Avoiding Tough Choices: DoD Again Seeking Veteran Pay Cuts

Iwo jima

69 years ago today, six warriors raised an American flag atop Mount Suribachi, declaring victory in the Battle of Iwo Jima after days of relentless fighting.  In the aftermath of this iconic moment, three of the six were tragically killed in subsequent fighting. The other three came home and spent the balance of the war participating in bond drives to raise money for the war effort.  Seems like a distant concept now, but it was an assumption of American life at that time that some would be expected to do the fighting, while all others would be expected to support it and foot the bill.

On this solemn anniversary, as the nation’s longest war sputters toward a conclusion, the Department of Defense (DoD) is poised to roll out a series of budget initiatives geared at undercutting the compensation and benefits sustaining the hundreds of thousands of veterans who have fought to advance the nation’s defense in a historically difficult moment.  The department is noticeably desperate to compensate veterans less favorably than they deserve.  There are no valid reasons for this, but there are some explanations.

First, it’s necessary to dispense with DoD’s premise.  The department continues to mislead anyone who will listen when it comes to the cost of fairly compensating servicemembers.  Generals, admirals, civilians, and spokespersons have for months been sticking to a strict set of talking points, chief among them the notion that personnel costs are consuming half of the defense budget.  This is simply untrue.  Personnel costs amount to around 25% of the budget, a number that has held steady throughout the two wars of the last dozen years and has declined since the end of the Cold War.  Relying on “fuzzy math” from a Defense Business Board report (more on the DBB in another article later this week), the department misleads in order to fulfill other purposes it considers important.  But it’s important to register the moral repugnance of advancing a false narrative at this moment in our history, with our veterans struggling to recover, reintegrate, and find productive lives beyond war after having given so much for so long . . . for wars about which no one seems to care, to the extent anyone notices they’re happening at all.

But here’s the good news: if DoD wants to save money, it can do so by deactivating unneeded organizations. Do we really need warfighting commands led by 4-star generals and massive staffs to oversee South America and Africa?  These are places where the US mission is to assist in economic development and occasionally help respond to natural disasters.  Combat is neither sought nor envisioned in these places, though it might become more likely through the types of militarization that could result from devoting massive resources to military commands focusing there. The modest military objectives we have in those theaters could be overseen by other commands, allowing DoD to liquidate two overgrown bureaucracies and their superfluous billets, saving billions in long-term costs. 

But if DoD doesn’t want to do that, it could instead give its fattened senior officer staffs a liposuction.  The departments have too many generals and admirals, something often acknowledged even by generals and admirals. At the time Iwo Jima was fought, the US military had about 1.5 generals for every 10,000 troops, even as we fought for total stakes in a global war. Today, as we fight for limited stakes in wars of choice, there are roughly 7 generals for every 10,000 troops.  This has created profligate wasteful behaviors and make-work, along with pathological micro-management that is plaguing the services and stifling innovation we need to stay apace with potential enemies.  Top heaviness is more than just a painful reality for junior personnel; it creates a kind of hidebound inertia that blocks adaptation.  Look no further than the Army’s slow adaptation to the unfolding insurgency in Iraq and the Air Force’s tardy response to the need for tactical reconnaissance for vivid examples of the real-world consequences of retaining excess generals.

Even with such bloat, the cost of people has held steady while the cost of everything else has catapulted. The Air Force’s F-35 is woefully over-budget and under-performing, and the service’s long-coveted supply chain management system ran up a $1B price tag before being cancelled. The Army’s Future Combat Systems and the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship followed similar trajectories.  The Air Force’s efforts to shut down C-17 production were thwarted by Congress, resulting in the acquisition of a few dozen extra aircraft at $225M each.  The Air Force is now seeking a new strategic bomber and a replacement for the yet-to-be-built F-35.  These are just a few examples of the gargantuan equipment portfolio sought and maintained by the world’s preeminent and largest military force, and they come at a price tag requiring a team of mathematicians and accountants to formulate. This helps explain why the department hasn’t passed an audit in years.  But there’s something quite rational going on here.  Modernization programs represent technological superiority, which has always been the guiding preoccupation of US war planners and is not an altogether unreasonable way to approach the defense prospect.  The real question is whether any potential adversary is close enough to US capability to make all of these sought technological advancements as urgently necessary as they’ve been construed.  Given the advantage of the US military over the balance of the world at this moment, it’s safe to say we’re “running up the score.”  But if that’s the case . . . if the arguments for profligate equipment spending are weak . . . why do they prevail?

In a word: politics

Weapons create jobs, and supporting them earns congressional hopefuls votes and contributions from powerful defense contractors — most of which are peopled by former generals and colonels whose connections into DoD help explain the department’s willingness to march in lockstep with big business rather than its own fighting men and women. The defense “community” isn’t really a community at all; it is a collection of monied interests with considerable steering authority over the department and its future.

Congress could theoretically continue its support of weapon modernization without needing to trim personnel spending if it were willing to close unneeded bases and reduce extraneous infrastructure.  But it won’t do that, because just as defense contractors bring money and influence, bases bring jobs into districts, and supporting those bases — even when they have zero connection to the actual defense mission — gets politicians elected and re-elected.  As an old mentor of mine once remarked, “it would be easier to get money for a space mission to Jupiter than to close a military base.” As a result, bases opened during the buildup to WWII and long irrelevant in its aftermath nonetheless remain open.  Congress won’t authorize a base closure act, and DoD refuses to exercise its own legal authority to shutter bases it doesn’t need for fear of political reprisal.

The aggregate effect of bases, infrastructure, and weapons being off-limits is budgetary gridlock that allows cuts only in the least appropriate places: personnel and operations accounts essential to the actual defense of the nation.

With this background, DoD’s push to cut compensation and benefits is more understandable, but no less reckless. No amount of budgetary or rhetorical gymnastics will allow the department to escape one of the few eternal truths of wars: that they are won by people — not machines — and thus, people are the one resource that the services will always need in order to keep the country well defended.  And our history has further taught that not just any people will do.  The US Armed Forces will always need driven, devoted, excellent volunteers to conduct its business.  People are the spine of America’s defense.  Paying them generously and dependably for their service should be regarded as a fixed cost, with Congress and the DoD using their legal authority to do what’s best for the country by making responsible cuts elsewhere in the budget.

Of course, all of these problems become much more approachable when war is undertaken more carefully and only as a last resort in solving our international disputes.  To the extent war is necessary, it should be fought to a swift victory using all available means to overwhelm an adversary while sending a strong deterrent message to onlookers.  This is not only necessary for our security, but for our economic vitality; protracted wars are expensive, and can’t be made less so without shorting the veterans who fight them.  The US decided on a efficiency-driven strategy in Iraq in 2003 rather than resourcing the war appropriately.  As a result, the final price tag will exceed projections by an order of magnitude or more. This is a useful precedent: failing to pay for war doesn’t allow us to avoid its costs . . . in the end, we will pay, and the more we evade doing so, the more we’ll eventually pay when the bill finally catches up.  The same can be said for the way we treat those who do the fighting.  If we evade paying those costs, the price tag could include a return to conscription or a failure to defend the nation adequately.

Those who hoisted the flag at Iwo Jima came home to a country that not only honored them, but believed it was collectively responsible to pay for its defense.  They were correct, and our modern abandonment of that ethos explains the desperate search within the defense community for a budgetary Holy Grail that will allow profligate spending without consequence.  DoD is mistaken to believe such a thing exists.  Continuing to pursue it is folly.  Success in avoiding the hard choices in the short term will create failure to defend the country in the long term . . . and this is the one way in which DoD cannot countenance falling short.

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