The cost of military initiatives questioned

  • Tom Philpott / Military Update
  • Friday, March 26, 2004 9:00pm
  • Local News

A senior defense official has warned Congress against creating an entitlement-rich military that the nation cannot afford.

Charles Abell, principal deputy under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, was asked March 24 while testifying before the House Armed Services Committee’s total force subcommittee to list a few issues that keep him awake at night.

Recruiting and retention are constant concerns, Abell said.

Another big worry, he said, is military compensation and benefits, and new initiatives that Congress appears to favor.

"You and your colleagues are very generous to our folks and, in most cases, our folks deserve everything that you give them," Abell told Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark. "However, it is possible to create a force that is too expensive for the nation, especially when it comes to programs that are essentially deferred compensation or where the benefits accrued only to those who no longer serve."

Representatives of military associations disagreed, urging at the same hearing that the House improve survivor benefits, expand reserve health care and adopt a list of other initiatives.

Abell noted that basic pay for most service members is up 29 percent since January 2000. Midgrade enlisted members, who received higher raises, have enjoyed a 35 percent over four years. Housing allowances, by year’s end, will have climbed 18 percent faster than rental costs since 2000.

Abell’s written testimony included a chart showing growth in entitlement spending, which by fiscal 2005 will reach more than $12 billion a year for just three recent programs: Tricare for Life; disability payments and Tricare for drilling reservists who are unemployed or lack health insurance.

The Senate’s budget resolution for 2005 earmarks funding to phase out over 10 years the sharp drop in military survivor benefits that occurs at age 62. Abell said that would cost $1 billion a year within five years. It also would open military health care to all drilling reservists and their families willing to pay modest premiums. That would cost at least $1 billion as well, Abell said.

Phase-in of disability benefits for all retirees, as some legislators propose, would boost that program’s $2 billion annual cost by 40 percent.

Lowering from 60 to 55 the age at which annuities begin for reserve retirees could cost $14 billion over the next 10 years.

Testifying for the Military Coalition, a group of more than 30 service associations, Joe Barnes, Erin Harting and Lee Lange urged approval of all these initiatives to correct inequities for retirees and survivors and to properly compensate the overworked current force.

Just as advocates for service members refuse to give ground on compensation issues, the Bush administration is resisting pressure for a permanent increase in force levels, despite the higher pace of operations since Sept. 11. Abell said more forces would be costly and unnecessary.

The Army, strained by Iraq, will be allowed to grow by 30,000 more active-duty soldiers under a temporary manning initiative. Another initiative, to convert military billets to civilian positions, will free up 10,000 uniformed personnel across the services this year and 10,000 more in 2005.

But Abell confirmed that the cost of filling former military jobs with civilians, as the military concentrates on combat jobs, must be paid for out of existing service budgets rather than with new funding.

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