Rhetoric vs. Reality: Air Force Secretary Discusses Troop Pay Cuts

Hon. Deborah Lee James Credit: Air Force News Service
Hon. Deborah Lee James
Credit: Air Force News Service

The Air Force’s new senior civilian, the Honorable Deborah Lee James, spoke recently on her priorities for the service’s future.  Her speech included discussion of pay and benefits, a subject of recent debate with the defense department introducing a portfolio of pay and benefit reduction proposals, even as troops continue to fight and die in Afghanistan.  Secretary James didn’t mention “cuts” per se, instead framing the pay issue in terms of “leveling off” what she described as a recent “escalation” in the level of compensation provided to our nation’s volunteer service members in an era of persistent war.  How does her chosen rhetoric square with reality?  Let’s take a look.


“James said the other part of taking care of people is compensating people fairly. She believes compensation has escalated over the last dozen years or so, but she expects to see a leveling off in the years ahead.”


Compensation to each individual airmen has not “escalated” over the past dozen years. It has held steady against inflation. During the first few years of the last decade, active duty members got higher annual raises designed to close a pre-existing pay gap that had developed in the previous decade, but for the past few years, military members’ annual raises have been roughly pinned to inflation or slightly below. To the extent the total price tag of all US military compensation has gone up, that’s because the services had to grow by nearly 100,000 members in order to fight the wars our elected leaders decided to start, expand, and extend. But even with that growth in numbers, the total cost of personnel as a share of the defense budget has not risen, but held steady at about 25%.  This is roughly the same share it comprised in 2001 and is considerably less than in 1991.

Defense Spending Credit: Wall Street Journal

Notice the dramatic escalation in spending on operations, while equipment modernization and personnel spending have held relatively steady.  This reflects the staggering costs associated with sustaining two protracted, logistically intensive land occupations in distant countries.  This in turn reflects the choices made by our country and its elected policymakers. Now that any political benefits associated with those choices have been extracted and operational costs have consumed the budget and exhausted the patience of an otherwise mostly disinterested public, Congress and the Department of Defense are scrambling for money to modernize.  

In other words, the money needed to keep the commitments we made to people to get them to fight is now coveted by those looking for money to buy new weapons. This has given rise to the false narrative — advanced by James in subtle tones in her speech — that personnel costs are consuming the defense budget and must be reduced.  If allowed to stand, this narrative will serve as a useful veil behind which Congress and defense officials can modernize military hardware without closing bases, reducing the US military’s expansive global footprint, liquidating bloated bureaucratic staffs, ending redundant waste, or facing tough choices about the utility and necessity of military force in our foreign policy.  

Each of these alternatives has a robust political constituency, but there are many other reasons why this false narrative thrives. To be exact, there are 964 reasons.  That’s the number of general and flag officers on the rosters of the military services at last count.  Each of these officers is an authorized spokesperson and senior agent of the armed services, and they enjoy unequaled trust and credibility from the American people and their elected representatives.  Unfortunately, in our modern context, generals and admirals are increasingly political.  They rarely provide intellectually independent advice and almost never speak publicly in a way that could be judged even remotely inconsistent with the policy positions advanced by senior civilians.  

Even when a proposal impacting morale and welfare is an obviously wrong and inadvisable option — such as the recently enacted and repealed cut to veteran pensions — senior officers refuse to weigh in, allowing their silence to be understood as consent. One explanation for such silence is simple risk aversion; speaking truth to power or being seen as independent-minded can be professionally dangerous, especially in the hierarchical and hidebound defense community.  But another explanation concerns a modern military perspective that favors micromanagement and top-heavy staffing over decentralization and the delegation of authority down the chain of command.  Generals and admirals operating under this calculus might imagine that if the spending cuts deemed necessary can’t be extracted from personnel accounts, other reforms might prevail, including proposed reductions in the numbers of generals and admirals.  Even the most pure-hearted of budgetary strategists might get understandably squeamish about the idea of recommending himself out of a job.  But it’s this kind of thinking that has made senior officer manning a one-way ratchet,  with the ratio of generals to troops in today’s US military now three times greater than when the nation fought WWII .  This is an understandable source of insecurity for senior officers.  It’s also the manifestation of a prime target for savings.

Every time a defense official trots out the false narrative of overpaid troops, the credibility of those involved in foisting this fiction on the public is eroded a little more. Secretary James tried to discuss impending troop pay cuts without construing them as cuts, but if there is indeed a legitimate need to reduce troop compensation, the case should be easily made by relying on true and matter-of-fact representations of accurate data rather than rhetorical or statistical posturing.  The longer Secretary James and her colleagues sponsor and effectuate a divergence between the rhetoric and the reality of troop compensation, the greater the trust deficit they will incur with their own rank-and-file.  

The bad news for America: without trust between those who do our fighting and those we empower to lead and take care of them, we cannot expect to be well-defended.

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