Defense warns Congress: Slow compensation or watch readiness falter

By Tom Philpott - Published: August 19, 2013 | 1:45 pm 0

In late 1970s, the U.S. military was almost a "hollow force," the Joint Chiefs said at the time, in part because of low pay, housing allowances set far below off-base rents and anemic travel reimbursements that put service families in financial holes with every move to a new duty station.

These days the Joint Chiefs fear another hollow force. But this time the cause in part, they say, is Congress being too protective of military compensation while Defense spending as a whole is under siege.

Ranks are full. Recruiting and retention are strong. But money to train troops, support reasonable troop levels, operate ships and aircraft, and maintain facilities and equipment, is being squeezed hard.

The biggest culprit is sequestration from the 2011 Budget Control, which automatically cut $37 billion from defense in March.

Until Congress allowed a $9 billion shift from acquisition accounts into operations in July, the Army had to suspend combat training center rotations except for units bound for Afghanistan.

The Navy had canceled an aircraft carrier group deployment, and the Air Force had grounded many stateside aircraft squadrons.

Another $52 billion is to be cut in fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1, followed by $50 billion more in each of the next eight years.

It's a readiness hole that's "getting worse every day and we ignore it at our peril," warned Admiral James A. Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee the week of July 29.

Winnefeld appeared with Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to present findings of the Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCRM). Led by Carter, the review produced optional budget-cut scenarios from the Joint Chiefs, combatant commanders and service secretaries.

The worst case would be full sequestration, requiring Defense cuts of $500 billion over a decade on top of $600 billion in Defense cuts already accepted by Congress and reflected in current budget planning.

Adding to the risk, military leaders contend, is lawmakers' refusal to slow compensation growth and to cut excess overhead, including unneeded bases and older ships and aircraft.

"If we don't act together, the cost of manning the U.S. military and the civilians who support it will continue to grow at a rate that squeezes out budgets for training and modernization, resulting in a 'hollowing out' of the force," Carter said.

Winnefeld urged Congress to partner on limiting the damage to force structure, modernization and readiness by giving the Defense Department "freedom to find savings in our structural costs and our compensation first."

At risk of muddling the message, Carter said no one in uniform is overpaid for what they do. Then he explained how critical it is that pay and benefits be brought under control.

"Compensation now makes up more than half of the Defense budget," Carter said.

"If overhead and compensation continue to grow as the overall budget shrinks, then all of the impact of the cuts will fall on the other parts of the Defense budget - on force structure, on training for readiness and on investment in new technologies - resulting in reduced combat power and increased national security risk."

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., chairman of the Military Personnel subcommittee, has opposed every attempt to slow military pay raises or boost TRICARE fees. He recently surprised witnesses by asking, deep into the hearing, if the White House would continue to try to cap the next pay raise at 1 percent versus the 1.8 percent needed to match civilian-sector wage growth.

It's in the president's budget for 2014, so yes, Winnefeld said.

Wilson also challenged the claim that military compensation growth has exceeded inflation by 40 percent since 2001. He asked to see how the number was calculated.

"You would think the Joint Chiefs would be last group that would want to slow the rate of compensation," Winnefeld said.

But the Chiefs took a hard look at future budgets and concluded if raises aren't slowed "we are just going to run out of money to provide the tools troopers need."

The best compensation for warriors, Winnefeld added, "is to bring them home alive. The best way to bring them home alive is to get them the stuff they need."

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