Why does the Air Force have too little work for too many people? “A general has an almost pathological urge to command,” one Air Force colonel observes, readily conceding that this bureaucratic urge extends to colonels as well, though usually in somewhat more subdued form.

Indeed, officers in today’s Air Force seem hard-pressed to find something to command besides each other. In 1945, for example, the Air Force had 2.4 million men, 72,000 planes, and 298 generals. In 1958, a more representative peacetime year, the Air force had 858,000 people in uniform, 27,000 aircraft—and 418 generals, or one per 64 planes. The number of generals has since dropped to about 340, but the number of planes has plummeted to 7,200; today, one general is responsible for an average of 21 aircraft.

The bloat is even worse in the less noticed middle ranks. In 1945 there were just 7,225 lieutenant colonels, a rank most officers reach by retirement. Today there are 12,500 lieutenant colonels, helping to manage a force that has one-fourth the number of people and one-tenth the number of planes.

The explanation that Air Force officials prefer is that their increasingly complex and sophisticated mission requires officers of greater experience and rank. That argument is not wholly without merit, given, the Air Force’s responsibility for much of our nuclear arsenal and its world-wide obligations. But a much better explanation lies in the deep-seated instinct of military bureaucrats to protect and justify existing positions. During an emergency, such as a war, the number of slots expands to meet the perceived threat. But once the threat subsides, many of the ostensibly unnecessary slots linger on. Each now has someone occupying it, and those of lower rank know that promotions come faster with more slots. So those within the bureaucracy get to work creating new missions and responsibilities.

One obvious result is the glorification of the trivial and the pursuit of new ways to pass the time. In 1958, for example, the commander of the Air Force Accounting and Finance Center in Denver was a colonel. The AFAFC still has the same, relatively simple task of disbursing monthly checks to all active and retired personnel; if anything, the job has gotten easier with the advent of data processing equipment. But by Air Force standards, the job now requires the expertise of a two star general. Another way to keep restless officers busy is to send them to school; 42 percent of all Air Force officers now have master’s degrees or Ph.D.s.

Another strategy is assigning too many people to one job. For example, only officers can become pilots, and only 20,000 of the Air Force’s 100,000 hold this job. But with only 7,200 planes, the main complaint of pilots seems to be having too little time to fly. An F-15 fighter pilot typically shares his plane with two or three others, with each flying about 15 hours every month. The rest of the month is divided among flight simulators, classroom instruction, and other duty. “Can you imagine Chuck Yeager having to be a snack bar officer?” says one former pilot, who happens to have been one.

There’s a price to be paid for managerial bloat. A 27-year-old captain typically earns the equivalent of about $25,000 a year in pay and tax-free allowances; a 39-year-old lieutenant colonel, more than $45,000. But aside from money, having too many people often compromises the Air Force’s ability to effectively perform its most basic functions.

Take aircraft maintenance. There are usually 24 planes in a squadron, and three squadrons to a wing. During the 1950s, responsibility for maintaining airplanes rested largely with the enlisted crew chief on the squadron level. But right before the Vietnam war, the system was centralized for “greater efficiency.” Maintenance responsibility was elevated to the wing level.

“The whole idea was to reduce the number of people,” explains a lieutenant colonel who once commanded a maintenance unit. “But actually, it just increased the number of people.” Why? At the squadron level, a major typically commanded maintenance operations; at the wing level, lieutenant colonels, then colonels, began moving into the position. And the higher the rank, the greater the expectations about subordinates. “So they created a lot of new slots,” the lieutenant colonel explains. “Quality control officers, with enlisted men under them, safety officers—all these people looking over someone’s shoulder at the few doing the work.”

During the Vietnam war, when the Air Force had to get serious about keeping its combat planes in good repair, the Air Force reverted to its old system. “Maintenance people could react faster; the bureaucracy just said ‘Fix it’ and you moved,” says the officer, who flew an F-4. And after the war? “They went right back to wing maintenance so the officers could get their old jobs back.”

To be fair, the Tactical Air Command recently restored some of the lost authority to squadrons, largely to remedy its abysmal record of keeping planes combat-ready. “Everyone fought the change at first, even me, but it’s made a world of difference,” says a chief master sergeant who now supervises a squadron of F-15 fighters. The result is quicker, more efficient maintenance, he says. But only TAC has made the change; the Strategic Air Command and the Military Airlift Command—which consist largely of B-52 bombers and cargo planes, respectively—have kept the old system intact. More to the point, TAC’s change has had a predictable effect on the number of slots for maintenance officers—none.

Indeed, the slot-seeking bureaucrat knows that crisis is often opportunity, as illustrated by a final example involving the Air Force Systems Command. The AFSC, which has nearly 30,000 military personnel, is responsible for procuring and testing all new weapons. It has come under heavy criticism recently for a variety of sins, including a nagging propensity to spend its money on new airplanes while old ones are rendered idle because too few spare parts were ordered. In a recent interview with Newsday, Robert T. Marsh, the four- star general who commands AFSC, generously conceded that there had been a problem. But did he suggest punishing or replacing those procurement officers who hadn’t done their job? Not at all. “The problem,” Marsh noted soberly, was “going to take more resources on our part—more people, really”.

—P.K.