Tough questions during pay review

By Tom Philpott: CNJ columnist

Should military pilots who have been reassigned from cockpits to ground-based computer consoles to fly remotely piloted vehicles continue to draw the same flight pay as pilots who still fly jets and helicopters?

Should reserve component personnel on lengthy overseas assignments in locales like Germany continue to draw the same overseas cost-of-living allowances as active duty counterparts?

Is it time to review and possibly streamline various piecemeal improvements made in recent years to compensation and benefits provided to wounded warriors and their families?

These are some of the questions to be answered next year by a new Department of Defense pay study — the 11th Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation (QRMC).

President Obama ordered the study to begin in a Dec. 11 memo to Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Current law requires the executive branch conduct a study of military compensation every four years. The law leaves it to the president to decide what issues the study should focus on, however.

Obama wants the 11th QRMC to focus on four areas. They are:

1) Review of compensation for service performed in combat or hostile fire areas, during combat operations or while exposed to a hostile fire event.

Congress signaled its interest in this by including in the fiscal 2010 defense authorization act a provision to curb some combat pay abuses. The services will begin soon to pro-rate hostile fire pay, imminent danger pay, hazardous duty pay, assignment pay and skill incentive pay, based on actual days spent in qualifying danger areas.

Service members have been drawing a full month’s payment, for example, if they crewed an aircraft into a war zone, or visited a war theater headquarters, as little as a day per month.

2) Review of Reserve and National Guard compensation and benefits for consistency in current and future “utilization” of these forces.

The consistency sought appears to refer to how reserve compensation stacks up against that of active duty members, in light of a heavier load current reserve component carry compared to past generations.

3) Review of compensation and benefits for wounded warriors and their caregivers and survivors of fallen service members.

Congress has much to improve disability benefits and to support programs for veterans wounded or disabled since 9/11.

That pattern continues with the Senate this year voting an unprecedented payment for family members or other at-home caregivers who attend to needs of severely wounded veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

That Senate plan still must be reconciled with less robust initiatives approved by the House.

4) Review of pay incentives for critical career fields to include mental health professionals, linguists and translators, remotely piloted vehicle operators, and special operations personnel.

Bonuses and special pays have been increased significantly in recent years to attract and retain these specialties.

The QRMC will judge whether it has been enough.