Five weeks after the presidential inauguration, Washingtonians are still coming to terms with what it means to live under the Trump Administration. It's "Your Turn" to tell us how the changes are affecting you.
As U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon is looking to trim its budget. Proposals include shrinking the ranks in all branches, as well as a number of changes to personnel compensation in forms ranging from housing allowances to retirement benefits. We hear what’s on the table, why change is necessary and how it will affect military families.
- Deborah Bradbard Acting Director of Research and Policy, Blue Star Families; licensed clinical psychologist
- Andrew Tilghman Senior Writer and Pentagon Correspondent; Military Times Newspapers
- Christopher Preble Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies, Cato Institute; author of "The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free"
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAs the U.S. military considers leaving Afghanistan entirely and continues to regroup post-Iraq, new questions about whether the forces we have or the forces we need have begun to emerge. Questions that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is wrestling with in his budget for next year. A preview of the proposal, which will go to Congress next week, suggests a sizable reduction in personnel across most branches, cuts to benefits for service members and retirees, and the continuation of costly and controversial programs, like the F-35 Fighter.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to help us understand what's on the table, what the proposal would mean for military families and what's likely to actually get cut is Andrew Tilghman. His is a senior writer and Pentagon correspondent for the Military Times Newspapers. Andrew, good to see you.
MR. ANDREW TILGHMANGood to see you.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Christopher Preble. He is the vice president for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. That's a libertarian think tank. He's also author of three books, most recently, "The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free." Christopher Preble, thank you for joining us.
MR. CHRISTOPHER PREBLEThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone is Deborah Bradbard. She is acting director of research and policy with Blue Star Families. That's a nonpartisan nonprofit organization created by military families to raise awareness of challenges their community faces. She's also a licensed clinical psychologist. Debbie Bradbard, thank you for joining us.
MS. DEBORAH BRADBARDThank you for having me.
NNAMDIIf you're interested in joining the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850. What do you think of the proposed military cuts? You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Andrew, the military budget is massive, multi-faceted. It's also notoriously difficult to trim. What exactly is on the table in the proposal Sec. Hazel (sic) previewed this week in terms of cuts?
TILGHMANWell, the secretary proposed some pretty significant fore-structure cuts. He's going to bring the army down by another probably 50,000 soldiers from the previous target. But what was really controversial was the proposals to make some, essentially, first of their kind reductions to military compensation. He made a very big point of saying that pay will not be cut, which is true technically, but they are talking about reducing housing allowance, which is a huge component of most service members' monthly cash flow.
TILGHMANHe's talking about increasing the healthcare copays and he's talking about reducing the subsidies at the commissaries, which for a lot of families is going to immediately increase their grocery bill.
NNAMDIChris, how much of this is about a need to trim the budget and how much of it is about needing to right-size the military, as we drawn down from two active engagements and look at a future where warfare looks different?
PREBLEWell, I think that obviously warfare does look different. It's evolved. And I think we've learned some pretty bitter lessons as a country over the last dozen years about the long grueling wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We actually grew the army in the Marine Corps to fight those wars. And so some of these reductions reflect a turn away from those types of wars, in a sense both among the American people especially, but also increasingly here in Washington, that we're not going to choose to fight those types of wars.
PREBLEAnd so I think that's why -- and lastly, personnel costs are a huge component of the budget. So if you're going to bring down that cost, you either reduce the benefits to the individual soldiers or you have a smaller force or a combination of the two. I think that's what we're looking at now.
NNAMDIAnd I also asked about how much about this is about a need to trim the budget. You've called for cuts to the military budgets before, what changes would you most like to see? And do any of the proposed areas for cuts concern you?
PREBLEWell, I do think that one of the proposals we put on the table -- a colleague and I at Cato published a study several years ago now, looking at the ground forces and saying if we're not going to fight nation-building types of wars, then we can get away with a smaller, active-duty army. And that's where we're headed. And, again, it's a process that started a couple years ago, but is really accelerating now.
NNAMDIAndrew, what are the pressures to cut the budget?
TILGHMANWell, I think that there's just a consensus in Washington that defense spending is not going to continue to go up, as it has for the past 10 to 13 years. And the Defense Department had penciled in in their five-year plan some really massive growth that is just not going to come to fruition. And it's very difficult as they try to sort of backpedal from that. I mean the defense budget is not really going down much.
TILGHMANAnd then when you can sort of factor in wartime funding and that sort of thing, maybe it's not going down at all, but the defense officials like to talk about reductions from previous planned spending, which is an interesting accounting trick, but is not what most of us consider to be a reduction.
NNAMDIDebbie -- go ahead, Chris.
PREBLEQuickly. We're still about 13 percent ahead of where we were prior to the 2001 build -- after 2001. About 13 percent higher when adjusted for inflation. So we're still -- even though we have seen some reductions, mainly because of the end of the wars, we're still above where we were when we started.
NNAMDIDebbie Bradbard, Sec. Hazel (sic) was explicit in stating that pay won't be cut, but changes to benefits ranging from housing allowances, commissary subsidies and healthcare costs are all on the table and they would hit service members, retirees and their families in the wallet. What has reaction among your members been to these proposals?
