Depending on who is doing the talking, the national defense budget is either too big or not large enough. Both sides have fair points, but what seems to be dangerously lacking from the two perspectives is a true sense of budget realities.
To those who argue the defense budget is too large, big-ticket weapons systems and overseas engagements are usually the cause for protest. Those who believe the defense budget is too small have a completely different take: The world is a dangerous place, the systems of the future are expensive and the military must always be prepared to protect U.S. interests worldwide.
Both perspectives converge in one area at least. When it comes to personnel costs, neither is quick to acknowledge, if willing to make the point at all, the fact that compensation and benefits is overwhelming the defense budget—consuming nearly half. Projections are even more severe, with the same costs eventually swallowing most of the budget, leaving little room to fund the resources the services need and preserve a force-size large enough to meet global obligations.
Over the next decade, the Pentagon is required to identify $1 trillion in savings in order to comply with spending caps contained in current law. Sequestration triggered the latest round of cuts and the Pentagon, just one-year into a ten-year process, is already feeling the pinch.
For the U.S. Army in particular, between 42 and 45 percent of its total budget goes to salaries and benefits. By 2023, these same costs could grow to 80 percent of the Army’s budget if left alone, according to Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno.
Speaking before Congress, General Odierno warned of the challenge, stating, “The cost of a soldier has doubled since 2001. It’s going to almost double again by 2025. So we have to come up with compensation packages, not taking money away.” He is right.
Sooner or later, personnel costs will have to be addressed. A major challenge in doing so will be managing the rate of growth for military pay and benefits while guaranteeing that neither capability nor mission readiness suffers. That is no easy task, but it is definitely doable.
The military services are working on a plan to reduce cost growth of compensation and benefits, and Congress will surely have a say in what reforms are acceptable. This is a major responsibility and both the service branches and lawmakers will have one chance to get it right.
Of course, there is a right way and a wrong way to proceed. Any recommendations and potential changes should not affect the men and women who are serving now. Instead, the aim must be to look ahead to those who step forward in the future. Promises must be upheld.
To get there, plenty areas of the budget are worthy of reform and cuts where appropriate. In one move last week, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel revealed a plan to save at least $1 billion in costs over the next five years by reducing by 20 percent the number of staffers who report to him while other duties and functions are realigned. Similarly, there is no shortage of systems and programs that require scrutiny to ensure the Pentagon is managing dollars wisely and maximizing efficiency. Once again, no easy undertaking but a necessary action that will lead to added cost-savings.
The best-case scenario is to rollback sequestration, but absent that solution, it will remain the responsibility of the Pentagon and Congress to guide budget priorities in the post-sequester environment.
As important as cutting-edge resources are to the mission success of the U.S. military, the strength of the armed forces is entirely dependent on the brave men and women who serve in its ranks. They deserve to know that as they stand to defend America, their country will stand beside them by guaranteeing that, in addition to receiving compensation that is worthy of their contributions, they also receive the best weapon systems and training in the world.
Duncan Hunter represents California's 52nd Congressional district in the United States House of Representatives; He serves on the House Armed Services committee. Formerly a Marine Corps officer, Rep. Hunter served in Iraq and Afghanistan.