Captain Crunch

Many (including me) have sounded the alarm about Army and Marine Corps captains leaving the service, and the lasting harm this may do to the U.S. military. Some statistics indicated that West Point graduates were leaving the Army at an accelerating rate, and other statistics indicated a massive shortage of captains and majors in the Army's ranks. The captain exodus seemed to be a clear sign of the strain being placed on the Army by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Just one problem: the statistics may tell a different story.

According to Army Capt. Jaron Wharton, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, Army captain attrition is not substantially higher than during the past 10 years. Indeed, Wharton argues that today's all-volunteer officer corps is demonstrating significantly more resilience than the officer corps during Vietnam.

After reading Wharton's study, three issues stand out to me. The first is that I'd like to see more data. I frequently hear anecdotal reports from captains and colonels telling me things like "nearly every captain in my battalion is getting out," reports that clash with an overall attrition rate hovering between 10 and 11 percent. I've also seen other data that differs from that which Wharton uses. I'd like to see the Army open its kimono on this story, and share all of the officer retention data, so that we can understand whether there's a problem or not here.

Second, the Army has changed its force structure significantly over the past few years, creating many more captain and major positions as a consequence of its organizational redesign. This has created an artificial shortage of captains and majors that did not exist before. It's still a problem though, and the Army will need to vigorously grow its officer corps in order to fill these positions -- particularly if attrition continues at current levels.

Third, we need to better understand the qualitative issues discussed by Wharton. In a survey of active-duty officers, many voiced concerns about the Army's program for married couples, contractor oversight, poor quality schools for military dependents, and the lack of a preference for Army spouses seeking government employment. Perhaps most significantly, 62 percent said they felt the "best and brightest" officers were the ones leaving active service. These are important issues. The Army must think creatively -- and act rapidly -- before it loses the Petraeus generation that it will need to rebuild after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fade.

By Phillip Carter |  May 6, 2008; 1:16 PM ET  | Category:  Army
Previous: The Somalia Hangover | Next: Soldier Sabbaticals


Please email us to report offensive comments.


Overall, a great post but I have a few insights that I would like to add to your conclusions.

1. Stop Loss. No one is talking about the impact that stop-loss is having on artificially suppressing the appearance of CPT attrition. This is the problem I have with Michael O'Hanlon's recent "all is fine, nothing to see here" piece. Sure, we can look at the USMA 2002 graduating cohort in a vaccuum, but it would be irresponsible to NOT mention the fact that anywhere from 25-33% of this overall cohort are still not eligible to seperate even though they have already served their 5 year ADSO thanks to stop-loss and post-deployment stabilization. The FY 2000 and FY 2001 cohorts are far more reflective of long-term trends.

2. I disagree with your assessment of army force structure realignments over the past few years. You need to take the long view over the past 40 years to get a sense of this. In the long term, I would exactly the opposite of what you contend here. With privatization, outsourcing, mil-civ conversions and other gimmicks, the Army has cut the TDA/Institutional Army to the absolute bone here. Ask any veteran officer on these boards who served on active duty pre-1980 and they can probably recount the dozens of officers at the O-3 and O-4 level who toiled at garrison and post-level assignments. While not "warfighter" jobs, these positions provided officers with an opportunity to "take a knee" between repetitive TOE assignments. Have the MAJ and BQ CPT authorizations increased in the new modular force? Yes. But at what cost and compared to what decade? 1998? Yes. 1978? No! We can no longer man the institutional Army. Right now, HRC-STL is seeking what few IRR officers it has left who are past-MSO to volunteer as Battalion XOs and S-3s in the Infantry Training Brigade, CGSC instructors, OCS Tac officers, BOLC/OBC trainers and for 83 ROTC APMS positions. Wait a minute ... if we can't spare RA officers to serve as OCS TACS or Small Group leaders at IOBC or the Armor School, we're in a world of hurt. Please don't tell me that the absence of qualified MAJs/LTCs to teach CGSC or BQ CPTs to serve as OCS TACs is an "artificial shortage." The FA Branch alone right now has 8 BCT equivalents of FA officers tasked to the MiTT mission.

What you are seeing here is the logical flaw of the AVF and its "business efficiency" approach to personnel. By playing personnel accessions so "danger close", there was simply no slack built into the current system or redundancy. Think about it. Pre-AVF, something like only 10-15% of ROTC commisionees stayed on active duty after their MSO. Leaving was the norm and the system had a health slack built into it ... so much so that we had to RIF thousands of fine, battle tested CPTs and MAJs in the early '70s. Now, instead of a surplus, we have no slack and lack the bodies to nourish the health of the institutional Army. It's unnatural to plan on 60% of newly assessed 2LTs to persist as lifers, but when Army leadership adopts a narrow, "warrior" posture, these pollyannish personnel projections are assumed without question. Throw in a never-ending war and brutal OPTEMPO and this folly is laid bare for all to see.

3. Your comment re: The "Petraeus Generation" leaves me laughing. Why? This current generation of CPTs is drawn from a far more insular, self-selecting pool of young Americans than our current 3 and 4 stars were - educationally, geographically and ideologically. Between 1987 and 2007, the Army "slashed and burned" it's roster of "blue state" ROTC programs. The Wall Street Journal lays this out quite nicely in these graphics:

Bottom Line: Before we start lamenting the loss of the "Petraeus Generation", the Army should resolve to at least start approximating the breadth of human talent is brought into its officer corps 30 years. The Army needs a broadly representative 2LT cohort to rebuild and best prepare for the spectrum of events on the horizon in the 21st century. Taking E-7s and making them 2LTs like we are increasingly doing is not the answer.

Posted by: IRR Soldier ... | May 6, 2008 2:57 PM

I read Wharton's piece ... gotta love Footnote #18 from the now discredited FoxNews "Military Analyst" MG Robert Scales. It's worth noting that Scales' "money" quote came in response to a question I asked and which he rudely dismissed/interrupted. He did the same thing when I questioned him at another Center for American Progress event - the day after his rosy WSJ Op-Ed on how great Army retention was. Just a little back story ...

Two comments on the piece:

Again, no historical context on CPT/MAJ authorizations pre-1995.

Also, a failure to understand that our Army in the 1960's was 1) far larger; 2) much more of a citizen-Army where ROTC/OCS grads staying on as "lifers" were the exception and not the norm. If I recall correctly, OCS throughput in '68 was over 7,000 2LTs - almost our ENTIRE RA 2LT cohort in 2008. Something to chew on.

Can't compare 1968 "apples" to 2008 "oranges."

I'm saddened how CPT Wharton fell for Army G-1's spin hook, line and sinker. The name given by G-1 to its slide re: 1960's to 2000's officer attrition revealed their agenda.

Posted by: IRR Soldier... | May 6, 2008 3:18 PM

I can not speak for the Army as a whole, but my brigade has an MTOE authorization for approximately 108 captains. As we prepared to redeploy from Iraq we had 50 captains with packets in for release from active duty (refrad). That is slightly over 46% attrition. The pallet of captain's incentives lured one captain (number 51) to withdraw his refrad packet. All the money and incentives went to captains who were staying in anyways.

Posted by: Anecdotal Numbers | May 6, 2008 5:36 PM

Being an old retired guy who's probably not as well versed on the subject as I should be, I just want to offer some observations.

First, from what I've seen, the Army does indeed have a junior officer retention problem, despite what this fellowship captain says. Numbers are numbers. But what do the numbers tell us? Anecdotal Numbers tells us that his brigade has an MTOE authorization for 108 captains, with 50 getting out. That's close to half, and that's too high.

But then I ask, what's the end-strength of one of these new super brigades? 5K? What do those 108 captains do for a living? Relatively few of them are in command billets, so most must be staff guys. Huh? What do they do?