BRADBARDYeah, I mean I think there's been a mix of reactions. I think people have known for a while that there probably would be cuts, but the fact that they are to this extent is a bit jarring to the community. And I think because they are cuts in a number of different areas, that has implications for what's in people's wallets and pocketbooks. And so it's a rapidly shifting changes for military families to deal with. And I think they're still processing what that means. I think there's a mix of reactions.
BRADBARDSome people are very angry. Some people are just, you know, there's just a lot of uncertainty, so that brings stress to military families because they don't know what's coming next.
NNAMDIWell, about a quarter of military spouses work, Debbie. And for some it's a choice, for others a necessity. It always seems to be a challenge. How does that issue affect how benefits could reverberate through a military household?
BRADBARDWell, we have a large proportion of service members who are now going to become veterans, suddenly. And that transition is hard for the service member, in and of itself, but when a spouse doesn't work, it makes it that much more difficult because there's not a second income to rely upon. And so we at Blue Star Families have a number of initiatives, where we focus on spouse employment and DOD does as well.
BRADBARDAnd I think that reflects some of this downsizing that's happening because we need to -- in the civilian community it's necessary for two incomes and it is in the military community, as well. And so when that spouse has difficulty finding employment it makes that transition that much more difficult.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. We're discussing proposed Pentagon budget cuts. If you're in the military or part of a military family, what would changes to benefits mean for you? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. Here is Ryan, in Silver Spring, Md. Ryan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RYANHi, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. I'm familiar about some of the problems that some of the military personnel go through. Specifically, recently with the V.A. and I have a friend of mine who hasn't received a check, even though he's got a medical discharge, for over a year now.
RYANBut specifically about some of the perks. On average, people in the military make more than they do in the private sector. And then they get to go shop on the base at the PX where they receive a subsidized food bill. Where I don't get any subsidies and nobody's out there helping me out with my food bill or with my house. So, I mean, why should some of these things continue, especially for officers, who also have access to a country club where they get to go play golf and things.
RYANSo there are a great deal of perks. There's an awful lot of fat that could be trimmed from the overall spending of some of these things. You know, the PX was founded in a time when military personnel and families didn't, you know, that their pay was not what it is today.
TILGHMANYeah, I think that Ryan makes an important point, in that even the internal Pentagon studies show that service members, for the most part, make more than roughly 80 percent of people at similar levels of education and experience. And I think that one of the things that's driving a lot of these compensation changes is the sense, inside the DOD, that they don't need to pay this much in order to recruit and retain the kind of high-quality force that they want.
TILGHMANSo in a sense, they're just not being efficient. And it's sort of politically sensitive to say, well, we're going to send this force off to war for 13 years and then we're going to cut back on their compensation, but just as a business matter, which is the way a lot of the Pentagon leaders look at the enterprise, they're spending money they don't have to.
NNAMDIRyan, thank you very much for your call. On the other hand, Chris, yesterday a soundbite from former Vice President Dick Cheney made the rounds on cable news. Appearing on Fox News' "Hannity," he said President Barack Obama would rather spend the money on food stamps than he would on a strong military or support for our troops.
NNAMDIJust last week a report from CNN highlighted the seventh straight year of growth in food stamp redemption at military commissaries. There's a vast income range within the military, but it would seem that some, maybe a few, can ill afford to lose benefits like food subsidies. Do you think these benefit cuts will ultimately make it through?
PREBLEI don't know that they'll make it through Congress. But if they don't, that means that Congress is going to have to cut spending elsewhere or, I think unlikely, find new money. You know, raise revenue. I don't think that's likely to happen. So the same impasse that has defined our budget situation for at least the last almost three years will persist. It is true, I think, that at the junior enlisted ranks, especially if someone comes into the military with a family, they may end up on SNAP, food stamps.
PREBLEThere are also supplemental accounts, though, that are designed to raise them up above that level. And the evidence shows that most people in the military at some time or another do take food stamps, they essentially promote out of the program by rising through the ranks and then making more money.
NNAMDIOn to Alex, in Silver Spring, Md. Alex, your turn.
ALEXHi, Kojo. I'm a little confused about some of the benefits being cut here. And I think I have what may be a pretty unpopular opinion, in that I don't have subsidized groceries, subsidized housing, subsidized healthcare, subsidized college education. And I know I don't make as much as most people in the military. And I'm wondering if anyone has done a full accounting of the benefits these people get in addition to the salary and what the aggregate effect of cutting some of them would be on individuals and on the economy at whole.
NNAMDISimilar to the first question, but any effect on the economy as a whole, as you've seen in terms of studies, Andrew Tilghman? And have there in fact been studies documenting what is widely believed to be the case?
TILGHMANThe impact on the economy? I think there have been some studies to that extent. I think a lot of times that they're -- I question the motivation behind the people doing them. You know, I think you can overstate that for certain reasons. But, yeah, I mean, certainly it's going to have a big impact on particularly areas where, you know, almost entirely military. I mean, you look at a place like Killeen, TX as, you know, entirely dependent upon the military. So if they, you know, lower the housing allowance, that's going to have a big impact on the public rental market of the entire city.
