WASHINGTON — Of all the spending cuts and budget battles the Pentagon is confronting, none is causing more angst than Defense Secretary Robert Gates' vow to start getting rid of generals and admirals.
By almost any measure, the military is more top-heavy an institution than it has been for decades. Today, there are 40 four-star generals and admirals — one more than in 1971, during the Vietnam War, even though the number of active-duty troops has shrunk by almost half.
The number of active-duty generals and admirals of all rank, meanwhile, has increased by about 13 percent since 1996.
It is, as Gates puts it, "brass creep."
But the defense secretary's pledge this week to cut about 5 percent of the brass is nothing short of seismic for many at the Pentagon. The cuts would be the largest in the upper ranks since a similar squeeze at the end of the Cold War, when the collapse of the Soviet Union prompted the military to downsize.
The defense secretary has said he also wants to make similar trims in the civilian leadership, noting that the number of people assigned to his office has grown by nearly 1,000 over the past decade.
"Our headquarters and support bureaucracies — military and civilian alike — have swelled to cumbersome and top-heavy proportion," Gates said in a speech this week to the Marines' Memorial Association in San Francisco, adding that the top layers have "grown accustomed to operating with little consideration to cost."
The push has caused some squealing at the Pentagon, as one- and two-star generals and admirals privately fret that they could be forced to retire early, while up-and-coming officers worry that fewer plum posts will be available.
This week, Gates named the first casualty by announcing plans to dismantle the Joint Forces Command, a unit based in Norfolk, Va., that coordinates military doctrine among the armed services and is traditionally headed by a four-star commander. He has told aides that they have until Nov. 1 to come up with a list of at least 50 other brass jobs that will get the ax. Officials said that most positions probably will be eliminated by attrition.
Among the likely targets are officers in Europe. U.S military and NATO forces in Europe are jointly led by a four-star commander. In a vestige left over from World War II, however, the Army, Navy and Air Force have four-star officers overseeing their individual forces in Europe as well.
Analysts said the brass squeeze won't result in significant savings. Terminating a single general's billet might save about $200,000 a year in salary and benefits, barely a rounding error in the Pentagon's base budget this year of $537 billion.