, the Bureau of Naval Personnel stated that, "for fleet manning, the change does not mean we can have more officers on active duty, it just means that we can have a slightly more senior force to meet changing manpower requirements." Through this action, the Navy is clinging to a bloated, top-heavy, force-manning structure to satisfy artificially high staffing requirements for officers. The following juxtaposition is illustrative: The Chief of Naval Operations announced that we are further reducing ships to 335 and personnel to just over 380,000. Then, in the same week, he announced that 156 captains would be added this year to total 0-6 end-strength. The Bureau of Personnel also recently released specifics on the drawdown plan for manning between now and 1999; as the overall Navy end-strength diminishes by slightly more than 7%, end-strength for captains will be reduced by 6%; for commanders by a negligible .2%; and for lieutenant commanders, it will increase by 5%. As we lose more ships, submarines, and aviation squadrons, should we not also proportionately reduce our senior leadership, rather than incrementally increasing it?
The law that defines the promotion "pyramid" for all the services is the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act of 1980, or DOPMA. The purpose of DOPMA was to "maintain a high-quality, numerically sufficient officer corps [to] provide career opportunity that would attract and retain the numbers of high-caliber officers needed [and] provide reasonably consistent career opportunity among the services." The number of active-duty lieutenant commanders through captains is dictated in proportion to total officer end-strength. In the 1980s, the Navy accessed many of the officers needed to fill out the 600-ship Cold War Navy. The great influx of junior officers in the 1980s allowed a growing number of field grade officers to be promoted—the "instantaneous" rise in the aggregate officer corps spawned a commensurate "instantaneous" rise in the DOPMA grade table allowance for field grade officers, and many were needed to command the ships, subs, and squadrons of the 600-ship Navy.
The expansion of sea billets to man the 600-ship Navy led to a commensurate expansion in shore billets. When the Navy began force reductions in the early 1990s, it was left with a generation of officers it had "promised" careers and a decreasing number of sea commands, but also a large enough shore billet structure to accommodate many of those officers. To ameliorate the painful process of downsizing, the Navy is keeping more officers than it really needs to fill shore billet requirements that resulted from the 600-ship Navy buildup: A true tautology.
In addition to sizing the officer corps, DOPMA defines flow points, or the timing of promotions within a given variance. For example, officers can expect to be promoted to lieutenant commander at the 10-year point, plus or minus two years. Inherent in this is a promise to maintain the timing and promotion opportunity for each pay-grade. In a period of downsizing, DOPMA forces choices between either violating or seeking relief from the statutory grade table—or decreasing statutory tenure, thus breaking with standing policy, promotion opportunity, and timing. The Navy chose to have the Congress expand the statutory tables to fit its structure, rather than alter the structure to properly fit the force.
A rigid personnel-management tool, DOPMA was enacted before the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act—and also before the large pay raises and expanding opportunities of Reagan-era defense budgets. With its incremental approach to promotions, based on fluctuating aggregate officer end-strength, DOPMA serves better as a static measure than a dynamic tool for officer manning. It was meant to restrain officer manning—implementing an "up-or-out" system, and not to accommodate personnel needs—and therefore is insensitive to personnel flows. A RAND Corporation study of DOPMA concluded that:
During periods of decline, DOPMA provides personnel managers with fewer tools to draw down the force, tools that take longer to produce an effect, or tools that are arduous to implement. In fact, as provided in law, many of the provisions of DOPMA either directly impede management action during periods of force reduction or result in situations that seem inconsistent with the goals and guidelines established for the management of officers provided in DOPMA.
Further, during a drawdown, reduced officer accession would cause sharp downward adjustments in promotion opportunity and timing, and require large numbers of officers to be separated prematurely. This is precisely what happened in the early 1990s, using an alphabet soup of drawdown tools—IRAD, SER, VSI, SSB, and TERA.1 Adhering to DOPMA numbers, the Navy certainly would have run short of officers for the existing billet structure.
The Bureau of Naval Personnel reasons that the Navy needs more senior officers to fill joint billets created by Goldwater-Nichols and to fill billets in the expanding acquisition-professional field. But Goldwater-Nichols was designed to promote jointness, economies of scale, and cooperative efforts of the services—not to bloat the services with senior officers. The acquisition-professional corps could be reduced also, especially in light of the paucity of research-and-development initiatives within the Defense Department.
Marine General John Sheehan, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Atlantic Command, has told the Senate Armed Services Committee that growth in staff jobs is threatening the military's warfighting capability. General Sheehan said that staffs "should not be growing as the force shrinks." Because of requirements for the disproportionate manning of shore-based staffs, General Sheehan expressed concern that "Opportunities for experience in command and on operational staffs is shrinking." This is because of a growing backlog within non-command billets, as evidenced by a recent message regarding the large pool of surface-warfare-commander-command selectees—vis-a-vis actual command-at-sea opportunity. Shortened command tours in all communities are further evidence, with surface command tours down to a nominal 20 months, submarine tours to 22 months, and aviation command tours to a nominal 15 months—with actual tours sometimes being shorter. The armed services run the risk of maintaining extraneous, non-warfighting staff billets, while trying to provide the personnel manning these billets with operational tours—eventually at the expense of adequate warfighting experience.
The Quadrennial Defense Review, already being touted as a paper tiger, can regain its bite by analyzing staff functions to expose redundancy and explore consolidation, as well as examining billet structure to weed out hollow billets. Structural paradigms need to be challenged. What has driven the Navy to request grade-table relief? Why not a proportionate reduction in the shore-billet structure instead?
A member of the Navy's Office of Legislative Affairs recently said that the Navy felt that it had promised careers to many of the officers accessed during the Reagan buildup, and it would do whatever is needed to see that promise through. If so, those careers need not be in the Navy. Separating officers with incentives to start them in new lives is the best way to "rightsize" the force. If the Navy intends to keep such career promises, then challenging operational tours and command-at-sea opportunity must be part of the plan. Separation incentives might cost more up front, but it will pay great dividends in the long run, through a trim and efficient, rightsized force, along with true job satisfaction.
Is our officer billet structure correct for manning a force moving toward 380,000 personnel and 335 ships, with consideration for Joint billets? Perhaps.
But to inflate the senior ranks while junior ranks and the number of commands at sea shrink means less command opportunity, shorter command tours, and potentially overstaffed shore commands. The key to maintaining or increasing command-screening opportunity is to minimize shore requirements, thereby reducing overall officer manning requirements. The number of sea-going, operational billets should be the driving force behind manning the naval ranks. Structure, not manpower, needs to change.
1 IRAD-Involuntary Release from Active Duty SER-Selective Early Retirement VSI-Voluntary Separation Incentive SSB-Selective Separation Benefit TERA-Temporary Early Retirement Authority
Lieutenant Rowe is the air warfare officer from Commander, Carrier Group Five. He is an E-2 Hawkeye mission commander and holds an MA in National Security Affairs from the Naval Postgraduate School.