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Gates and Fiscal Responsibility (Again)

This past weekend Secretary of Defense Bob Gates continued to talk his Kansas brand of sense about Pentagon spending. After a lecture on shipbuilding last week at the Navy League teed up tough questions to the Navy — like whether we can continue to afford $7 billion submarines — Gates took to the Eisenhower Library in his home state to expand that theme across his entire department. I’d bet you a crisp $20 bill that this is the line that caused an audible gasp in Reston and on the Hill:

The Defense Department must take a hard look at every aspect of how it is organized, staffed, and operated – indeed, every aspect of how it does business. In each instance we must ask: First, is this respectful of the American taxpayer at a time of economic and fiscal duress? And second, is this activity or arrangement the best use of limited dollars, given the pressing needs to take care of our people, win the wars we are in, and invest in the capabilities necessary to deal with the most likely and lethal future threats?

As a starting point, no real progress toward savings will be possible without reforming our budgeting practices and assumptions. Too often budgets are divied up and doled out every year as a straight line projection of what was spent the year before. Very rarely is the activity funded in these areas ever fundamentally re-examined – either in terms of quantity, type, or whether it should be conducted at all. That needs to change.

But then again, maybe the shock value has worn off — fiscal responsibility has been such a theme under Gates’ leadership that perhaps tough-minded rhetoric on defense spending now comes with little surprise.

Then Gates delved into specifics. And now it was the soldiers’, sailors’, airmen’s, and marines’ turn to get nervous:

[H]ealth-care costs are eating the Defense Department alive, rising from $19 billion a decade ago to roughly $50 billion – roughly the entire foreign affairs and assistance budget of the State Department. The premiums for TRICARE, the military health insurance program, have not risen since the program was founded more than a decade ago. Many working age military retirees – who are earning full-time salaries on top of their full military pensions – are opting for TRICARE even though they could get health coverage through their employer, with the taxpayer picking up most of the tab. In recent years the Department has attempted modest increases in premiums and co-pays to help bring costs under control, but has been met with a furious response from the Congress and veterans groups. The proposals routinely die an ignominious death on Capitol Hill.

The resistance to dealing with TRICARE stems from an admirable sentiment: to take good care of our troops, their families, and veterans – especially those who have sacrificed and suffered on the battlefield. This same sentiment motivates the Congress routinely to add an extra half percent to the pay raise that the Department requests each year. Furthermore, the all-volunteer force, which has been a brilliant success in terms of performance, is a group that is older, more likely to have spouses and children, and thus far costlier to recruit, retain, house, and care for than the Eisenhower-era military that relied on the draft of young single men to fill out its ranks.

Those are the political and demographic realities we face. To a certain extent they limit what can be saved and where. But as a matter of principle and political reality, the Department of Defense cannot go to the America’s elected representatives and ask for increases each year unless we have done everything possible to make every dollar count. Unless there is real reform in the way this department does its business and spends taxpayer dollars.

Two quick points here.

First, America’s armed personnel and their families represent an important political constituency. No administration wants the baggage that comes with reducing benefits for America’s fighting men and women. For the time being, that includes this one. If a serious restructuring of military pay and benefits ever occurs, it would likely be in about year six or seven of the Obama administration, safely after reelection.

Even then, it might prove impossible as Congress continues to feed the beast of fiscal irresponsibility. News broke just today that the Hill is about to vote on a 1.9 percent military pay raise. Guess what? That’s a half-percent more than the Pentagon recommended.

Second, in my mind, the structure of the benefits isn’t the problem. It’s the amount of care. I wrote a paper last year called “The Pentagon’s Most Expensive Weapon,” and I concluded that once you add up all outlays — including costs associated with the Department of Veterans Affairs — for military personnel, DoD spends not the $136 billion it tells you, but more than $300 billion.

Why are these costs skyrocketing? It’s a simple function of our foreign policy — America’s service members may be getting older and costlier, but since Afghanistan and Iraq, they’re also getting injured more frequently and in greater numbers.  Here’s my conclusion:

The problem of rising personnel costs can only be addressed from higher up the chain. Extended deployments overseas invariably increase costs because of the strain they place on the force — in casualties, logistics, sustainability, and recruiting and retention costs. Once the force has recovered from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is incumbent on America’s civilian leadership to carefully weigh the extended cost burden placed on the Pentagon’s personnel account when plotting our global security strategy. In short, America must choose its wars and deployments carefully, as exploding personnel costs are the untold story of Pentagon spending in 2010 and beyond.

In other words, you can talk about trimming benefits and reducing the ever illusive “waste, fraud, and abuse,” and that is no doubt a good thing. And so is eliminating unneeded weapons systems.

But if we’re going inject real savings on personnel into the system, we can’t just talk about TRICARE, we have to stop fighting dumb wars. And ultimately, that decision is above Gates’ pay grade.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/eschipul/ / CC BY-SA 2.0


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