Though he's a warrior, not an economist, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ranks the financial crisis as a higher priority and greater risk to security than current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The scope of it is, to me, mind-boggling," said Mullen in an interview, hours before President Obama made his first visit to the Pentagon as commander in chief.
Mullen said it is a testament to the nation's strength and to the severity of the fiscal crisis that Congress last fall swiftly approved a relief fund of $700 billion to bail out banks and thaw frozen credit markets.
The amount nearly matched last year's defense budget, Mullen noted, contrasting the speed of that action to the long, detailed process of setting military requirements, debating programs and passing a defense budget.
That's "not even to speak of discussions, literally today, of a stimulus package that's going to be another eight or nine hundred billion. I think that's going to affect all of us much more than personally," Mullen said.
"I've been concerned and remain concerned about the impact of this on security," he said. "It's a global crisis. And as that impacts security issues, or feeds greater instability, I think it will impact on our national security in ways that we quite haven't figured out yet"
The financial crisis also underscores a need to tighten federal spending and, on military personnel accounts, that would include raising Tricare fees for working-age retirees, Mullen said.
Mullen discussed a wide range of topics including his top three priorities for military personnel. One is to ease the pace of wartime deployments so service members eventually spend twice as much time at home as they do deployed. The current pace allows a grueling "one-to-one" ratio of "dwell time" at home to time away, usually in a war zone.
For soldiers and Marines, the ratio is less than one-to-one, Mullen said, which means these fighters, and peacekeepers, are spending more time in Iraq or Afghanistan than they do with families.
Marines are beginning to see some relief as its active force builds toward 202,000.
"We've deployed the first new battalion," Mullen said. "We're going to deploy the second here shortly [and] the third in the spring or later on this year."
The Army hasn't built new brigades yet even as its active force grows toward 547,000. It has a bigger challenge, Mullen said, as it reorganizes into modular units and trains to new counterinsurgency standards. Mullen doesn't expect soldiers' dwell time to improve for at least a year.
Meanwhile, the level of U.S. force strength that can be added to the fight in Afghanistan will depend on force numbers leaving Iraq.
His second priority for personnel, said Mullen, is to protect the "totality" of resources needed to attract and retain a robust volunteer force.
That means "it isn't only about military pay," he said, or quality health care, housing and barracks, base shopping, family support programs or hazard duty pay with in-theater tax relief.
"It's all of those things, and there are more," Mullen said.
His third priority for personnel "is to make sure we get it right for our wounded, their families and the families of the fallen."
However, Mullen said, the military "can't just keep adding benefits" and must, at some point, "bound" its costs including for personnel.
"A great example" of such a step, and for which he gets "castigated every time this comes out," is his support for the Bush administration's call to raise Tricare fees for working age military retirees, those under age 65.
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