Pentagon meets resistance on benefit cuts

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The Pentagon is planning another push to whittle down benefits for troops when it submits its 2016 budget to the White House in February over fierce opposition from military groups and some in Congress.

“We have and will continue to look at ways to slow the growth of compensation,” said Defense Department spokesman Navy Cmdr. Bill Urban on Monday. “I would expect these efforts to continue to some degree in the 2016 Defense budget.”

Pentagon officials acknowledge that the cost of troop benefits has dropped over the past few years. But they argue those benefits still eat up too much of the budget. 

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Pay and benefits cost approximately $185 billion in 2011. The total has fallen steadily each year since then, to $177 billion in 2014, according to Defense Department statistics.

The costs have gone down mostly due to a reduction in the number of active-duty and reserve troops, defense officials said. About 62,000 soldiers have been cut in the past three years, according to the Army Times. 

2014 saw increases in healthcare insurance fees, as well as a military pay raise of only 1 percent approved by the president instead of the congressionally mandated 1.8 percent. 

The Pentagon successfully pressed Congress to continue reducing costs for 2015, by again holding the pay raise to 1 percent, reducing housing allowances by 5 percent, and increasing pharmaceutical copays. 

Military groups fear there are more cuts to come. They are also angry that the Pentagon is considering more cuts to troop compensation after more than a decade of sustained warfare and repeated deployments.

“Not only has the rate of growth for personnel compensation growth slowed — it has gone negative for the last three years, from 2011 on,” said retired Navy Adm. Norb Ryan, president of the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), in a recent interview with The Hill.

But Pentagon leaders say they just can’t continue cutting troops and that ballooning benefit costs would ultimately leave insufficient money to maintain combat readiness.

“Adjustments are going to have to be made because if they're not made down into the future then we will essentially end up with a hollow force. We will have a lot of benefits and pay, but there'll be no money for readiness,” said Defense Secretary Chuck HagelChuck HagelHagel says NATO deployment could spark a new Cold War with Russia Overnight Defense: House panel unveils 5B defense spending bill Hagel to next president: We need to sit down with Putin MORE on Dec. 7. 

Defense budget expert Todd Harrison agreed and said that in the face of $500 billion in defense cuts mandated under sequestration, there were only so many levers that could be pulled in order to bring the budget down. 

“The rate of growth that we've seen in military compensation is certainly unsustainable when the overall defense budget’s not growing,” said Harrison, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. 

Ryan said it’s true that the rate of growth of compensation skyrocketed between 2000 and 2010. But he said that rate will not continue because it was largely caused by a surge of forces for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“They were talking about the last decade that has nothing to do with 2011 on. The rate of growth has already slowed,” he added.

Military groups also reject the Pentagon’s argument that there is a trade-off involving “benefits versus bullets.” They say officials are simply going after “low-hanging fruit” in the face of overall budget cuts. 

“The easiest thing for them to go after is pay, benefits, compensation,” said retired Army Col. Mike Barron, deputy director of government relations for MOAA.

Alluding to overspending elsewhere, Barron noted that an April 2014 Government Accountability Office report concluded that the programs for acquiring current weapons systems had run over budget by nearly $500 billion. 

But Harrison said acquisition reform has proven to be unrealistic. 

“It would be great if we could buy the Joint Strike Fighter for pennies on the dollar ... It’s just not realistic,” Harrison said, referring to the Pentagon’s fifth generation stealth fighter jet, and its most costly such program in history.

A congressionally appointed commission looking into military compensation reform is due to submit its recommendations to the president and to Congress no later than Feb. 1. The Pentagon is due to submit its budget request to the White House at the same time and is not expected to incorporate the commission’s recommendations. 

The president will have 60 days to evaluate the commission’s recommendations or ask for more information. The White House will then submit its 2016 budget request to Congress in March.

“It is our hope that recommendations will be considered during the budget season,” said James Graybeal, spokesman for the commission.

He added that Congress — which has the final say over the Pentagon’s budget — is not barred from considering the recommendations on its own.