The May 2012 Proceedings reached me while I was on some active duty facilitating some war games at NDU. It is my second-favorite Proceedings issue of the year. It is the Naval Review issue. Contained therein is every Navy Flag Officer currently serving. Three hundred thirty one in total, according to USNI.

There has been discussion aplenty here and elsewhere regarding the absurdity and wastefulness of having 1.17 Admirals for EACH SHIP in the United States Navy. While the profligate growth of stars in the Navy’s senior ranks may have seemed like a good idea at the time, it is unconscionable in the current environment of extreme fiscal constraint, especially as the Sea Service is hemorrhaging highly qualified E-6 Sailors one hitch short of retirement eligibility. It is well past time to cull the Flag herd. And here’s one way forward (Hint: Simply shouting “you CAN’T!” and “we NEED!” does not constitute a counter-argument).

Among Rear Admirals, and Rear Admirals, Lower Half, there are 62 positions that are Deputy, Vice, or Assistant positions. Fill each with a Captain, breveted temporarily one or two ranks while serving in those billets. A successful tour in one of those positions would be a career enhancer for a Captain, increasing chances for permanent promotion.

Among Vice Admirals, there are ten positions that are Deputy or Assistant positions. Reduce those positions to two star rank. Reduce the billet of VCNO from four stars to three. Ditto Fleet Forces Command. Next time NDU is a Navy fill, do so with a Rear Admiral instead of a Vice Admiral. The Naval War College gets a Rear Admiral, Lower Half.

And have a long look at the Joint Billets that swell the Navy’s senior officer structure. Pursuant to meaningfully re-evaluating Goldwater-Nichols, which is now in its 27th year.

Implement this concept, and you have at least a 20% reduction of Navy Flag Officers. Between 65 and 70, depending on which path one takes regarding force structure tied up in Joint assignments. It’s a start. The path we are on gives this nation a Navy of 200 ships and 400 Admirals before the end of the next decade. That ain’t no way to run a railroad. Or win a war at sea.

Yes, I will have a similar look at the Marine Corps in the near future.

Posted by UltimaRatioReg in Aviation, From our Archive, History, Homeland Security, Marine Corps, Maritime Security, Naval Institute, Navy, Proceedings

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  • TJ

    Your point is well taken about the loss of senior sailors in the enlisted ranks. FWIW though, by the end of 2017, the Navy will have 25 fewer flag officers than it does now through implementation of OSD efficiencies. So, we are decidedly not on that path to 400 flag officers. Also, statutorily, the Navy’s blue only numbers have changed very little over the past ten years at 160. The past few decade’s growth has been due to Joint demand. I think that’s an important difference.

    I’m not saying we aren’t too top heavy, but before we have that conversation, why is the metric of flag officers to ships a valid one? If you don’t count the several dozen in Joint billets, or some of the staff corps. All the docs, serve the marine corps as well. Same with JAG. One of the two chaplains we have. I’d offer that these communities reduce your flag numerator significantly. And don’t forget the reserves. On the point of why a billet is an O-8 or O-7, it probably bears looking at lateral lines of coordination, especially at the joint table. If Navy has an O-7 but our joint bro/sisters send O-8s, are our equities going to be well represented. International, too.

    Again, broadly you raise a good point about looking at our leadership structure and making sure it doesn’t bloat, so I’m not defending the system per se, but I think you gloss over the details a bit of why things are the way they are.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    I will believe the reduction of 25 Flag Officers by 2017 when I see it. It is the converse of the shipbuilding plan, which promises phantom increases.

    Place your bets. It might be 300 Admirals and 150 ships. The assertion remains valid.

    Also, we are well past the point of either justifying or lamenting “why things are the way they are”. They cannot continue in this manner. Something about being up to one’s backside in alligators pursuant to draining the swamp.

  • When we had the strategy “from the sea” it didn’t mean move the force farther from the sea but the numbers show that this is what’s happening.

    see also

  • BJ Armstrong

    URR, TJ is right to call out the “Flags v. Ships” comparison. As an example, Naval Aviation makes up a significant portion of the fleet and by my count there are over 124 squadrons (not including test and evaluation or reserve, so the number is probably closer to 200). Squadrons, Wings, TYCOMs, etc are legitimate and necessary functions that each require leadership, so those numbers should be included in your baseline comparison (combat units from NSW, SPECOPS, and NECC add even more commands). The assertion comparing ship count to Admiral count may have been valid in Mahan’s day, but not a century later.

    That being said…Flag and staff bloat is a real and potentially debilitating issue. It is an issue across the board, not just in the Navy. I read somewhere that many of the “efficiency reductions” instituted by SECDEF Gates have already been cancelled (or other new positions added which cancel the effect) but SECDEF Panetta. I can’t find a link, I’ll keep looking. The entire DoD (and yes, even our beloved Marine Corps) needs to look at the distribution of its flag and general officer corps and (just as importantly) their staffs.

