Military leaders lead. Politicians can lead too, of course, but usually not before sticking a wet finger in the wind to learn how political winds blow.
The contrast was evident Wednesday as top enlisted leaders delivered a kind of suck-it-up-and-punch-us message to a group of nervous senators.
The armed services personnel subcommittee wanted to know how military quality of life would be impacted if Congress votes to cap the annual pay raise again, and also to dampen housing allowance increases, allow commissary prices to jump and raise medical fees for families and retirees.
As background to this discussion, recall how Congress lacked the will to compromise on a grand plan to address the nation’s debt crisis in 2011. Instead it adopted an automatic budget cutting mechanism – sequestration – that in 2013 began to make deep, indiscriminate cuts in defense spending, putting force readiness into a tailspin.
The message this day from the enlisted leader panel, and from an earlier panel of the services’ three-star personnel chiefs, was this:
If lawmakers won’t take the harder path to repeal sequestration cuts, particularly those scheduled for 2016 and beyond, they should at least ensure cuts are applied in a balanced way to protect training and readiness. Regrettably, that means taking the unpopular course military leaders lay out in the fiscal 2015 budget of slowing growth in compensation programs.
Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Micheal P. Barrett told the subcommittee Marines are ready to take the hits. But, for gosh sakes, get on with it so there’s no doubt they stay trained and ready for the next fight.
Marines aren’t focused on “compensation, benefits or retirement modernization,” Barrett said. They have a “bias for action” and measure quality of life by number deployments and the rigor of training.
“They want to know into whose neck do we put a boot next. They want to know about what new equipment are we getting. Are we going to modernize? Just because the budget sucks, does that mean we’re not going to get any more gear? Are we going to stay ahead of our competitors?”
All of that could be at risk, in the current budget environment, if pay raises and health benefit costs aren’t kept in check, Barrett testified.
“In my 33 years I have never seen this level of quality of life ever! We have never had it so good,” he said. “And I say that, in part, because if we don’t get a hold of slowing the growth [in compensation], we will become an entitlements-based, a health-care provider-based corps, and not a war-fighting organization.”
He said the administration’s plan to impose another one percent pay cap in January “makes sense because our quality of life is good.”
Dampening increases to Basic Allowances for Housing the next several years, until service members are paying five percent of off-base rental costs out of pocket, will force families to show more fiscal discipline, adopt better spending habits and not “be so wasteful,” Barrett said.
Streamlining TRICARE from three options down to one plan will save administrative costs, he said, and cutting the commissary subsidy will encourage development of a better business model for base grocery stores.
“But in the grand scheme of things, if we don’t get a hold of [personnel costs] it’s going to impact our war fighting capability. It’s going to impact our investment for the next challenge…[W]e might be done in Afghanistan but the people we’re fighting they’re not done with us. And we need to be more prepared for what’s around the corner.”
Earlier this day and in other recent hearings on the 2015 defense budget, members of armed services committee noted how sequestration required tough choices and how readiness could fall if some compensation dollars weren’t used instead for training, maintenance and modernization.
Before Barrett spoke, several senators said they favored delaying any curbs on compensation until after the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission releases its report next February.
Barrett and colleagues might have swayed a few minds that waiting puts force readiness at greater risk, a point also made emphatically by Comptroller Robert Hale and other senior defense officials in recent weeks.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) told Barrett his response to chair’s question on quality of life was “one of the best I’ve heard” as a senator.
“You were crisp and captured the essence of the dilemma. Nobody here wants to cut pay or do anything else” to military compensation, King said. “The problem is we’re in a zero sum world, and the testimony we had from the department two weeks ago was that this is a $2.1 billion-a-year proposition -- $30 billion over five years -- and that money will come right out of readiness if we don’t make these changes.”
“It absolutely is,” Barrett said. “Not only that, but we’re going to also have to start taking risk in infrastructure sustainment, facilities sustainment, restoration and modernization, furniture, fixtures, equipment, personnel…We are going to go back to…the 1990s and Y2K when…we were living in poor facilities. We don’t want to go back to those days.”
Enlisted leaders of Army, Navy and Air Force sounded more wary than Barrett of proposed pay caps or compensation curbs. But they delivered their own warnings to Congress not to balk at making hard decisions on pay and benefits at the expense of training, equipment and readiness.
A compensation slowdown “is not something, if we were given a choice, that we would want to do,” said Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Michael D. Stevens. “Given the fact that the slice of pie is only so big, this is what we must do in order to maintain readiness.”
“I don’t like this and it’s a challenge but it’s what’s necessary,” said Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III, of compensation curbs proposed. “We have to make sure…our soldiers are trained and ready for anything the nation is going to ask them to do. It’s got to trump the rest.”
“I hope, if we make those decisions, you will stand behind us,” Senator King told the enlisted leaders. “Yes sir,” Chandler said.
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# # # # #Tom Philpott has been breaking news for and about military people since 1977. After service in the Coast Guard, and 17 years as a reporter and senior editor with Army Times Publishing Company, Tom launched "Military Update," his syndicated weekly news column, in 1994. "Military Update" features timely news and analysis on issues affecting active duty members, reservists, retirees and their families.
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