Extrapolate from those captain numbers to lieutenants--gotta be more if they follow the pyramid--and to majors, none of whom is in a command position, and I'd guess maybe 50 or so--and ISTM you've got one boatload of officers, 04 and below, in that brigade. Knowing the Army, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that there are more than the expected number of 05s--a deputy and battalion commanders--to boot. I wouldn't be suprised to learn that staff principals are now 05s, which of course means more 04s and 03s to make the coffee. I wouldn't be surprised to find more officers than NCOs in the three shop.

Anybody ever thought that maybe, just maybe, the Army is over-officered? Last ratios I saw were 6:1, enlisted-officer, and I'll bet that's gone down. Some might find that a wee bit excessive. Some might also find the number of general officers to be excessive, what with this wizard new BCT approach with the principal combat commander being an 06.

How many officers does the Army really need?

Posted by: Publius | May 6, 2008 9:35 PM

Truly enthralled with the CPT's fellowship paper. If retention is so great why did the Army see the need to dangle 35k bonuses in front of IN, FA and MI captains? Why are junior captains (non-Career Course Grads) taking command prior to deployments. Yes, I understand the deployment cycles have wreaked havoc on the Army school systems, but I saw it in my brigade, heck the BDE HHB CDR was a non-CCC grad. Extremely troubling because this is a second command for the BDE's super stud CPT.

As far as the comment about there are two many captains serving coffee: Guess what? Our unit from Bragg, while serving as a Force FA HQs in Iraq, only had 3(!) captains on the ENTIRE bde staff and one major (yup, count 'em, four whole officers on the staff)...fortunately, our NCOs -as is always the case it seems -bailed us out and carried the day in the A/L sections. Also, our only major was the BDE S-3 which is an O-5 auth billet for an DivArty/FA BDE). Sadly, there were no other captains to raid from the BNs to serve up at Bde because the few they had were commanding. This isn't some MLRS Bde at Sill we are taking about, this was an Airborne unit from Bragg -an Army priority fill post.

Maybe there is a lot of truth about all of these new billets that Transformation has created, and as such we are spread arounf the Army as best as possible. And yes, MiTT Taskers raid from the CCCs, and MTOE units, but eventually these captains should be rotating back into traditional FORSCOM units. So where are they hiding?

I agree with Carter: The Army needs to just come clean and say, this is what we've got.

Posted by: Travis Reed | May 6, 2008 11:41 PM

I just want to throw my anecdotal number out there. I received a brief from an Human Resources Command LTC that said the Logistics branches were short 125 captains to send for MiTT teams over the last annual deployment cycle. Guess how they fill the shortages? send promotable 1LT's, so they're sending the most junior captains for the Army's top priority mission.

Posted by: Chevy Nick | May 7, 2008 5:43 AM

Chevy Nick, Travis and Anecdotal,

A million thanks for providing your personal, "eyes on" perspectives which support much of what Phil C. and I have seen, heard and observed (not to speak for the author though).

What makes this situation even more worrisome is that at the same time that we have systemic and growing shortages in our RA officer force structure, our strategic reserve officer "bench" is empty. This is a very bad combination. For as "bad" as Vietnam and the post-Vietnam malkaise were, we still had a robust (if rusty) pool of drilling and inactive reserve officers in an emergency. No more.

FACT: As of last January, the USAR (troop units and IMA) were at 52% strength on CPTs with looming shortfalls in the MAJ and LTC areas. I shared these documents with Phil and I know he's seen them.

FACT: This past year, the Reserve (basic branch) selection board was a "best qualified" board with the charge to essentially promote all qualified/eligible MAJs to LTC. Guess what? We didn't have enough qualified USAR Majors to promote into the identified LTC requirements. This is even worse than a 100% selection rate.

FACT: The ill-conceived 2004 IRR recall did one thing very well - it chased many Senior CPTs, MAJs and LTCs serving past their MSO in the IRR out of the Army completely. This talent is gone forever. Instead of sensibly recalling the IRR officers to backfill CONUS requirements to free up the self-identified "warriors" to go overseas, we recalled IRR officers and sent them on Civil Affairs teams and advisors to the Iraqi Army. Brilliant. Now, when we don't even have RA officers to teach things like CGSC, OCS, ROTC or OBC, the IRR isn't there to step up to the plate.

Sorry to ramble. Bottom line: the situation is even worse than it appears on its face. The RA shortfalls are bad but only the tip of the iceberg and I'm pained that CPT Wharton so uncritically accepted Army G-1's side of the story.

This situation should serve for the astute observer as nothing short of a total repudiation of the AVF's "business efficiency" and "just in time" officer accessions model. This process was so fine tuned to minimize the recruiting/accessions demographic/footprint for our officer corps and to maximize the expectation (unrealistic in a war IMHO) that this small, insular cadre of self-selecting volunteers would be adequate to maintain the RA and Reserve components. It afforded no "slack" or "redundency" if the system hit a hiccup (like a never-ending and unpopular war). Frankly, it was a borderline un-American concept to have such a minimal officer recruiting presence in our "blue states." Today's serving Army officer corps is perhaps (overall) the most ideologically and socially narrow we've had since 1939 - and that was before we were a true world power with global responsibilities.

Our senior leaders seem shocked that USMA CPTs with 3 tours in OIF under their belts (the 3rd on stop loss) want nothing to do with the Reserve/Guard. Duh. This was all so preventable.

Posted by: IRR Soldier ... | May 7, 2008 6:47 AM

Mr. Carter,

Use the phrase "I'd like to see the Army open its kimono...." again, and you will deservedly lose half your readership.

Posted by: Sanjay | May 7, 2008 7:36 AM

There may be another problem as well. During the post-Vietnam era, the warrior types were not a great fit in the military's management culture. If you have seen the real job, the peacetime military is very tedious. Serious peacetime infractions include not having a bond allotment or using too much fuel. Our commander got reamed because several of us missed appointments we did not know had been scheduled. Since my name begins with an "A" I topped the list. The boss turned to me and asked why I missed a personnel records review. Rather than giving him the truth which sounded like an excuse, I told him, "I went by on Sunday but they were closed."

Out come the REMFs. All those guys who stayed in a staff or stateside training job, will emerge to get their line tour-tickets punched. While we overseas were getting shot at and living like animals, they were defending Texas or making polite conversation at the O'Club. Eventually, things will come to a head. In 1976 at Homestead AFB, an entire fighter squadron of combat veterans submitted their resignations on the same day. We called it voting with our feet.

In November, we will find out whether the military will be allowed to finish the job the civilian government gave them or run away. I suspect that some of the guys with their papers in now would consider pulling them if McCain wins.

Posted by: Arch | May 7, 2008 8:12 AM

In reading through the blog this morning there are some interesting comments and a few that merit response. I appreciate the commentary. After all, that was part of my end state: the picture isn't as bad as it seems but it could ultimately get there.

1) I did not take "Army G-1's spin hook, line and sinker" as one has suggested. If you read the whole report you'll notice that I make several assertions that the situation may rapidly deteriorate despite the numbers not being as bad as the media suggests. I took on this project because I was irritated at a story released last Christmas that the best and brightest were leaving. After three deployments to IZ/AF as an infantry officer with the 101st Airborne (every year from 2002-2006 for those who want to refer to my comments as 'fellowship CPT remarks'), I resented this and took it as the Army must be left to idiots. Additionally, the article (by Andrew Tilghman) used a representative sample consisting of two of my friends to make his conjecture. What he failed to note was that one of them was still serving in the National Guard and the other got medically retired from the Army after getting hurt on an airborne operation.

2) One of the main reasons why you see a mass exodus of CPTs leaving post-deployment is because they would've ordinarily matriculated out over the course of the year. It appears catastrophic when they all leave at once, but the overall attrition rate does not significantly deviate from the norm.

3) Stop-loss/Stop-move presents an interesting challenge in analysis. I agree that you cannot necessarily look at USMA grads getting out at five years. Perhaps the next evolution for research would be to examine if eight years is the new five years--referring to the requisite IRR time. In my paper I looked at five years and then at a random point between 5-6 years (54 months) for USMA grads. The effect was minimal and you can make your own conclusions on this.

4) Echo Phil's sentiments to examine the qualitative issues but the "other data" you speak of is not any different.

5) I was actually in the audience when screen name "IRR Soldier" posed his question to MG Scales. He was not the only one that cut you off, as I recall it was the entire panel because you were performing a monologue during Q&A. It was extremely disrespectful even if you do not agree with his opinion. I would think that a fellow officer might no better than to yell at a general officer? To each his own...

Posted by: Jaron Wharton | May 7, 2008 9:14 AM

Jaron: "Stop-loss/Stop-move presents an interesting challenge in analysis. I agree that you cannot necessarily look at USMA grads getting out at five years. "

A good initial cut would be to take the fraction desiring to leave immediately as: fraction actually leaving/fraction who can leave
=fraction actually leaving/(1-fraction stoplossed).

This comes out to 80% or more of the class of 2002. This would be valid unless the group currently stop-lossed will have substantially different behavior when they are released. If anything, I'd expect higher.

This is not exactly graduate statistics.

Posted by: Barry | May 7, 2008 10:09 AM


I did not yell at MG Scales (ret.). I attempted to raise points (documented with supporting evidence) that refuted the thesis of what he was saying. He had 15 minutes to spin a yarn of half-truths and misleading statements. If it takes a long time to set the stage for such a comment in reply ... my apologies. That said, I will not show deference to an individual in the service of OSD Public Affairs and Fox News as an "analyst" simply because he is a retired two star. As the documents obtained via FOIA request by the NY Times indicate, MG Scales (ret.) has obviously put the welfare of certain entities (Colgen Inc???) above the well-being of the Army officer corps. For if he did, he would have been a more forceful truth-teller for the current state of our RA and Reserve officer manning. Without belaboring the point, I don't recall Larry Korb or TX Hammes "cutting me off" or being irritated. In fact, I spoke with COL Hammes for about 45 minutes after the panel about the very issues that MG Scales (ret.) claimed didn't exist.

If we maintain this blind fealty to retired officers who have compromised credibility due to corporate and OSD conflicts of interest, nothing will improve.

To more substantive points ...

We have a major disconnect here between what G-1 is asserting WRT to officer attrition and what other evidence - both anecdotal and otherwise - indicate. I think the recent White Paper by COL McFarland et al. nicely gives a glimpse of where the truth may lie. In the recent White paper titled, "The King and I", the authors assert that if not for stop loss, the Army's FA CPT attrition would have topped 17% last year - well outside the boundaries of AVF norms. This is only one branch. What about other branches? In January of 2007, the GAO reported that Transportation Corps MAJ strength sat at 48% and the Army was 73% O/H for MI MAJs. These systemic shortages make the FA problem look miniscule. What are the "real deal" attrition numbers by branch if stop-loss were not in effect.

Posted by: IRR Soldier... | May 7, 2008 10:28 AM


Good to see you on here defending your work. Hope you stick around for some of the other conversations.

I share some of the concerns voiced above about what the data really show - however, I tip my hat to you for at least consolidating it all into one place, which just hasn't been done before. Sad that it takes a fellow at a brand-new think tank to do analysis that should be getting done and published routinely by G-1.

Enjoy your time at CNAS. I did a similar fellowship out West, and it was a stimulating and rewarding year for me.

Posted by: Ray Kimball | May 7, 2008 1:15 PM

"Sad that it takes a fellow at a brand-new think tank to do analysis that should be getting done and published routinely by G-1."

Ray, I agree 100%. This is exactly the kind of work that needs to be done and it's refreshing that it's being taken on by such a new organization.

I know the CPT shortage is a concern for Michele Flournoy.

Posted by: IRR Soldier .... | May 7, 2008 2:25 PM

Ok, I'll bite: I assume that the referenced The King & I is not the Yul Brenner version. Would someone post a link?

Posted by: Alan Stoga | May 29, 2008 9:47 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company