OVERLOOKING THE FACTS

Forwarded by BGen Bob Clements, USAF (Ret), who commented:
“Obviously since leaving the Clinton Administration, it would be natural to migrate to a haven of liberal acceptance where one can hide behind academic freedom guaranteed by, and protected by, the very same people she chastises as overpaid and over benefited. It is always much better to have the other person fight and die for your freedom. It is safer, less dangerous, and more comfortable… especially when one has diarrhea of the mouth, sans courage.”

MAKING THE CUTS, KEEPING THE BENEFITS
By Cindy Williams, http://web.mit.edu/polisci/faculty/C.Williams.html, op-ed contributor to The New York Times

Cambridge, MA, Jan 11, 2005 - In an effort to reduce the growth of the military budget, the Bush administration is poised to cut back a wide array of Pentagon programs, from jet fighters to a missile defense system. Pentagon leaders say the cuts will save more than $55 billion over six years.

Whether these reductions herald the end of the rapid rise in military spending that began in 1999, however, is open to question. While fewer weapons systems than planned will be purchased during the next six years, in financial terms, putting an end to the buildup will require cutting far more than what is now on the chopping block. One reason is that much of the recent rise in spending has been fueled not by new tanks or missiles, but by new costs associated with military personnel - especially retirees. These costs amount to a permanent increase in the military budget. Unlike spending on equipment, they cannot be canceled or deferred.

Since the start of the buildup, the rising costs of military pay, retiree benefits, health care and family housing have greatly outstripped inflation and added more than $40 billion to annual Pentagon budgets, even though the number of active-duty troops has essentially stayed the same. Moreover, the annual costs continue to grow rapidly. The program reductions that are reported to be under consideration would not be enough to offset the growth in spending for military pay and benefits anticipated during the next several years. Even holding the increases in the military budget to the level of inflation would require tens of billions of dollars in annual reductions.

To the extent that added pay and benefits ensure the nation does right by the men and women who fight for it, these increases would seem worthwhile. Unfortunately, a large share of new spending is devoted not to helping soldiers serving today, but to improving the benefits for military retirees - that is, the small minority of veterans who stay in the military for 20 years or more and are eligible for immediate benefits upon their retirements.

In recent years, Congress has expanded retiree benefits substantially, making them the fastest-growing category of entitlements for military personnel. In 1999, Congress reversed a 1986 law that would have trimmed pensions for retirees who joined the military after 1986. That change costs the Defense Department some $1 billion annually. A health care entitlement granted by Congress in 2000 pays virtually all medical expenses for older retirees and their spouses - including the cost of prescription drugs - that are not covered by Medicare. That entitlement costs the Defense Department nearly $4 billion now and its costs will rise over the coming years.

Another benefit, granted by Congress last year and scheduled to be phased in over a decade, will permit retirees who depart the military with moderate to severe disabilities to collect retirement pensions in addition to their disability payments. Its cost, about $500 million this year, will rise to some $2.5 billion a year in six years. In addition, a change authorized in October 2004 will enrich the pensions of spouses who outlive retired service members, at a cost of about $200 million this year and nearly $1 billion in 2011. As expensive as these new benefits are, advocates are pressing Congress for more.

These deferred entitlements do nothing to help men and women now in uniform. These members of the military face long and frequent family separations, deployment to distant lands, fighting in a dangerous counter-insurgency and more. Cash bonuses, improved family services, modern and well-maintained equipment and increases in troop strength (which would mean less frequent call-ups and deployments) are far more likely to serve their needs.

In fact, most active-duty military will never get anything - because they will leave the service before they are eligible to retire with benefits. Fewer than one in 12 of today's living veterans qualify for retiree benefits, and fewer than one in five of today's active-duty service members are expected to stay for the 20 years it takes to receive them.

