Advisory panels: Military benefits unsustainable

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

A consensus is building among current and former military leaders and defense industry executives that rising military personnel costs threaten the viability of the all-volunteer force.

In July, two separate advisory groups reached the same general conclusions regarding what needs to be done to sustain the force. In the nearer term, they say, one step that must be taken is to make military retirees pay more out of pocket for their health care benefit.

“Unless retirees contribute more for their TRICARE insurance, medical costs will not be brought under control and the national defense they served, and for which they fought and sacrificed, will be harmed,” says the final report of the Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel.

The panel is co-chaired by former Defense Secretary William J. Perry from the Clinton administration and Stephen J. Hadley who was national security advisor through President George W. Bush’s second term.

Longer term, and for the future force, panelists say, work must begin on designing new retirement, compensation and promotion systems to replace inefficient and rigid systems adopted after World War II. The situation is so critical that the Hadley-Perry panel asks Congress to establish a new National Commission on Military Personnel to lead the reform effort.

Arnold Punaro, a defense industry executive and retired Marine Corps Reserve major general, chairs a task force for the Defense Business Board that will deliver its final report to Defense Secretary Robert Gates in October.

Task force “initial observations” for cutting defense costs through best business practices, briefed to the board July 22, reinforces the notion that personnel accounts must be brought under control by modernizing retirement, pay, health benefits and the “up-or-out” promotion systems.

Both studies deal with a far wider range of initiatives to restructure forces and streamline organizations. The Hadley-Perry report can be read online at www.usip.org/files/qdr/qdrreport.pdf and task force observations are at http://dbb.defense.gov/meetings.html

What both conclude on the need to control health costs and modernize compensation systems, Punaro said, is consistent with findings of the 10th Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation and the 2006 Defense Advisory Commission on Military Compensation. But now, with Defense Secretary Gates’ leadership and a new awareness among military leaders to the burden of mounting personnel costs, there’s a fresh groundswell for change, he said.

Both the business board task force and the Hadley-Perry panel agree that the current force must be protected from the changes to retirement, pay or promotion policies needed to create a more efficient future force.

But rapid expansion of military entitlements has become part of “the nation’s mandatory spending problems,” the task force found. Among “significant unsustainable trends” that the task force listed is paying military retirees and their families “for 60 years after they have served only 20.”

Punaro declined to criticize any specific initiative. But, he said, “nobody ever sat down and said, ‘What’s the cumulative effect of all this?’”

The effect, says the Hadley-Perry report, is personnel costs “have grown drastically on a per capita basis.”

As the economy recovers and the job market rebounds, Punaro said, the cost of sustaining the military will accelerate even more.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: milupdate@aol.com