During the Second World War there was a tongue in cheek song about the benefits of joining the army. It promised “twenty-one dollars a day once a month.” Back when I found myself in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in 1968 the refrain was largely the same but my recollection is that we were paid around $70 in cash. Once a month. As there was nothing to buy and nothing to do with the money since we were not allowed off base and were in training all day seven days a week it was more than adequate pocket money.
When I left the army as a sergeant three years later I recall that I was making about $350 a month, largely due to a 1970 raise brought about by the impending switch over to an all-volunteer service which brought with it higher pay as an inducement to enlist. Soldiers who were married when they enlisted or who became married while in service received no benefits at all for their spouses until they had been in for three years, so they had to cover all their living expenses out of what was a relatively small salary even in those days. The idea was, of course, to discourage getting married unless one demonstrated seriousness by making a career out of the military.
Back then soldiering was regarded by most as both temporary and part of one’s responsibility as a citizen, but today’s professional force is a different animal, largely driven by pay and benefits to attract career soldiers and officers. And that provides the one compelling reason why we should be eschewing new wars: we cannot persist in actually using our large wartime strength military because America’s professional soldiers are way too expensive. One might even argue that post-9/11 pay and benefit increases mean that military personnel are rewarded excessively for their service compared to what is available in the private sector for Americans with similar education and experience.
The new budget being proposed by President Barack Obama reflects the increased cost associated with having a large professional military. It provides a jump in the Pentagon share to $534 billion plus $51 billion for the wars in Afghanistan and against ISIS as well as another $27 billion outsourced for nuclear weapons development by the Department of Energy. The Pentagon budget does not include additional big ticket defense expenditures such as the $137 billion spent on Veterans Administration hospitals in 2013, which is earmarked separately, as are the military components of the Department of Homeland Security.
Nor does the proposed budget appear to include any direct funding for the escalating conflict with Russia over Ukraine, though there is provision for more exercises involving US and NATO troops to include deployments in Eastern Europe. The incoming Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has already indicated that he would be inclined to provide arms to Ukraine, setting the stage for a proxy or even a real war with Russia. Fortunately the Europeans do not seem inclined to join in on the latest American misadventure and may be able to derail it.
Defense is hugely expensive in proportionate terms given the lack of any serious and sustained threats against the United States and when it comes to spending it doesn’t seem to matter whether the president is a Republican or a Democrat. The Pentagon claims that its capabilities have been eroded by the sequester of the past three years and that more money is needed to update existing weapons systems while supporting an active duty force of 475,000 military personnel. Modern weapons systems are enormously expensive even when they do not work very well. The F-35 fighter might be the greatest boondoggle in defense procurement history and the continuous construction of $5 billion aircraft carriers that are highly vulnerable to relatively cheap missiles is little more than welfare for the defense contractors.
The Defense Department planners insist that the United States has to have enough resources on hand to handle two “major regional conventional contingencies” simultaneously. Regional opponents are generally considered to be on the level of Iranians or North Koreans. It is not clear how seriously official Washington regards the “Chinese threat” or even the possibility of a war with Russia, either of which, of course, would have the potential of going nuclear.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that actual average pay and benefits for each soldier on active duty amount to $99,000, which means that current manning levels cost roughly $50 billion per year in basic personnel costs without considering the National Guard and reserves. But the Pentagon actually budgets $150 billion for personnel expenses. This is because in addition to salary, which has increased dramatically since 9/11, military personnel also receive thirty days paid vacation annually as well as free housing, food and medical care for themselves and their families. The housing and subsistence allowances are not taxed and they increase based on the number of family members. Families also receive free education plus child care allowances and shop at government run at subsidized post exchanges and commissaries.
When a soldier serves 20 years he or she receives a generous pension and heavily subsidized medical care for life as well as continued access to the exchanges and commissaries. Any soldier who leaves with an honorable discharge can have his college tuition paid for in full as well as some additional allowances for books and other expenses. The average retirement grade for an officer who serves 20 years is just below Lieutenant Colonel while the average for an enlisted man is First Sergeant, earning base salaries of $98,391 and $51,072 respectively. The base salary can be and normally is augmented by combat pay, incentive pay and hazardous duty pay.
There are several formulae in use for calculating retirement pay, but it traditionally has been in the range of 2.5% for every year served, meaning that twenty years of service would equate to 50% of final salary as a retirement that would subsequently be adjusted upwards for cost of living increases and also to correspond with pay raises awarded to the active duty military. A study using 2004 pay rates concluded that the officer’s retirement would wind up costing the government more than $1 million, while that of the enlisted man would be nearly $565,000. And that does not include the health care benefits. As the average age of an officer retiree would be 45 and 41 for the enlisted man most former soldiers subsequently start a second career or begin working for a defense contractor.
These retirement benefits are part of the legacy costs of a large professional army, but the real kicker is the burgeoning disability and medical costs, which are likely to break the bank over the next twenty years. Such expenses normally do not peak until well after the time of military service and all military personnel, not just retirees, benefit from them. The current rates for both disability and care are already far higher than in previous conflicts, largely because debilitating conditions like exposure to toxic chemicals and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are now covered.
As in the civilian economy, health care costs for the military are increasing much faster than inflation. As of mid-2013, 866,181 soldiers were considered casualties of Iraq and Afghanistan. A Harvard Kennedy School study estimates that each of those soldiers will require on average $2 million in medical care during their lifetimes, for a total of $1.7 trillion. That number is clearly higher now and will increase with every new war.
It is true that military personnel, subject to immediate reassignment worldwide, are subject to stresses that do not exist in the civilian sector. But the argument that they deserve extra pay and benefits because they do a dangerous job would appear to have only limited validity. To be sure those who actually fight have paid a heavy price with 6845 dead since 9/11, but relatively few soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen are ever actually in harm’s way. Overall what has been described as the tooth-to-tail ratio in the U.S. military is one to three, which means that for every soldier who has a combat military occupational specialty (MOS) or a combat support role there are three more who are non-combatants. And the ratio is actually more unbalanced than that as combat units also include numerous soldiers in headquarters and support functions. As a general rule, anyone in a war zone receives combat pay or equivalent bonuses whether they actually are engaged in fighting or not, meaning that providing cash incentives for those who actually endure extra risk has largely been expunged from the system.
A 2010 study revealed that fully 40% of military personnel had never been deployed overseas at all during the decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The branches of military service that are highly infrastructure dependent, the Navy and Air Force, have very few personnel that play any kind of combat role at all in the type of warfare that has prevailed in the past fifteen years. Studies have demonstrated that it would be far cheaper to turn over many of the support and noncombatant functions to civilians or contractors who would not require the military’s extensive health care and other benefits or the generous retirements.
So it should surprise no one to learn that we Americans have a military establishment poorly designed to fight twenty-first century wars that is above all a money pit. Soldiers have been rightly or wrongly idolized since 9/11 and Pentagon brass have been able to take advantage of that fact to push pay and allowances up well beyond the point where there is a reasonable return and commitment based on the actual service provided. To be sure personnel costs are only one part of Defense Department extravagance but it is a highly volatile part driven by an increasing awareness of the physical and mental damage inflicted on many of the soldiers and marines who actually do the fighting.
Perhaps it is time to begin to come to the realization that America’s apparently insatiable appetite for war has just become too expensive for the nation to bear. The United States does not need a modern Praetorian Guard that is becoming overindulged with pay and privileges and it is perhaps time to return to the principles of the Founding Fathers who envisioned a military establishment consisting largely of citizen soldiers who would be prepared to fight to the death to defend their homes but would find it unimaginable to be going to war in Fallujah or Kandahar.