Forward Observer: Our Pricey Military

Skyrocketing health and weapons costs are eating up so much of the defense budget that the next president will find himself or herself commanding a military that cannot do much in the world outside of Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the message from the very top of the defense establishment.

Besides that, mid-level officers fresh from combat in Iraq tell me that this war has demonstrated that today's small, high-paid, all-volunteer force just does not have the staying power to wage long wars. They contend that the Pentagon's quick fix of sending the same troops and officers back to Iraq again and again for lack of enough trained warriors amounts to shooting the all-volunteer force in the foot.

President Richard Nixon suspended draft calls in 1973 in response to the anti-Vietnam War protests. The five-year war in Iraq is the first time the all-volunteer force and National Guard have had to fight that long a conflict.

No less an icon than World War II hero Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, recently asked Defense Secretary Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whether the all-volunteer force was pricing itself out of existence. This was the exchange at the May 20 subcommittee hearing:

Inouye: "Mr. Secretary, between 2000 and 2006 military personnel compensation costs increased 32 percent for active duty and 47 percent for reserve personnel. We're now spending about $180 billion a year on pay, benefits and health care for our armed forces. According to the GAO, this equates to $126,000 per service member. My question is: Is the cost of maintaining an all-volunteer force becoming unsustainable? Do we need to consider reinstituting the draft?"

Gates: "There is no question that it is expensive. When I was in Ukraine a few months ago they told me that they were thinking of going to a volunteer force. And I said, 'Well, you better think carefully about it because it will be very expensive.' One of the huge differences between a volunteer force and a conscription force is the attention that must be paid to taking care of families of soldiers whether they are deployed or not. I would tell you that I personally believe that it is worth the cost . . . I think it would be a real problem to try and go back to the draft."

Mullen: "Your citing of those statistics is of great concern to me . . . There are limits which we will hit, which will force us to a smaller military or force us away from any kind of modernization of programs we need for the future or curtail operations."

There you have it, folks. The two people at the very top of the defense establishment, Gates and Mullen, telling Congress and anybody else who will listen that unless health and other people costs can be curbed, something will have to give.

The new president, if he or she wants to constrain military spending, will confront these tough choices: Take troops off the payroll, cancel or reduce the purchase of new weapons or make the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps stay home more to save money.

It would be cheaper to go back to the draft, but no presidential candidate is advocating that.

Nor is Congress inclined to make military people pay more for health care once they are out of uniform.

"Healthcare costs in the military have gone from about $19.5 billion in 2001 to $42.8 billion for [fiscal 2009]," Gates said. "We have to get it under control. By [fiscal 2011], 65 percent of the people" receiving health care from the Defense Department will be retired, many of them healthy and working at civilian jobs.

They could afford "some modest increase" in the premium for the military's TRICARE health plan, the secretary said in repeating an argument that so far has failed to sway lawmakers.

Nor is there any comfort for the next president in the Pentagon's latest report on the cost of its super-weapons.

These price tags in the Pentagon's new Selected Acquisition Report will no doubt give him or her sticker shock: $65 billion for 184 F-22 fighter planes, or $351 million for just one; $92 billion for 30 Virginia class submarines, $3.1 billion each; $299 billion for 2,456 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, $122 million each; $159 billion for 15 Future Combat Systems, or $11 billion for each set; $54 billion for 458 Marine V-22 Osprey aerial taxis, or $118 million each; $63 billion for 62 DDG 51 destroyers, $1 billion plus for one. Those prices include research and development costs.

Hopefully the next president will ask Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps leaders how those expensive weapons will help U.S. forces fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, or otherwise help the United States win the war on terror.

Have sympathy for the next president. As commander-in-chief, he or she will be up against out-of-control people costs, a Maginot line mentality at the top of the armed services and a Congress that loves weapons no matter what they cost as long as they have jobs attached.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec