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Fewer Army generals hold top U.S. military jobs

At a time when the Army’s soldiers are doing most of the fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, the service’s influence in key decision-making positions is waning.
Michael Mullen
Adm. Michael Mullen, seen in May, was recently chosen to replace Gen. Peter Pace as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.Ronen Zilberman / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

At a time when the Army’s soldiers are doing most of the fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, the service’s influence in key decision-making positions is waning.

Of the U.S. military’s nine combat commands, only two are run by Army generals, and that number will be cut in half when Bryan Brown retires next month as the senior officer at U.S. Special Operations Command.

Inside the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is relying on officers from the maritime services to be his top advisers. He picked the current chief of naval operations, Adm. Michael Mullen, to replace Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Marine Gen. James Cartwright will be Mullen’s deputy.

The lack of green-suited four-stars in top jobs is seen partly as an extension of an attitude brought to the Pentagon six years ago by former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. It’s also a sign, however, of the successful culmination of a two decade effort to promote the concept of “jointness” within the military. The premise is that properly schooled officers should be able to lead troops regardless of service affiliation.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, former head of the Army War College who holds a Ph.D. in history from Duke University, said he could find no prior period when the Army was so engaged overseas and so underrepresented at top levels.

“It’s absolutely extraordinary,” he said. “I just can’t believe the numbers. It’s cultural, it’s political, and it’s deeply ingrained. I’ve never seen it to the degree it exists today.”

Besides Special Operations Command, which is located at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, there are eight other “combatant commands.” These are the structures responsible for unique wartime functions, such as transportation, or for managing troops in a particular region of the world, such as Europe or the Middle East.

Combatant commanders have short lines of authority; they report to the defense secretary and the president.

Navy presence growing
While the Army’s presence in the upper ranks of these commands has diminished, the Navy’s is growing. Brown, who is ending a 40-year military career in July, will be replaced by Eric Olson, a Navy special warfare officer. Olson’s confirmation hearing is Tuesday.

U.S. Central Command, also headquartered at MacDill, oversees military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and is led by Adm. William Fallon.

Once Brown gives way to Olson, Navy admirals will run four of the commands. Air Force generals are in charge of three. Army Gen. Bantz Craddock is the top officer at U.S. European Command.

Cartwright, a Marine pilot, has been running U.S. Strategic Command since July 2004. He’ll succeed Adm. Edmund Giambastiani, who is retiring, as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Cartwright’s replacement at Strategic Command has not yet been named.

The Bush administration decided not to reappoint Pace for a second two-year term because his Senate confirmation hearing might turn into a partisan battle over the Iraq war, Gates said in a surprise announcement Friday.

Mullen, a 1968 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, “has the vision, strategic insight, experience and integrity to lead America’s armed forces,” Gates said a Pentagon news conference.

“The political appointees seem to be saying to the Army that its senior officers are not intellectually equipped to hold the highest levels of command,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va.

Inevitable friction
Rumsfeld came to the Pentagon in January 2001 with a plan to push the military away from a dependence on large numbers of personnel and toward a high-tech approach to warfare.

With more than 500,000 active-duty troops, the Army is the largest of the military branches. Friction between its top leaders and the defense secretary was inevitable.

The tension spilled over in February 2003 when then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki told Congress the invasion and occupation of Iraq could require “several hundred thousand soldiers.”

Shinseki retired in June 2003. Rumsfeld picked Peter Schoomaker, a general who’d been retired for three years, to replace him, a move Thompson said still resonates at the Pentagon.

“When a defense secretary chooses to bypass all of the active-duty generals to find the next chief of staff, it’s a sign of low esteem for the service,” he said.

Col. Gary Keck, a Pentagon spokesman, said decisions on command selections are “based on the best qualified officer, not their service.”

Retired Army Gen. John Tilelli, former commander of U.S. forces in Korea, agreed, saying the process is designed to be “agnostic.”

“You have to look at this individual by individual,” he said. “Frankly, I’m not concerned.”

Generals and admirals are carefully controlled commodities; federal law prescribes how many each military branch may have. In the event of a national emergency, the president can authorize the Pentagon to waive the limits.

Following the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush did just that. There are now 39 four-star generals and admirals - 13 in the Air Force, 12 in the Army, 10 in the Navy and four in the Marine Corps.

Still some generals in top positions
The Army is not without generals in important positions. Gen. David Petraeus is the top commander in Iraq and is being counted on to make Bush’s troop surge in Baghdad a success.

In other parts of the world, Army Gen. Dan McNeill controls all NATO forces in Afghanistan and Army Gen. Burwell Bell is the senior officer in Korea.

Yet a military branch’s clout is measured by how many of its officers are in the Joint Staff and combatant command slots.

“All the services keep count, and they all think they should have a fair share,” said retired Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Hoar, who led Central Command from 1991 to 1994.

When a command slot opens, each branch submits a candidate to the defense secretary, who then sends his recommendation to the White House for a final decision.

Candidates are vetted to ensure their world view tracks with that of the current administration, a process Hoar said is necessary although it makes the system “susceptible to manipulation.”

“The president is entitled to have a guy who agrees with his policies,” he said.

Seen through a different lens, the shortage of Army officers at the highest levels indicates that “true jointness is spreading,” said Robert Work of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. But he cautions there’s a downside to leaning toward one military branch.

“We are all shaped by our experiences,” he said. “If everyone comes from the same background, you may not get the diversity of views you need.”