Report to Congress on General and Flag Officers

March 12, 2024 1:47 PM - Updated: March 12, 2024 2:20 PM

The following is the March 8, 2024, Congressional Research Service report General and Flag Officers in the U.S. Armed Forces: Background and Considerations for Congress.

From the report

In the exercise of its constitutional authority over the Armed Forces, Congress has enacted an array of laws that govern important aspects of military officer personnel management, including appointments, assignments, grade structure, promotions, and separations. Some of these laws are directed specifically at the most senior military officers, known as general and flag officers (GFOs). Congress periodically reviews these laws and considers changes as it deems appropriate. Areas of congressional interest have included duties and grades of certain GFO positions, the number of GFOs, the proportion of GFOs to the total force, and compensation levels of GFOs.

As of September 30, 2023, there were 809 active-duty GFOs subject to statutory caps, 48 less than the maximum of 857 authorized by law. The current number is low for the post-Cold War era and substantially lower than the number of GFOs in the 1960s-1980s, when the Armed Forces were much larger in size than they are today. However, while always very small in comparison to the total force, the GFO corps has increased as a percentage of the total force over the past five decades. GFOs made up about one-twentieth of one percent (0.048%) of the total force in 1965, while they made up about one-sixteenth of one percent (0.063%) of the total force in 2023, indicating that the share of the total force made up of GFOs is now increased by 31%. This historical trend is more pronounced with respect to four-star officers (which grew from 0.0014% of the total force to 0.0029%, a 107% increase) and three-star officers (which grew from 0.0045% of the total force to 0.0103%, a 129% increase). One- and two-star officers increased less rapidly (from 0.0425% of the total force to 0.0500%, a 17.6% increase).

Some argue that this increased proportion of GFOs is wasteful and contributes to more bureaucratic decisionmaking processes. Others counter that the increased proportion is linked to the military’s greater emphasis on joint and coalition operations; core organizational requirements; management, budgeting, and program requirements; and the employment of automated, highly lethal, and destructive weapons systems that may require fewer personnel.

Congress has used its authority to specify the grade and duties of certain GFO positions. For example, Congress increased the grade of the Chief of the National Guard Bureau (NGB) from Lieutenant General to General in 2008. Congress also has added the Chief of Space Operations, Commander of Space Command, and, most recently, the Deputy Chief of the NGB as four-star officers. In 2016, Congress removed the statutory grade requirement from 54 GFO positions.

Compensation for GFOs varies. One commonly used measure of compensation, known as regular military compensation (RMC), includes basic pay, basic allowance for housing, basic allowance for subsistence, and the federal tax advantage associated with allowances, which are exempt from federal income tax. In 2024, the lowest-ranking GFOs make about $251,058 per year in RMC, while the highest-ranking GFOs make about $285,097 per year.

This report provides an overview of active-duty GFOs in the U.S. Armed Forces—including duties, authorizations, and compensation—historical trends in the proportion of GFOs relative to the total force, criticisms and justifications of GFO to total force proportions, and statutory controls. National Guard and Reserve GFOs are not addressed in this report, unless they are serving on active duty in a manner that counts against the active-duty caps on GFOs.

Download the document here.

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