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.
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