May 13, 2011 3:35PM

Data on Military Compensation

There is an interesting article posted over at the blog Hegemonic Obsessions discussing the need to reform military pay and benefits. One need not agree with the author's suggestion that the U.S. Army might go the way of General Motors to understand his broader point: personnel expenses are consuming a larger and larger share of the DoD's budget. Indeed, this has been one of Defense Secretary Robert Gates' leading complaints for years.

The article provides some of the details:

The Defense Business Board estimates the average cost of a military member at $80,004 per year. Thankfully the military is made up mostly of junior enlisted personnel who leave the service well before they are eligible for a pension. There are, however, 1.9 million military retirees receiving an average of $47,000 per year in pension payments. This does not include their healthcare benefits.

And, just as was true for the pre-bankruptcy auto industry, there are more military retirees than soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines on active duty. While it may be unpleasant to hear, the system is unsustainable. The military may very well collapse under its own personnel costs. In part, reform has stalled because any voice that questions military pay and benefits is tarred and feathered as unpatriotic.

Americans are understandably proud of the men and women who serve in our military. They endure enormous hardships, including long periods of separation from their families and exposure to all manner of hostile environments. They represent many of the finest attributes of this country. No wonder that the military is regularly cited as the most respected institution in national polls. I'm a little embarrassed to be counted a "veteran" — which is technically true — when many of the men and women with whom I graduated, or served, have stayed in the military for 20 years or more. At least one friend didn't come home. They are the real heroes.

But while we can and should be proud, we shouldn't be stupid. The author is right: the system is unsustainable. If we are going to get a handle on rising personnel costs, we must either reform the manner in which pay and benefits are distributed, or reduce the number of personnel. If we are to do the latter (and I think that we should) then we need to rethink roles and missions, and ask less, not more, of the men and women who remain in the service. (See Gen. Raymond Odierno's recent comments on that score.)

If we succeed in restraining Washington's interventionist impulses, and draw down the number of active-duty personnel to levels that prevailed in the late 1990s, the end result might be an even more elite force than the one that we have today. The future force would include individuals earning salaries that are competitive with the private sector, which is essential for maintaining the all-volunteer force. And that force would be more than sufficient to protect us from the real but manageable threats of the next few decades.