Moreover, deferred benefits will not help the Army or the National Guard overcome the recruitment and retention problems they face as a result of the war in Iraq. The prospect of receiving such benefits in the distant future is virtually worthless in helping the military to persuade an 18-year-old to join the military or encourage a 23-year-old to re-enlist.

The rapid growth of retiree benefits has already greatly complicated the budget picture for military leaders. Even if Congress decides against further expansion of such benefits, the ones it has already granted will make it hard to slow budget growth without further reducing the size of the military. Giving in to pressure for another round of entitlements, in the face of the challenges facing the troops serving in Iraq and elsewhere, would be irresponsible.

Cindy Williams, a principal research scientist in the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the editor of Filling the Ranks: Transforming the U.S. Military Personnel System.
E-mail: cindywil@MIT.EDU
Telephone: 617) 253-1825

RESPONSE FROM MOAA PRESIDENT
(I have inserted Italic type in the writer’s response, for better definition. - Jug)

January 12, 2005

Letters to the Editor
New York Times
229 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036

Dear Editor:

Cindy Williams’ Jan. 11 op-ed piece “Making the Cuts, Keeping the Benefits” was a woeful compendium of factual errors and ill-founded assertions that were not helpful to any reasonable debate on defense spending.

Ms. Williams asserted that Congress’ 2000 legislation to extend supplemental health coverage to Medicare-eligible military retirees “costs the Defense Department nearly $4 billion now and its costs will rise over the coming years.” Not so. Congress has shifted funding responsibility for this program to the Treasury Department to ensure that not one cent for this long-overdue coverage will come at the expense of other programs in the Defense Budget.

She also criticized more recent legislation that ended the odious practice of making combat-disabled and other severely disabled military retirees fund their own disability compensation by giving up part or all of their retired pay, asserting that will cost the Pentagon $2.5 billion a year in the future. In fact, Congress tasked the Treasury to fund that long-overdue fix as well. The Pentagon won’t have to pay a penny.

She criticized the cost of repealing a 1986 law that would have cut military retirement benefits by 22% or more for people who entered service after that date. But she failed to report that the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously urged that repeal in 1999 because the reduced career incentive had helped generate a retention and readiness crisis. They recognized that it would cost the country far more to endure a manpower-related readiness shortfall and then still have to recruit, train and grow replacements for experienced troops who were leaving the service because the sacrifices of a military career outweighed the expected benefits.

Ms. Williams claims that deferred entitlements do nothing to foster retention in today’s force. Wrong again. Today’s service members and their families are better informed than any force of the past. They understand what Congress has understood very well - that a government that breaks faith with those who defend the country in the past can only deter today’s force from serving a career in uniform.

In the late 1970s and again in the late 1990s, Congress came to appreciate what Ms. Williams doesn’t - that cutting such benefits has, in fact, hurt retention. The problems didn’t surface among first-term people in uniform, but among those in the 8-12 year point. That’s when their families question whether multiple relocations, extended family separations, repeated risk to life and limb, and a host of other military-specific sacrifices are worth the expected benefits of a military career.

Ms. Williams wants to look at the price of military manpower in isolation, when the real issues are “What is the alternative cost associated with reduced national security when fewer people want to serve a career in uniform?” and “How much will it cost and how long will it take to recruit, train, and grow high-quality replacements when large numbers of experienced career people elect to leave service?”

In the past, complaints about military people costs usually have been raised only when the public perceived a low threat to national security. Like Ms. Williams, too many have forgotten too often the sacrifices today’s military retirees and survivors bore for multiple decades - with many seeing combat in three or more major wars. She’s right that only a minority are willing to accept repeated burdens of such extended service. She’s wrong in dismissing that group as unworthy of fair compensation.

Ms. Williams has scaled new heights of ironic ivory-towerism in carping over the cost of compensating those who spend a career defending our country - at a time when their extraordinary strains and sacrifices are so searingly evident in every front page you read.

Sincerely

S/ Norbert R. Ryan, Jr.
VADM, U.S. Navy (Ret.)