We had ample warning from the prophet James Cameron, who showed us the future in his documentaries "The Terminator" and "Terminator 2:" Someday, humans would face a titanic battle against advanced war machines of their own creation, and coexistence would not be an option. That day is close at hand -- only this time, it appears that humans will have the advantage.
The narrative that has taken shape over the past few weeks goes like this: In Austerity America, the Defense Department needs to choose between paying for people or weapons programs. The cost trends for each means Washington can't afford both, so the Pentagon either has to keep up the pay, benefits, health care and other expenses for the troops, or buy the new hardware Secretary Gates says is essential for tomorrow's force. He even told soldiers in Afghanistan that DoD is considering making major changes to the National Guard in order to help protect weapons programs.
But unlike the future of "The Terminator," today's humans have the edge. As defense commentator Loren Thompson wrote, and you've read before here on Buzz, it's politically impossible for Congress to clamp down on the military's personnel costs. Although Gates and Thompson both believe DoD must upgrade and acquire new hardware even with lean budgets, the realities of Washington make that unlikely, Thompson argues:
[T]he power dynamics underpinning the political system make all of the spending categories relevant to military modernization vulnerable to cuts in a defense downturn, even though Secretary Gates and his subordinates insist it is essential to maintain robust spending in those areas. The same power dynamics make Congress and the White House distinctly ill-disposed to proposing major cuts in the areas where Gates & Company say the most waste occurs — overhead and compensationHe continues:
After closely tracking the Employment Cost Index for a quarter-century, compensation levels in the All Volunteer Force exploded over the last ten years. Some key components of military compensation have not been adjusted in many years, so that they are wildly out of sync with trends in the rest of the economy. For instance, the cost of family healthcare available to military retirees of working age is barely a tenth of what typical working families pay in the private sector.Gates has said DoD absolutely, positively must buy the F-35 Lightning II, the KC-46A tanker, recapitalize the Army and Marine Corps, buy the Navy's new ballistic missile submarine and other things. But if it came down to it, they might not survive a budgetary Judgment Day.
However, there is little stomach in the political system for tackling such problems. In fact, Congress is the main culprit responsible for driving defense healthcare costs up from $17 billion annually in 2001 to about $50 billion today. Arguing that free or subsidized healthcare is part of a “moral contract between our government and those who have stepped forward to serve” (to use the words of Senator James Webb), Congress has repeatedly expanded the availability of services to various categories of warfighters, dependents and retirees. Similar enhancements have been made in other benefit categories. Congressional resistance to reducing benefits is so fierce that even in the midst of the greatest fiscal crisis in generations, it is not clear legislators are willing to pass a five-dollar-per-month increase in the premium that some retirees must pay for family medical coverage (the premium hasn’t changed since 1995, according to USA Today).
Some members of Congress believe deeply in the moral-commitment argument, but others are no doubt impressed by the sight of literally dozens of military organizations lobbying Capitol Hill to block the increase. That effort is a reminder that when all the active-duty, reserve-component, retiree and dependent beneficiaries of the present system are added up, they exceed the margin of victory in many swing states during the 2008 election. In other words, when you trifle with people’s benefits, whether they be Medicare and Medicaid or military healthcare, you are edging perilously close to the third rail in American politics.