  • BJ,
    “…their staffs.” That is where you start.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    What you say is valid, to a point. However, one could quite reasonably posit that sea power has evolved surprisingly little from Mahan’s day. Projection is projection, presence is presence. The means have changed, but not the concepts.

    But let us not get too focused on “admirals vs ships”. It is a reference point, not the entire argument. Admirals versus end strength is entirely appropriate, regardless of the age or technology. Too damned many chiefs. Far too many. We have ships without sufficient crews to adequately man and maintain them during peacetime, for goodness sake, let alone if we are contested on the world’s oceans by even a regional near-peer.

    We are more than willing to accept risk there, at the pointy end, the one that slams into the enemy. We misrepresent the damage done by such short-sighted and foolhardy initiatives, and the true cost of the consequences. But we keep growing our senior staffs. In order to ensure we have our “equities well-represented”.

    We focus on this nonsense instead of training and preparing for winning the war. There, sufficient numbers of powerful, sturdy, well-maintained ships manned by trained and discipline crews MATTER. This has been true since Salamis, and will be true fifty and a hundred years hence.

    We are positioning ourselves to have the most supervised Navy ever to lose a war at sea. Because, whether we choose to think so or not, it is STILL Mahan’s day.

  • URR,
    I also think it is important to note that large numbers of aviation commands in the navy has been a fixture for almost 75 years. Very much in a modern sense for half a century.

  • Jim Dolbow

    BZ URR for keeping this issue illuminated. Another way to reduce the number of GOFOs is across the board: every 3 star billet is now a 2 star, every 2 star is a 1 star, and every 1 star is an 0-6 billet. Looking forward to your review of the USMC. May I suggest examining the USCG as well when the August issue arrives.

  • Stu Newman

    Admirals to ships does not tell the whole story, but remains a telling indicator, as would Generals to combat Battalions or Generals to squadrons. Compare Admirals to ships from WWII forward and it becomes an even starker comparison. More importantly though is the comparison of overall infrastructure and overhead (read DOD SES’s and Sr. civilians) to combat forces. We have a Sr. Command and overhead structure designed for a 600+ ship Navy, and yes, other services likely have as much bloat and need to be pruned.

    The Admiral/General ratio does however remain a telling indicator of how inefficient we have become…and with all the proliferation of Flag staffs that adds a lot to churn and critical information attenuation…

  • virgil xenophon

    Well, URR, a straightforward projection of present trends if unchanged reveals the day when there will be Admirals aplenty–ALL in “diversity” billets given current growth in “diversity” personnel assignments/directorates–but no ships of any kind. I see the Navy is also currently doing its unabated level best to achieve that dubious “singularity.”

  • Diogenes of NJ

    @URR –

    Your argument is sound. It is similar to Norm Augustine’s argument (a.k.a Augustine’s Laws)

    Whereas the performance improvement of aircraft is demonstrable, what can be said about the performance of Flag Officers (and senior management – let’s not let DoD off of the hook).

    I don’t know if Norm’s book is still in print. It’s fairly short & if you’ve never read it, you should try to get your hands on a copy.

    – Kyon

  • Bob

    Every one of those Admirals seems to come up with his/her directive to be complied with by the 283 ships causing them to spend an inordinate amount of time complying with all those directives.

  • Reducing (drastically, one hopes) the numbers of flag officers also pushes authority back down the chain of command. I’d argue that’s a far better benefit to the services than any direct cost savings.

  • eastriver

    BZ URR for the topic analysis, and extremely well spoken xbradtc.

    One of the finest things that may be done for the Navy is to ratchet down the chain the authority and responsibility for action and decision. No more hiding behind cubicle walls.

  • Randy

    NDU is one step ahead of you: the Joint Staff has downgraded NDU-P to a 2-star position.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    You know, I KNEW that, since I was just there, but apparently I played a few too many games without my helmet! 🙂

  • PJ

    If you look at the decade from September 2001 to September 2011, the number of men and women in uniform in the Navy shrunk by 14.6%. Coincidentally, in the same period, the number of flag officers increased by 14.6%.

    When all those flag officers wring their hands and complain about rising personnel costs, they better be looking at their navels, not their navals. A fleet with the price tag of Cadillacs costs more than a fleet of Chevys.

    And the comment about cutting flags as part of OSD efficiencies? The data do not bear it out. Look back at what SecDef Gates promised to Congress and the American people two years ago, then look at the actual data. There has been no reduction.

    An excessively top-heavy ship is not very sea-worthy.