Academies Out of Line

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Among U.S. military officers, they're known as "ring knockers" because they proudly wear the big, gold class rings they earned when they graduated from one of America's military academies. For generations the ring signified that the wearer was a cut above. No longer: the ring knockers are losing their grip on the armed forces. When Admiral Jeremy Boorda becomes chief of naval operations this month, five of the six Joint Chiefs of Staff will be nonacademy men who have come up through the enlisted ranks or from officer- training programs.

Such meager representation among the topmost brass is just one sign of the steady decline of influence among America's military academies. They have come under siege by critics who believe they cost too much and should be radically changed. The U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, which is struggling to recover from a major cheating scandal, will host a discussion this month aptly titled "Service Academies: Leadership Crucibles or Magnificent Anachronisms?" All the academies are suffering from declining enrollment and struggling to develop a curriculum suitable to the post-cold war era. By doing so, however, they risk losing the very thing that set them apart. Last week a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point acknowledged that the school is no longer a rigid temple of martial arts and science. "I expected a very military environment," says Cadet Jason Squier, a junior from Norwalk, Iowa. "It surprised me that West Point is a lot closer to a civilian college than most people would expect."

The annual cost of all three schools approaches $1 billion. "I just don't think they're worth the money we're spending on them," says Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon personnel chief and ex-Navy officer. "It's hard to justify the cost given the other sources we have for officers." Korb, who is not an academy grad, and other critics suggest that the academies should become multiservice, postgraduate schools, where officers-to-be train for a year or so before commissioning, like the military academies of Britain and France.

As the distinctions between the academies and civilian schools blur, the ! military honor code is what sets them apart. But that too is under attack, most recently in the biggest cheating scandal in Annapolis history. A special Navy panel recommended on March 31 that the Navy Secretary punish 71 members of the class of 1994, 29 of them by expulsion, for cheating on a 1992 engineering exam. What outraged many academy supporters, including some admirals, was the unsuccessful lawsuit, filed by 40 midshipmen implicated in the scandal, seeking to halt the panel's work. The middies contended their constitutional rights were violated by prosecutors who pressured the students to confess. Their litigiousness, said a four-star officer, "really bothers me."

The scandal comes at a time when interest in the academy, and the military in general, is cooling. While applications have lagged at all three since the cold war's end, the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, which no longer guarantees its graduates a chance to fly, has seen applications plummet from 16,600 for the class arriving in 1988 to 8,800 for this year's plebes. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's defense panel, says the number of his constituents seeking congressional appointments to the academies has dropped by half in the past year. "That's beginning to worry me," he says, "because it's an indication that there are quality people who may not be looking to the armed forces as a career."

Or perhaps they're becoming officers through the Reserve Officers' Training Corps or Officer Candidate School, both of which offer students greater freedom of choice and cost the Federal Government far less money per recruit. Students at some 550 ROTC colleges can study the military in addition to their regular schooling. OCS takes college graduates and gives them military instruction. In recent years ROTC has accounted for most new officers, with the academies and OCS splitting the rest. For the moment, the academies' share is actually growing, from less than 10% a decade ago to more than 15% today. That is because the military overall is shrinking one-third, but Congress has ordered each academy to cut its enrollment only about 10% -- to 1,000 a class -- by 1995.

The cost, however, is coming under greater scrutiny. A 1992 General Accounting Office report said the academies, which are free to the student, except for a commitment to serve for five years in uniform, cost about $250,000 a graduate. ROTC costs about $60,000 apiece and usually requires a four- or five-year hitch. OCS costs about $25,000 each, and its service obligation varies. The academies cost more because each is a "four-year- immersion experience," says David Palmer, retired three-star Army general and West Point superintendent from 1986 to 1991. "That's very different from ROTC, where you put on a uniform once a week and spend one summer training."

Yet the GAO found no proof that academy graduates make better officers than those commissioned through ROTC or OCS. And promotion statistics raise doubts about the academies too. From 1972 through 1990, the share of academy graduates among generals and admirals fell from 43% to 33%, while those from ROTC rose from 5% to 41%. Under congressional orders, starting in 1997, academy graduates will have to compete against their ROTC and OCS colleagues for "regular" commissions, meaning academy graduates will initially hold "reserve" commissions, offering less protection against involuntary discharges. That's likely to depress interest in the academies even more. "Why should someone go through four years of hell," Korb asks, "when someone who doesn't go there can get a regular commission more quickly?"

The criticism comes even from the inside. Last fall the Pentagon inspector general found the academies wasting millions of dollars annually employing nearly 400 military personnel whose jobs should have been eliminated or filled by less costly civilians. But West Point's superintendent, Lieut. General Howard Graves, has refused to surrender his $37,000-a-year sergeant-chauffeur, even though he has three other enlisted aides. "This position is essential to the mission of the U.S. Military Academy," Graves told the bemused auditors. His three other personal aides, he added, "cannot be stewards and drivers at the same time."

Serious change will come hard because the academies have such a cherished tradition. John Galvin, a retired four-star general and top NATO commander, still wears the golden ring with a ruby-red stone that he designed for his class of 1954. "This place sets the standards for the Army for duty, honor, country," he said in his West Point office above the Hudson River, where he teaches political science. To survive in the future, the academies will have to set standards for efficiency and relevance as well.