Budget cuts to come from soldiers’ wallets

We were warned two months ago that the greatest threat to our national security was our national debt by Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Today, Mullen is scrambling to find nearly one trillion dollars in cuts for the defense budget.

The debt deal that Congress reached last week called for $350 billion in cuts for military spending over the next ten years.  In addition, if the “Super Congress” cannot compromise on $1.2 trillion in budget cuts across the board, an additional $500 billion will automatically be cut from the Defense Budget.

So where will those cuts come from?

Despite the withdrawal from Iraq, over 50,000 troops remain.  More than that are stationed in Germany.  Over 30,000 still remain in South Korea and nearly 50,000 are in Japan.  What does that mean?  Iraq and Afghanistan, post drawdown, aren’t going to get much cheaper any time soonand anyone who says they will is probably lying.

Another likely area of cuts is to future weapons programs, though former Defense Secretary Bob Gates cut several of those programs already. Among these were the F-35 program and the Transformation Satellite (TSAT) system, meant to allow for more bandwidth for ground forces to communicate with each other and with air support overhead.  As much as some people are convinced that America is already far outpacing any other country, it simply isn’t true.  Or at least it won’t be true for long at this rate, considering the failure of the F-22, which has yet to see desert action due to reported limitations with communications, targeting and issue with rain and sand affecting its stealth ability.

But even if some of the cuts come from these sophisticated weapons programs, they won’t be enough.  And officials are warning that the second round of cuts will be harmful to our security.

“If it happened, and God willing that would not be the case, but if it did happen, it would result in a further round of very dangerous cuts across the board, defense cuts that I believe would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our military’s ability to protect the nation,” said newly appointed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

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There probably would be room to cut from the budget if the inefficiency of the large military machine were tackled.  Inefficiencies that include paying huge government contract rates (which are more than what the average person pays walking in off of the street), military members and their dependents being referred to emergency rooms or off base urgent care centers, adding up to $500 per visit to the bill.  And of course, any military member can point to the inefficiency of the endless paper trails that exist throughout the military, requiring many more man-hours to accomplish simple tasks than should be necessary.

But these seemingly simple areas to target will likely be left in a legacy of the big machine that is the military.  Military benefits are far more likely to be targeted.  Tuition assistance for active duty service members has already been cut.

And even before Congress voted for the deficit deal last week, the recommendation was made to for them to overhaul the military retirement system which currently allows for members to retire after 20 years of service and immediately start receiving benefits equivalent to 50 percent of their base pay.  The new plan would privatize military retirement and restrict retirement collection to typical retirement ages seen in the private industry.

The problem here is something that even the general public might not understand.  The need and value for military retirement after 20 years (or closer to 30 for some).  The first component may be fairly obvious: 20 years in the military is near the peak of what anyone can take in such a demanding career.  Furthermore, the 20-year mark for retirement is mandatory.  That means that a person who has spent 20 years doing something that requires very specialized, but not necessarily marketable, skills (i.e. Explosive Ordinance Disposal) is kicked out of their job at an age where they likely have a full family to support with no skills or home base to begin doing so.

That is one very small reason the current retirement system is important for military members.  The other is retainability, considering less than 15 percent of military members stay in for the full 20 years.  For many, having the security of that retirement check for their families and livelihoods is what makes the sacrifice of saying goodbye to those families worth it.

The military has already raised prices for retirees’ medical coverage, a benefit that was advertised as free for many.  New reports suggest that officials may be planning to require co-pays for medical care for those on active duty as well in order to save money on the defense budget.  Free medical coverage is one of the biggest recruiting tools the military currently has.  Since base pay is not usually competitive with similar civilian jobs, the military needs these recruiting tools to continue to supply a force that is able to defend the country.

The military cannot afford to lose these benefits.  Unbeknownst to most, active duty service members are already stretched incredibly thin.  Those in garrison are doing the work of several military members and those deployed are repeating that duty far too often.

The bottom line is that while there certainly is plenty of room for defense budget cuts, they will most likely target benefits of the military members rather than the inefficiencies of the large military machine.  The members of Congress that were so quick to pin nearly $1 trillion in cuts on the defense budget should have the oversight to ensure those cuts are administered fairly.