Fact Sheet: “Star Creep” | Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation

By Alexander Pearson


“Star Creep” is a term first coined by Ben Freeman, a Policy Advisor for National Security at Third Way. The term refers to the extensive growth in the number of general and flag (G/F) officers in the US military in recent years. This development has created an ever more ‘top-heavy’ US military as the number of officers and servicemen of lower rank has declined. This phenomenon has been detrimental to the effectiveness of the US military as a whole and has created a burden for the US tax payer.


The ratio of general and flag officers to total force numbers has increased dramatically since President Bush lifted a congressional cap on the number of top ranked officers in September 2001:

  • Since 2001, the number of three and four star G/F officers has increased by 20%, while the total number of active-duty personnel has decreased by 1.5%.
  • Each of these three and four star G/F officers is now responsible for 5,000 fewer personnel, on average, than their predecessors were following the Second World War. This is part of a wider trend, whereby the ratio between officers and enlisted personnel has generally increased over the course of the last century.
  • Star Creep’s extent has not been uniform across all military branches. Since 2001, the Army and Marine Core together added 117,509 enlisted personnel and officers, while adding 17 G/F officers and 17 three and four star G/F officers. By contrast, the Navy and Air Force together cut 70,574 enlisted personnel and officers but added 76 G/F officers and 20 three and four star G/F officers. If current trends continue, the Navy will have more admirals than ships.

Star Creep has had detrimental consequences for the effectiveness of the US military:

  • Star Creep has brought with it a growth in Pentagon bureaucracy as each new flag officer requires a larger support staff. This growth in bureaucracy has led to slower and less effective decision making and less money being spent on the “war fighting” sections of the US military.
  • Former Defense Secretary Robert referred to this problem when he described the Pentagon as a “bureaucracy with the fine motor skills of a dinosaur” in May 2010.
  • Secretary Gates also lamented that the star creep phenomenon had led to a situation in which “personnel of higher and higher rank are assigned to do things that could reasonably be handled by personnel of lower rank.”

Star Creep burdens the US tax payer:

  • The financial compensation a serviceman receives increases with every promotion. Comparatively, three and four star G/F officers earn as much as four times more on average than enlisted sergeants. According to Ben Freeman, the current crop of three and four star G/F officers will cost nearly $250 million between 2012 and 2021.
  • These direct compensation costs are exacerbated after a G/F officer retires. As a result of the passing of the 2007 National Defense Authorization Act, G/F officers who serve more than 40 years receive pensions that are greater than their compensation at the time of their retirement.
  • The 2007 National Defense Authorization Act increased retirement pay by 2.5 percent per year served beyond 40 for G/F officers.
  • In the last four years 146 three star generals and admirals have retired. This has cost the US taxpayer an additional $5.8 million annually.
  • 90% of former flag officers now work for large defense contractors. These contractors can demand up to $700,000 compensation from the Pentagon for hiring these individuals.

These problems were identified during Robert Gates’ time as Secretary of Defense and measures were implemented to tackle Star Creep:

  • In 2010, Secretary Gates launched his “Efficiency Initiatives.” These initiatives outlined a 10% (102) cut in the number of G/F officers.
  • As of February 2013 only 57 G/F officers have been cut.
  • The majority of these cuts have been made to the numbers of one star G/F officers rather than those of three and four star rank:
  • One star generals = 48 (10%)
  • Two star generals = 6 (1.9%)
  • Three and four star generals = 3 (1.6%)
  • Under the stewardship of Leon Panetta, the Pentagon added on average a new four star G/F officer every month.


The “Star Creep” phenomenon cannot sustain itself in the long term and concrete steps have already been implemented to reverse it. Spending cuts are forcing the Pentagon and Congress to designate expenditures within the budget that can be cut. Because the extra ‘stars’ at the top, along with the bureaucratic burdens that come with them, harm rather than improve the US war fighter, it seems likely that measures, such as Secretary Gate’s “Efficiency Initiatives”, will be maintained and expanded upon in order to obtain much needed savings.

Nevertheless, measures such as the “Efficiency Initiatives” must be more evenly implemented if they are to have any long term effect. One star G/F officers have been cut according to original targets; however the number of three and four star G/F officers has actually increased. Achieving a more even implementation of cuts will be hindered by a Pentagon whose top brass have little interest in losing their rank and the privileges that come with it.

via Fact Sheet: “Star Creep” | Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation.