“Cut,” a word familiar to theatre and film types, can now be heard echoing in the corridors of the Pentagon.
During the past few years of fiscal uncertainty, the Department of Defense and service branches have been bracing for impending cuts. Already they have weathered the sequester, whose cuts fell disproportionately on the service branches.
This year, Congress seems to favor more tailored budget cuts than the flaying of sequester. In February, a bipartisan effort was made to rein in federal spending while softening the blow of the sequester by passing a budget for fiscal year 2014.
The budget restores some funding to defense but also contains cuts. For a short time, it included a one percent cut to the Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) adjustment for working age military retirees under the age of 62. This cut was projected to save the federal government $6 billion dollars over 10 years, but approval of the reduction, which increases each year at a rate 40 percent above inflation, sparked outrage from veterans’ groups and concerned civilians, and was quickly reversed.
In defense of the cut, Congressman Paul Ryan [R-WI] said that increasing compensation costs are hollowing the Pentagon’s budget and forcing military officials to impose cuts elsewhere. Since pension, benefits and pay are largely written into stone, when cuts fall on the military they fall on what the military calls “readiness,” which refers to the strength and effectiveness of its force represented by troop numbers, equipment and vehicles and training available to those in uniform.
Congressman Ryan is not alone in his desire to give greater discretion to the military when it comes to their budget. Obama-appointed Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has asked Congress to make cuts to compensation costs like COLA and housing allowances in order to shift more money toward force readiness. Yet Congress hastily restored the COLA adjustment to working age retirees. The same members who restored the adjustment have no plan to offset the $600 million yearly cost, but have not relented in calling for a reduced budget deficit.
Since military spending generally falls into either compensation and personnel costs or operational and readiness costs, when Congress holds COLA and other compensation costs as sacred and holy, military officials are forced to make deep cuts that affect readiness. Mere weeks after Congress repealed the COLA cuts, Defense Secretary Hagel unveiled his 5-year plan for the military that includes the lowest active-duty force since before WWII and the elimination of specific aircraft programs in the Air Force. One of the aircraft to be retired within five years is the U-2 spy plane, which will be replaced by the as-yet unproven Global Hawk unmanned spy plane, whose production has been riddled with complications and cost overruns. Although we are shifting away from land wars in the Middle East, Army Chief of Staff General Odierno warns the new troop levels endanger our ability to meet future threats.
These cuts go beyond what is advisable according to top uniformed DoD officials, but Congress has given Hagel little other choice. Our nation’s veterans deserve every penny of pension and benefits we can afford to give them, but the key word is “afford.” As long as we ignore ballooning and unsustainable compensation costs, what we cannot afford will be paid for by retiring weapons and aircraft systems and reducing the size of the standing military. This reduces our effectiveness as a fighting force.
Retired veterans deserve everything that we as a nation can give, but what we can give to those who served before should not come at the cost of those who serve today.
—Seth Daniels is a junior studying political science
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