The Pentagon faces many challenges in developing a reasonable budget.
Sequestration allows too little flexibility. The challenge of maintaining technological capability and robust personnel numbers is daunting. Weapons systems are expensive and, with inflation, become even more costly.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel also points to an additional challenge: personnel costs.
“If left unchecked,” Hagel said recently, “pay and benefits will continue to eat into readiness and modernization. That could result in a far less capable force that is well compensated but poorly trained and poorly equipped.”
Pay and benefits account for about half of the Pentagon’s budget, and as part of other fiscal restraints, Hagel is recommending that the military reduce its compensation by $50 billion over the next decade. As it is, the Pentagon is looking at cutting $52 billion due to sequestration for fiscal 2014, with part of that cost covered by the firing of at least 6,272 civilian employees (a cut of less than 1 percent of the non- uniformed work force).
Two national security analysts writing in the Wall Street Journal recently pointed to the same concern. “Defense entitlements are well on their way to crowding out military readiness and capacity, a fact even the Pentagon has acknowledged,” wrote Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.
Some services, they said, are vital and need strong support — salaries, health care for active-duty service personnel and their families, the GI Bill and Veterans Administration services for the disabled.
At the same time, Eaglen and O’Hanlon said, lawmakers and Pentagon brass need to look at reforms in other areas: premium policy for the Tricare health care program; the structure of military pensions; facilities such as military commissaries; and excessive military base capacity.
Hagel, a former Nebraska senator, has mentioned all those issues as appropriate for reform, as did nine defense policy think tanks, across the philosophical spectrum, in a joint statement this year.
A study on the military pension issue was just published by the Strategic Studies Institute and the U.S. Army War College Press. It stated: “With annual military retirement system outlays exceeding $50 billion, senior officials have begun calling for pension reform on the grounds that the current system is fiscally unsustainable.”
Care is needed in structuring pension changes, the study cautioned, because pension policy is an important factor in maintaining personnel levels with the all-volunteer military: “Motivating individuals to volunteer for a career of selfless service, personal sacrifice, hardship, frequent household relocations and inherent danger requires a compensation program commensurate with the demands.”
Indeed, our nation owes its military personnel strong support during both their service and retirement. But in the face of budget cuts combined with the steep inflation rate for weapons systems, it’s important to provide adequate dollars to maintain sufficient combat readiness.
Congress and the Pentagon have a key responsibility to face this issue squarely. They should debate what the priorities should be and then make firm decisions.
Continuing to sidestep this dilemma would ill serve our service personnel, our defense readiness and our nation’s security.