The Pentagon is more top-heavy than ever before. How much does this bureaucratic bloat cost taxpayers? The Pentagon has no idea, and neither does the Government Accountability Office. Pentagon officials know they need more generals and admirals, they just can’t tell you why. Those are the conclusions from a GAO report released earlier this month.

In 2011, I testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee and explained the problem, which I dubbed Star Creep—the Pentagon’s propensity to have generals and admirals (also known as Generals and Flag Officers, or GFO) fill positions once performed by lower-ranking officers. This has resulted in an unprecedentedly high ratio of generals and admirals to the troops they command.

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Third Way has repeatedly shown how this hinders military effectiveness and wastes money. The GAO study corroborated many of our findings, including:
  • The number of generals and admirals increased by 8 percent from 2001 to 2013, while the enlisted ranks shrank by 2 percent;
  • “The ratios of enlisted to non-GFO officers and enlisted to GFOs are both at their lowest levels since prior to 2001 (5:1 and 1,200:1, respectively).”

Unfortunately, the study could not answer the burning question that we at Third Way and many members of Congress have: How much has this increasing top-heaviness at the Department of Defense cost American taxpayers? Reps. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), Morgan GriffithHoward (Morgan) Morgan GriffithIt's time to eliminate the secretive Pharmacy Benefit Manager pricing practices GOP lawmaker: Mexico will pay 'part of the tab' for wall CBO survives two House amendments targeting funding MORE (R-Va.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) have all introduced legislation to combat Star Creep, but we still don’t have a full cost estimate

“The full cost to DOD for active duty GFOs from fiscal years 2001 through 2013 is unknown because complete cost data were not available,” GAO said in the report.

This is perhaps unsurprising given that the DOD is the only federal government agency that has yet to pass a full financial audit, ever. This is a major problem for an agency that is struggling to find savings at a time of declining defense budgets. How much extra money and resources could we provide to troops on the front lines—like those conducting airstrikes in Iraq and Syria—if we could right-size the back office? The DOD has no idea.

Not only is the Pentagon incapable of calculating the cost of its generals and admirals, it also can’t honestly say how many of these top commanders it should employ.

According to the GAO report, “DOD officials stated that there continues to be a need for more GFOs than are authorized by Congress, but added that the department has not comprehensively updated GFO requirements since 2003.” In other words, DOD officials want more generals and admirals, they just don’t know why because it’s been more than a decade since they determined how many generals and admirals they actually need.

GAO provided a very obvious solution to the DOD’s problem: figure out how many generals and admirals are actually necessary before asking for more. The reasons for conducting such an analysis might seem obvious to anyone that’s ever been in a workplace that has to justify hiring and firing folks, but to make it perfectly clear to the department, the GAO report explains that it “would help the department ensure that resources are properly matched to the needs of today’s environment.” This is a no-brainer, as is the GAO’s other recommendation for the DOD to ensure it can actually track the full cost of its top commanders.

Most importantly, these are ready-made proposals that can, and should, be put into law by the Senate, which can incorporate them in its version of the fiscal year 2015 DOD budget during the lame-duck session. In the current budget climate, Congress and the DOD must make sure we’re not sacrificing the front lines to pay for the back office.

Freeman, Ph.D, is senior policy advisor for National Security at the Third Way, a centrist think tank.