As the year winds to a close, Congress has yet to pass the annual defense policy bill that sets budgets and priorities for the entire coming year. The bill is likely to pass in a down-to-the-wire fashion some time before New Year's, with military leaders anxiously awaiting the resources they need to plan and build for the future. But this bill, drafted amid skyrocketing inflation, also contains a substantial number of bonuses, boosts, and extra pays designed to make life easier for troops and their families and mitigate the financial strains they're feeling.
While the language of the bill is not final until both houses of Congress have met in conference to confirm a joint version, these are some of the extra cash opportunities likely coming for troops in the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act.
1) Pay Raise
While this is a feature of every defense budget bill, the 2023 pay bump for troops is a substantial 4.6% increase, following last year's 2.7% bump. For an E-5 with six years of service, that's an extra $150 per month in the bank; for an O-3 with eight years, it's more than $300. While the additional pay makes a difference, it doesn't quite keep up with outsize inflation, which now stands at 7.7% for the year.
2) Inflation Bonus
And that's where an extra, temporary additional measure comes in. A special section in this year's defense budget calls for a monthly bonus, beginning on January 1, 2023, for all service members making less than $45,000 in basic pay. While the exact amount of this bonus is to be determined by the defense secretary based on economic conditions, it will be at least 2.4% of their base pay -- a clear attempt to catch up to the current inflation rate, for those most vulnerable to shortfalls. That bonus, if approved, would be authorized only until the end of 2023.
3) Watchdog Bonus
Though many of the pay and benefits measures folded into the defense budget are directly connected to the challenging economy, this one is directed instead at helping the Defense Department save money and uncover waste, fraud and abuse. The budget bill allows the secretary of defense to pay up to $10,000, or 1% of the cost savings identified, to service members who report cases of mismanagement, wasteful spending or fiscal malfeasance to a relevant official.
With its massive annual budget of more than half-a-trillion dollars that has long resisted a comprehensive audit, the Defense Department loses fortunes in mishandled and wasted money each year. A 2016 Washington Post investigation found the Pentagon tried to paper over a report that found a staggering $125 billion in waste over five years. By enlisting troops as voluntary lookouts and offering them a meaningful incentive to report, Congress is developing a way to monitor the often-opaque Defense Department from the inside. And service members who have already been safeguarding the department's interests in this way will now get some recompense for their honesty and alertness.
4) Arctic Pay
If you are spending extra time freezing your buns off for Uncle Sam, Congress thinks you deserve a little more lettuce. The new defense budget bill introduces a monthly additional pay described as "Arctic pay" for those assigned to cold-weather operations. Like the existing hazardous duty and deployment pays, this extra amount acknowledges the discomfort and risk service members in these places are undertaking. The provision would provide an extra $300 per month to those assigned to perform cold weather ops, or "required to maintain proficiency through frequent operations in cold weather."
This special pay also acknowledges the Defense Department's increasing interest in the Arctic and in cold-weather training environments as it prepares for future conflicts in frigid environs and engages in the growing contest for superiority and dominance at the top of the world.
And that's not all, folks. Troops assigned to Alaska, where cold weather and lengthy periods of darkness can lead to greater mental health challenges and increased suicide risk, would be eligible for additional special pays of $125 per month specifically to subsidize the high cost of broadband internet there. Finally, Alaska-based troops would also receive a one-time travel allowance to visit loved ones in the Lower 48 equal to the cost of a round-trip flight to a U.S. destination.
As a duty station, Alaska is starting to look better and better.
5) Gym Membership Allowance
Are you a service member who lives more than 10 miles from a military installation? You could be eligible for a monthly gym membership allowance. The draft defense budget bill authorizes the defense secretary to pay a to-be-determined amount to troops who can't easily get to the base gym to work out, allowing them to pay for a membership to Gold's or 24-Hour Fitness or another workout establishment of choice out in town. The amount of the allowance will be calculated based on the average cost of a gym membership in the service member's residence area: a similar formula to that used to calculate basic allowance for housing.
There's no word, however, on how the Defense Department would ensure that troops will be using their gym benefit, and not just showing up for the free pizza.
6) Pet Relocation Reimbursement
Transporting a pet during a military move -- particularly an international one -- can be a major financial burden, and another provision in the new NDAA aims to ease that load. The bill would require the Defense Department to reimburse troops for the costs of moving a pet during a permanent change of station (PCS) move out of or into the U.S. This reimbursement would be worth up to $2,000 and would take effect 180 days after the defense budget is passed.
Because the cost of moving pets can stretch, notoriously, into the thousands of dollars, multiple private organizations have been known to offer financial assistance to PCSing military families. The Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society and Air Force Aid Society have loan and grant programs for this purpose, and SPCA International has also provided supporting grants.
7) Bigger Bonus Authorizations
The all-volunteer force is in a near-unprecedented recruiting crisis, and Congress wants to give the military more power to attract and keep top talent. To that end, lawmakers inserted language in the bill to raise the ceiling on certain bonuses and special pays for troops in high-demand roles. Enlistment bonuses, which previously topped out at $50,000, would be capped at $75,000 under the new provision; and re-enlistment bonuses could reach $50,000, instead of the previous ceiling of $30,000.
Meanwhile, special aviation incentive pay caps would be increased from $1,000 to $1,500, and aviation bonuses would be raised to a top level of $75,000, from the previous cap of $35,000. Skill incentive pay or proficiency bonuses would also get a good-sized increase, from $1,000 to $1,750.
These may not be easy economic times -- but these provisions offer troops quite a few good reasons to look forward to the new year.