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In the 1980s, the British army had 145,000 personnel on active duty being led by 321 generals.
Sen. Jim Webb recalled relating those figures to Al Gray when Gray was soon to become commandant of the Marine Corps and Webb was assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs.
"We have 200,000 people in the Marine Corps and we've got 67 generals," the Virginia Democrat told Gray. "What's going on?"
Gray, Webb said, replied, "Well, they have more bands."
It's a good chuckle, but serious business to Webb. A former Marine officer himself, he now wants to know why the U.S. military's flag and general officer corps has continued to expand relative to the rest of the force.
He raised the issue at the tail end of an April 28 hearing of his personnel panel of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Webb said he simply wanted to see historical numbers of general and flag officers and get a "clear understanding" of why their numbers are higher today than when he worked in the Pentagon in the late 1980s.
That's not quite the case in terms of raw numbers: the congressionally authorized ceiling for general and flag officers during that time was 1,073. The current total on active duty, as of March 31, was 950.
But the number of those senior officers in relation to the number of service members they lead, on average, has increased steadily over the years.
When Webb was finishing his senior year at the Naval Academy and preparing for a distinguished combat tour in Vietnam, for instance, there was one general or flag officer for every 2,615 people in other ranks, according to historical sources.
By the end of March 2010, the 1.4 million service members on active duty were being led by 950 generals and flags — or one for every 1,489 troops. According to the Pentagon, that included 38 four-stars, 149 three-stars, 299 two-stars and 464 one-stars.
The Pentagon acknowledges the past decade's increase, noting that active-duty end strength grew 3 percent from 2000 to 2010 while the number of general and flag officers increased 8 percent over the same period.
Critics of the long-term increase, according to a 2007 study by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, said the Pentagon had found it easier to reduce the force during the post-Cold War years by eliminating enlisted billets.
But defenders said the increase in the most senior officers was justified by "the long-term decline of labor-intensive functions in the military relative to technologically skilled functions, and the increased demand for managerial skill, given the military's greater organizational complexity over time."
More immediately, the study found that the senior officer community's growth was due to the growth of joint-duty positions.
That conclusion was affirmed by Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez, who said the increase was largely the result of congressional reforms aimed at addressing new joint war-fighting requirements.
She noted that a 2008 internal Pentagon review led to legislation that institutionalized joint general and flag officer positions for the first time, boosting the number of such jobs from 231 to 294 and simultaneously reducing in-service authorizations by more than 25 percent.
Concerns over the ratio of senior officers to the rest of the force are not new. The Pentagon cites 10 documented special studies or reviews of the issue since World War II, all of which, Lainez said, called for increases beyond the statutory authority at the time.
In raising the issue, Webb was taking up the mantle left by another former Marine officer who once presided over the same subcommittee.
More than 20 years ago, astronaut and Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, was convinced the force had too many senior officers. Glenn based his concerns on the officer-to-enlisted ratio, calling it "brass creep."
"I am not sure it takes more generals to wage peace than to wage war," Glenn said at the time.
A shrinking ration
Ratios of general and flag officers to other troops over the years:
* August 1945: 1 to 6,000
* September 1967: 1 to 2,615
* September 1994: 1 to 1,742
* September 1997: 1 to 1,635
* September 2000: 1 to 1,572
* March 2010: 1 to 1,489