The Noble, Unaffordable All-Volunteer Force

By James Kitfield

The outrage and backlash from military retirees resulting from the recent Congressional budget deal that trimmed one percentage-point from the annual cost-of-living increases in military pensions bodes ill for efforts to reform an unsustainable military compensation system. Shortly after the budget deal was announced the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, empowered by Congress to reform the system, was given granted a lengthy extension to complete its work (by February 2015, rather than May 2014 as originally scheduled). It’s doubtful the extra time will produce reforms that Congress or military volunteers will find palatable. 

The impasse reflects a dynamic that founders did not anticipate when the all-volunteer force was created four decades ago: that one percent of Americans would be sent to fight the nation’s wars for more than a decade without a return to the draft, while Congress heaped on pay raises and benefit increases in a show of national gratitude. The result is that it now costs an average of more than $2 million to keep a single uniformed volunteer in a combat zone for a year, and military pay, health and pension benefits are eating an ever greater portion of a declining defense budget.

As service members and military retirees have argued, there is an important principle at stake: to keep faith with those who pledged their lives to defend the country, the U.S. government should deliver the benefits originally promised. That means that cuts in military pay and benefits will by necessity fall disproportionately on new recruits and volunteers, potentially lessening the attractiveness of military careers and the quality of the all-volunteer force.  As personnel costs consume an increasing share of the defense budget, equipment modernization and training are also likely to suffer, further blunting the edge and quality of the force. Those are just some of the unforeseen costs of creating in essence an American Foreign Legion, and sending it to war for over a decade while the other 99 percent of Americans cheered from the sidelines.  


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