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Star Creeps: Petraeus & the Price of the Top-Heavy Pentagon

Gen. David Petraeus

General David Petraeus

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In addition to an extramarital affair and “flirtatious e-mails,” the General Petraeus sex scandal highlighted another of the Pentagon’s dirty little secrets – generals live like billionaires, and taxpayers are footing the bill.

As the Washington Post reported on Saturday, these perks “befitting a billionaire,” include, “palatial homes, drivers, security guards and aides to carry their bags, press their uniforms and track their schedules in 10-minute increments. Their food is prepared by gourmet chefs. If they want music with their dinner parties, their staff can summon a string quartet or a choir.”

Lavish perks bestowed to generals increase with higher ranks, as Raymond Dubois, former DoD director of Administration and Management from 2002 to 2005, told Air Force Times. “A four-star has an airplane. A three-star often doesn’t…Can a three-star get an airplane when he needs it? Not always. Does a four-star get an airplane when he needs it? Always. Many times he’ll already have a G5 sitting on the runway, gassed up. There are the kinds of costs that are fairly significant when you add them all up,” according to Dubois.

Taxpayers are paying for this largesse, and they keep paying long after the generals retire—even if they are receiving other salaries and benefits.

General Petraeus, for example, will reportedly receive a $220,000 annual pension for the rest of his life. Petraeus is reaping the benefits of a 2007 provision that dramatically increased the pensions of top generals and admirals, but not the lower ranking soldiers they command. The Pentagon’s press office told POGO, for the average three-star general or admiral that retires from the military, “the annual difference in retired pay between the old and new criteria is about $39,900,” per year.

While they’re receiving these pensions – that dramatically exceed those of the troops they once commanded – many generals and admirals are also cashing in by working for defense contractors. In fact, a new report from the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) found “70 percent of the 108 three-and-four star generals and admirals who retired between 2009 and 2011 took jobs with defense contractors or consultants.”

Additionally, Pentagon contractors can also force taxpayers to pay for the work these former commanders are doing. Contractors can bill the government for up to $763,029 of an employee’s salary—POGO has long advocated for lowering this amount.

On top of all this, these top generals can become “senior mentors,” hired by the Pentagon to advise their former colleagues. A USA Today investigation in 2010 revealed that senior mentors were being “paid from about $200 to $340 an hour, plus expenses,” in addition to their pensions and private sector pay. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates worked to rein in these costs by capping senior mentor pay at Executive Schedule Level II ($179,700 per year), and requiring that senior mentors who serve more than 60 days in a calendar year and earn $119,554 or more to file a public financial disclosure report.

All told, retired generals, like Petraeus, could cost taxpayers more than one million dollars per year.

All these costs are compounded by the fact that today’s military is more top-heavy than it has ever been.

While testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee last year, I informed the Senators and the audience, which  was filled with generals and admirals, that “The top officer ranks, general and flag officers, have grown faster than lower officer ranks, and three- and four-star positions have increased faster than all other components of the DoD’s force structure—a phenomenon we call star creep.”

While the total number of generals and admirals has fallen slightly since then, according to the most recent data available, the services have continued to add three-and-four-star generals and admirals. Just this Monday the lean, mean Marines added their fifth four-star general. If Marine General Allen, whose “flirtatious e-mails” are currently under investigation, ultimately gets cleared and appointed as Supreme Allied Commander of Europe the Marines will likely add yet another four-star general to their ranks. All while the Pentagon plans to cut tens of thousands of soldiers in the coming years,

How much could taxpayers save by reducing the number of generals and admirals to, say, Cold War levels? At least $800million, according to a new report by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK).

Coburn’s plan would place excess brass in the reserves and eliminate these generals’ sizeable entourages. “A conservative estimate could mean a reduction in 800 support personnel costing $100,000 per year,” according to the report.

POGO wholeheartedly supports this recommendation and believes the savings would be significantly greater once all the perks like drivers, chefs, and choirs are accounted for.

Reducing the DoD’s bloated general and admiral ranks should be part of any plan to reduce the deficit and cut wasteful Pentagon spending. In this fiscal climate the least Congress can do is spare us from paying for any more string quartets.

Image from Flickr user Jon-Phillip Sheridan.

By: Ben Freeman, Ph. D.
Investigator, POGO

ben freeman At the time of publication, Ben Freeman was an investigator for the Project On Government Oversight. Ben's work focused on national security and the influence of foreign lobbying on the U.S.

Topics: National Security

Related Content: Budget, Defense, Waste

Authors: Ben Freeman, Ph. D.

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