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Critics say US military staggers under the weight of top brass

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Is the United States military becoming top-heavy with brass? There now are twice as many officers per enlisted man or enlisted woman as there were during World War II, six times as many colonels, three times as many generals. Critics say the armed forces are suffering from ''officer bloat'' that relates to the services' ''up-or-out'' retirement policy, as well as the growing emphasis on weapons procurement and program management.

The Pentagon responds that the ratio of senior officers to enlisted personnel is about the same as it has been between recent wars, and that it compares favorably with the NATO allies.

The military pyramid is designed to expand quickly from the bottom up if fighting threatens or breaks out, officials assert, while the officer corps must be ready to lead from the start. And they also argue that with the military becoming much more technologically advanced, more senior officers are needed to oversee the new complexities of weapons development and the electronic battlefield.

The debate - confined largely to editorialists and responding letters from the Pentagon - is not likely to result in congressional action or dramatic changes within the services. Institutional inertia and special interests in both instances preclude this. But the issue does illustrate some fundamental concerns over force structure and management that are key to the nation's defense.

The Project on Military Procurement, a private organization and frequent Pentagon gadfly, recently issued its latest findings on ''Officer Inflation: Its Cost to the Taxpayer and Military Effectiveness.''

Using statistics from the Defense Department and other government agencies, the group reported that ''since the end of World War II, our military services have become increasingly top-heavy.''

It noted that while there was one admiral for every 130 ships at the end of the war, there now are just two ships per admiral. The ratio of Air Force generals per aircraft has risen more than elevenfold, the project reported.

Pentagon defenders say this is because the trend in US military forces has been toward aircraft and ships that are fewer in number but more expensive and sophisticated.

For example, there were 10 times as many combat aircraft in 1945 as there are today, and the number of active-duty ships has dropped from more than 61,000 to less than 600. But these smaller numbers of combat equipment still need large numbers of people to operate and maintain them, it is argued, especially in time of war.

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