Service members should be better informed

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

Editor’s note: Military Update will move to Tuesdays beginning next week.

Many service members are not well informed about their hodgepodge of pays, allowances, benefits and tax breaks and therefore don’t recognize and appreciate the real worth of their compensation packages.

The observation is made in a Government Accountability Office report, released in late July, that questions the “reasonableness, appropriateness, affordability and sustainability’’ of the military compensation system.

The GAO report adds timbre to a rising chorus of warnings, mostly from defense think tanks and senior defense officials, that military personnel costs are soaring and that too much of that money goes into deferred compensation, such as retirement and lifetime healthcare — relatively inefficient ways to attract recruits or even to retain careerists.

The GAO study is timely for defense officials who last spring created a Defense Advisory Committee on Military Compensation to study private-sector-like changes to military pay and benefits. A draft report is due in September.

Last February, the Center for Strategic and Budget Assessments in Washington published a report detailing the sharp rise in military compensation since 1999 and warning of an affordability crisis. In a book, and later in a New York Times commentary, economist Cindy Williams of MIT’s Security Studies Program argued that much of the recent spike in military compensation helps retirees and survivors but does little to attract recruits or sustain the current force.

The new GAO report says total annual government spending on military pay, allowances and benefits jumped 29 percent, or by $35 billion, from 2000 to 2004. The government, it adds, spent an average of $112,000 last year on compensation for active duty members. That average is across the force, officers and enlisted, and includes the cost of benefits to members from other departments including Veterans Affairs, Labor and Education.

Because military compensation costs are paid by four departments, the Congress and Pentagon officials lack “transparency’’ to manage them effectively. They are missing a rising cost trend that, in time, will squeeze budgets for other defense priorities, GAO suggests.

Basic pay and allowances alone are “competitive’’ with private sector wages, exceeding salaries or wages of 70 percent of Americans of similar age and education, GAO says. “While some specific skill groups could likely make considerably more in civilian jobs, such perceptions of noncompetitive compensation seem to be inaccurate in broad terms,’’ the report says.

Meanwhile, military benefits remain “much greater’’ than those of civilian peers, it adds.

Despite the competitiveness of military compensation, GAO confirmed through focus groups with active duty members what Defense Department surveys also show — that many members are both dissatisfied and misinformed about their compensation.

“We heard frequent complaints from senior enlisted service members and officers that benefits were eroding,’’ GAO says. That perception “is in direct contrast to the reality that costs to compensate service members have risen dramatically in recent years and benefits are projected to rise even more dramatically in the future.’’

It recommends that Defense officials launch a comprehensive communication and education plan to better inform service members.

For at least the last six years, military pay raises have exceeded wage growth in the private sector. Housing allowances not only have kept pace with rental costs but have closed a 15 percent gap. Enlistment and reenlistment bonuses and special pays have climbed, particularly for ground forces, since the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: