By COLIN CLARK
CAPITOL HILL: In an extraordinary letter to defense lawmakers and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, experts from nine Washington think tanks on the left and the right call for fundamental fixes to the defense budgets that, left undone, “threaten the health and long-term viability of America’s volunteer military.”
The authors stepped up the heat on the Hill this afternoon with a sort of seminar in the Hart Senate Office Building at which they honed their messages and took questions from the audience of several hundred (including many congressional and Pentagon staff.)
Mackenzie Eaglen, defense expert at the American Enterprise Institute, offered the most concise summary of the enormous problems faced by the Pentagon as sequestration begins to bite and the drawdown from Afghanistan accelerates.
Law and policy makers must choose between two promises we make to the American military. First, and probably most important, is the nation’s pledge to always ensure they are not in fair fight. That means they must have the best weapons, the finest training and the most responsive intelligence and materiel support. The other promise: we will pay you decently and provide benefits to ensure our warriors are decently cared for and do not have to live in penury after serving their country and risking their lives.
“In the interests of preserving one set of perceived promoses we are risking another set of promises,” Eaglen argued. Her point was that pay and benefits are not sacred, nor can they be viewed in isolation. Providing a soldier with the best gun, the best tank, the best plane, the best intelligence, the best body armor and the best training to use them to greatest effect is a somber commitment that may be even more important to the soldier’s life and well being, not to mention to the nation as a whole.
To those who argue, as many in Congress have over the years, that we have a sacred obligation to troops and must pay them and provide them with the best benefits possible, Mike O’Hanlon of Brookings took the brave step of grasping what many have called the third rail of military politics.
“There is no civilian pay gap in this country any more,” O’Hanlon said at the Capitol Hill event. Miltiary personnel “are paid substantially more than civilians” of similar ages, qualifications and experience.
One member of Congress showed up at the event, which is unprecedented in my experience. Getting so many experts with such a wide variety of political views to agree on so much is not easy.
Rep. Jim Cooper, ranking member of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, noted sadly that his colleagues were not likely to discuss or introduce many of the ideas discussed by the think tank experts, even with the HASC markup coming up Wednesday.
“I’ve grown disillusioned with my colleagues ability to make these hard decisions,” he said. He called for Pentagon managers to be given “flexibility and let them go ahead and do it.” Otherwise, on base closures and so many other issues, “so many of colleagues will ignore them or reject them for parochial reasons.” We leave it to you, dear reader, to comment on this state of affairs.
The think tank letter, run as an ad in the The Hill newspaper this morning, cites what it calls “a striking bipartisan consensus” across the thinks tanks that at least three major issues must be addressed, though they don’t all agree on how to change them. The signers include most of the most respected defense analysts in America.
“It is our shared belief that the Department of Defense urgently needs to close excess bases and facilities, reexamine the size and structure of the DoD civilian workforce, and reform military compensation. While we do not all agree on the best approach to reform in each case, we agree that if these issues are not addressed, they will gradually consume the defense budget from within,” the letter says.
Top of the list: base closures, which Congress has opposed since former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta proposed them.
In a nice bit of understatement, the authors note that, “many in Congress are understandably fearful of repeating the mistakes of the most recent round of base closures in 2005.”
But, sounding a bit like a mother soothing an anxious child, the think tank experts, point out to lawmakers that round of base closures “was an anomaly in many respects because it occurred during a period of growth in defense spending and emphasized moving and consolidating facilities instead of outright closures.”
Then they get to the facts, noting that the Defense Department could close 20 percent of its infrastructure and use that money for other things.
Then they get to the well known civilian workforce problem. After 911, the active duty military grew by 3.4 percent. while the civilian workforce grew by 17 percent. “In the last four years alone, DoD civilians have grown by ten percent, but it is unclear if that growth was appropriately matched to the changing needs of a downsizing military and shifting strategy.” They aren’t sure how much needs to be cut, but $74 billion in civilian pay is clearly a tempting target.
The last thing they all agree on is the need for change to military pay and benefits. This has been something Congress just will not do, afraid to be blamed for cutting the pay and benefits of solders who have become iconic in the American imagination.
“Yet if Congress fails to curb the growth in military compensation costs, they will continue to grow as the defense budget shrinks, crowding out funds needed for training, readiness and for the replacement of worn out equipment,” the think tank experts say. Congress has created a bipartisan commission to look at military compensation and the letter says the Hill should “commit to bringing the recommendations of this commission to a vote in both chambers.”
Let’s see what Congress is capable of over the next 18 months. The House Armed Services Committee’s markup of the defense authorization bill begins Wednesday. Few of these issues are likely to be addressed in it.
Here’s a list of the letter’s authors: Gordon Adams, Stimson Center; David Barno, Center for a New American Security; Nora Bensahel, Center for a New American Security; David Berteau, Center for Strategic and International Studies; Barry Blechman, Stimson Center; Shawn Brimley, Center for a New American Security; Thomas Donnelly, American Enterprise Institute; Mackenzie Eaglen, American Enterprise Institute; Paul Eaton, National Security Network; Eric Edelman, Foreign Policy Initiative; Nathan Freier, Center for Strategic and International Studies; Mark Gunzinger, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments; Christopher Griffin, Foreign Policy Initiative; Todd Harrison, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments; Lawrence Korb, Center for American Progress; Andrew Krepinevich, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments; Maren Leed, Center for Strategic and International Studies; Clark Murdock, Center for Strategic and International Studies; Michael O’Hanlon, Brookings Institutio; Christopher Preble, Cato Institute; Russell Rumbaugh, Stimson Center; Jim Thomas, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments; Kim Wincup, Center for Strategic and International Studies; Robert Work, Center for a New American Security; Dov Zakheim, Center for Strategic and International Studies.