Soon to Be Added to List of Pentagon’s Unaffordable Luxuries: People in Uniform

Saturday, August 13, 2011
By Paul Martin

By Sandra I. Erwin
August 2011

The fire alarms are screaming but nobody is listening. That is one way to describe a Pentagon fiscal predicament that, for a change, has nothing to do with the soaring price tags of weapon systems.

The all-volunteer military force has become so expensive that, compared to a decade ago, the Pentagon is paying twice as much for the same number of people. The trends are scary, and getting worse, warns Arnold L. Punaro, a retired Marine Corps major general who serves on a Pentagon advisory panel. Runaway personnel and retiree benefits costs, he says, are pushing the Defense Department toward a financial precipice.

Air Force Gen. Donald Hoffman recently compared the cost of military personnel to a Pac-Man that is gobbling up the rest of the defense budget.

Personnel and health expenses today consume half of the defense budget and will continue to chew up a greater share of the pie. Punaro says the result will be a “hollow force” that will enjoy a wealth of entitlements but will be untrained and ill-equipped to fight wars.

It may be startling to Americans, most of whom embrace the notion that military service should be appropriately rewarded with pay and benefits, that most personnel spending does not go to the active-duty force. The Defense Department supports pension and health care costs for a population of 3.3 million active duty members and 5.5 million retirees.

“We’re on a path to make the Defense Department a benefits company that may occasionally kill a terrorist,” Punaro says.

Of all the programs that are driving the Pentagon to bankruptcy, he says, one that is ripe for reform is military retirement. Paying benefits based on longevity and grade is an anachronism, says Punaro. The system is rooted in World War II, when troops were drafted, received meager pay, and the government sought to encourage them to stick around for 20 years and collect generous benefits. Now, service members are rewarded for leaving at the peak of their careers when they are most productive. In addition, life expectancy has increased significantly since the system was put in place. Providing paychecks and benefits over 60 years to serve for 20 is not a sustainable option, Punaro says.

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