WASHINGTON — The Army is losing captains and other junior officers at such an alarming rate that it could have trouble filling leadership positions within two or three years, according to a new report circulating among senior commanders.
More money and earlier chances for promotion have not helped. During the fiscal year that ended last month, the attrition rate among captains accelerated despite pay increases and other incentives to keep them in uniform, senior Army officials said. More than 11% of the Army's captains decided to leave the service over the past year, continuing a trend that began in fiscal 1997, when the attrition rate was less than 8%, the officials said.
The exodus of captains at nearly twice the rate considered acceptable in the early 1990s is a highly sensitive, even embarrassing, difficulty for the Army command and has become all the more so because it is an issue in the presidential campaign. Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, and his colleagues are anxious to address the problem as soon as possible without getting caught up in the partisan fray, senior officers said.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican candidate, cites retention problems as proof that the military has decayed under the Clinton administration and promises new salary increases and health benefits. Vice President Al Gore counters by pointing to pay raises and other initiatives undertaken by the administration, and the Democrat promises more spending for the future.
In recent surveys conducted by the Army and outside experts, young officers have loudly complained about unpredictable reassignments and repeated deployments away from home as important factors driving them out of the service. Shinseki will unveil new initiatives to deal with the "turbulence" problem during a speech Tuesday to the annual convention of the Assn. of the United States Army, according to senior Army officers.
All of the services have had trouble retaining officers in recent years, but elsewhere the problems are more concentrated among individuals with skills that are highly marketable in the civilian economy, such as pilots and computer specialists. As a matter of both pride and policy, attrition has hit the Army harder because it is not strictly correlated with outside opportunities but reflects a widespread disillusionment among junior officers.
The Army started the new fiscal year this month with 1,300 fewer officers than its personnel goals called for; the biggest shortage was among the approximately 20,000 captains, according to still unpublished statistics. If the trend continues to accelerate, the Army will not be able to sustain staffing levels within two or three years, according to officers familiar with a recent briefing for some senior commanders. The shortage of junior officers will soon hit the crisis stage if the Army wins approval for plans to expand by as many as 40,000 soldiers.
"You can't create new units unless you have the officers to lead them, and you can't make captains overnight. It takes years to grow them," said a retired general officer familiar with internal deliberations on the attrition crisis.
"If we, as senior leaders, do not take action now to turn this around, we may not be able to meet our future requirements," said Gen. John M. Keane, the vice chief of staff, in a bulletin to senior commanders last spring when the attrition rate among captains stood at 10.6%.
The attrition rate continued to climb despite pay increases, administrative changes designed to give junior officers more career flexibility and Keane's letter, which urged commanders to make the retention of captains a top priority.
The Army is trying to make up for the shortage of captains with steps such as making some lieutenants eligible for promotion earlier than before, loosening some selection criteria for promotion and requiring officers to give more advance notice before they can leave.
Some initiatives to be announced this week are designed to make life more predictable and stable for soldiers of all ranks.
But other problems will be more difficult to address.
"Additionally, we increasingly hear from these captains that they are frustrated by what they perceive as a zero-defects mentality and a resulting culture of micromanagement," Keane wrote.