Most active duty troops, especially enlistees, don't value the commissaries nearly as much as the government pays to operate them, according to a survey by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
The Washington D.C. think tank published a report in 2012 based on a survey that asked troops and retirees what benefits they valued the most. The report then compared how much troops value these benefits to the price the government pays to provide them.
Commissaries, long one of the non-compensation benefits of military service, didn't fare well with enlistees, the military's largest population.
Pentagon leaders are considering cuts of up to $1 billion from the $1.4 billion commissary subsidy over the next three years, sources told Military.com last month.
It costs the U.S. military about $600 per servicemember to pay for the commissaries on base. By comparison, it costs the services $110 per servicemember to provide the base and post exchanges.
The report found that less than 6 percent of enlisted personnel valued the commissaries more than they cost. Two thirds of the officer corps agreed with the enlistees. These results stretched across the active and reserve components.
The segment of the military that valued the commissaries the highest were retirees. Enlisted and officer retirees rank commissary privileges among their top two additional services and benefits, according to the report.
When asked if troops would trade access to the commissaries for a $300 annual cash subsidy that they could use to shop off base, junior enlistees said they would overwhelmingly take the $300, according to the survey. A third of the senior enlisted would also take the payment.
Todd Harrison, Senior Fellow for Defense Budget Studies and principal author of the study, said he did the report to educate the discussion on what troops really want when politicians and military brass discuss benefits packages. Personnel costs have risen steeply over the past decade, eating up a higher percentage of the military's budget.
Military leaders have said the services must re-evaluate troops' benefits and consider reducing the burden they create on the defense budget. However, these kinds of reductions don't sit well on bases and in Congress. Most recently military advocates stormed Capitol Hill when Congress signed into law a reduction of the cost-of-living-adjustment for working-age retiree pay to 1 percent below COLA.
CSBA collected 2,600 surveys from troops in every rank group. What set this one apart from most other government surveys, is it gave participants a chance to indicate a preference for one benefit over another benefit, Harrison said.
"A typical survey or opinion poll measures responses in terms of yes/no or multiple choice questions," said Harrison. "Such an approach is useful for determining what percentage of a population prefers one thing to another, but it does not indicate their degree of preference or how they would trade an increment of one thing for an increment of another."
Respondents not only indicated a preference for a cash subsidy over the commissary, but most junior enlisted and junior officers said they would value more vacation days than either commissaries or exchanges.
Harrison told Military.com on Wednesday that he would recommend the Defense Department not make any changes to current compensation -- including funding of commissaries -- until it conducts a survey like CSBA's, but utilizing a larger and random sampling of troops with the broader resources of the military.
"Before they come out with proposals to cut or improve anything, they need to do their homework, and see if this is something servicemembers value or not," he said. "Before any changes, I would want to know: Have you checked to see what it will do to the way servicemembers value their [compensation] package?"
Veterans' service organizations have already come out against the Defense Department's proposed plan to slash the commissary subsidy.
American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger called it "yet another undeserved blow to our men and women in service -- and their families -- in the name of 'necessary cutbacks' to reduce an ungainly national deficit."
"Like the trimming of expenses to be made by reducing military retirees' pensions, this is an inexcusable way of attempting to fix a fault by penalizing the blameless."
Joe Davis, national spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said gutting the commissaries is one of the threats the VFW warned against in 2011, as the Pentagon began looking for ways to save money.
"Our fear is all this, when combined with a better economy and the impact of having less troops and no reduction in [operations tempo], is going to create a mass exodus of mid-career officers and NCOs because they no longer feel they have any control over their careers, and because they believe their own Pentagon has put the budget ahead of the welfare of the troops who perform the mission," Davis said.
The net result will be harm to the all-volunteer force, he said.
"It's a matter of priorities, and if the continued security of our nation and preserving the all-volunteer force are worth saving, then our nation must find a way to do both," he said.