TILGHMANSo I think that's -- there's going to be all sorts of ripple effects that might come about from this.
PREBLEWe did publish a study on this subject a couple of years ago at the Cato Institute which showed that if the money is returned to the private sector, which eventually it will be, eventually it will result in higher economic output. Now, eventually he's doing a lot of work in that sense and I think it's true that some places that are more dependent on a single source of revenue from the military, it takes them harder to -- a longer time to adjust.
PREBLEBut when we're talking about base realignment and closure, which is one of the other things that Secretary Hagel proposed on Monday and which Congress has already declared dead on arrival, we have excess base capacity. In order to ring some real savings out of the budget, you need to close some of these bases. The adjustment process will take some time. But eventually there are benefits to the economy, not just costs.
NNAMDIDebbie, as troops draw down in Iraq and Afghanistan and civilian attention turns away from our military engagements, it seems likely that the disconnect between the military and the civilian world will grow farther. Where do you see the widest gap, Debbie? And how do you think it can be bridged?
BRADBARDWell, I mean, I think you're making a great point, one that I was chopping at the bit to bring up. You know, we're hearing that from the callers that just dialed in. One of the questions that we ask on our annual survey is does the public truly understand the sacrifices service members and their families make? And we've asked that question year after year and we always get the same response.
BRADBARDMilitary -- the military community, 92 percent disagree with the statement the general public truly understands the sacrifices made by service members and their families. And I think when -- what we're seeing with these budget cuts is sort of a disconnect between how the military community sees these benefits almost as symbolic, as a thank you for your service. Whereas, I think, you know, the DOD and others may see them as a line item in the budget.
BRADBARDAnd so there is a disconnect there. And I think some of the feelings and the emotions that come up with these budget cuts reflects that difference.
NNAMDILet's hear from Alicia in Alexandria, VA on this. Alicia, you're on the air, go ahead please.
ALICIAHi, yes. I just wanted to clear up a couple of things one of the previous callers said about benefits. He was talking about housing and how we get subsidized housing and if you are in the military you may go from Mississippi to Washington, D.C., the housing (unintelligible) are incredibly cheaper than D.C. It's very expensive. So there's obviously a subsidy for that. Some posts there are no places for -- places to go shopping.
ALICIAAnd you need to have a commissary or something in that area. Now there's other places like here that they probably should get rid of the PX or/and the commissary. My other point was, you know, I think, like, Debbie was just saying about the disconnect. I mean, there's 1 percent of the population or less than 1 percent that does the duty that is asked of them when there is a conflict. Yet no one else is asked to sacrifice.
ALICIAPerhaps they should think about doing a war tax every time they approve going to a conflict to pay for these and pay for the most expensive part, which is the care that these soldiers are going to need when they come back and they're out of the army.
NNAMDISo that we would all feel a bit of the pain and be able to share it equally. Andrew, I'm interested because every time we go to a major sporting event, we always salute the members of our military. But from what I'm hearing here is that there is some resentment about some of these military benefits. I'm interested in when you report on these stories what you're hearing or seeing on your comment pages.
TILGHMANOh, this is an incredibly controversial topic and nothing drives these service members more crazy than when people compare them to civilians because they really feel a deep sense of sacrifice and really a sense of otherness, that there's a different contract that they have with the country. And the sense of separateness is something that a lot of the top brass has actually been talking about a lot over the past few years.
TILGHMANBoth the current of the joint chiefs, General Dempsey and Admiral Mullen, his predecessor, have talked specifically about the need for service members to, you know, to reach out to civilians and sort of try to tamp down some of that, to try to sort of, you know, keep in mind, you know, why civilians think that way. And you can hear in General Dempsey's comments over the past few years, you know, he's really actually calling on the country to have a really deep discussion about what it wants from its military.
TILGHMANI mean, the all-volunteer force is really only 40 years old. These conflicts that we've been through over the past 10 to 13 years are the first of their kind for the all-volunteer force and I think there's going to be a little bit of soul searching in the next few years about what is the role of the all-volunteer force and the debate about compensation is really a kind of a proxy for that.
NNAMDIChris Preble, before we go to break, I'd like to hear your thoughts on this.
PREBLETwo quick points while it's -- when you poll American people on what institutions they have the most respect for, the military polls highest off all consistently. Now that may say a little bit about how poorly all the other institutions in the country are held. But I think as a unit, the military is still held in very high esteem. And I give a shout-out to the ROTC and NROTC programs, which allow individuals to go into the military through a civilian university.
PREBLEI think that allows them to retain a connection to the broader community. And I think now, kind of on the flipside, we're seeing more Iraq and Afghanistan veterans coming back and many of them going to school. And so they're exposing a number of their classmates to their experience. And I think through the university system you have -- there are real opportunities for kind of reconnecting the military to the citizens that they serve.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on Pentagon budget cuts with Andrew Tilghman, Deborah Bradbard, and Christopher Preble. But you can still call us at 800-433-8850 unless of course the lines are busy, then you may want to send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Are there underlying issues, you think, these budget proposals highlight? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Christopher Preble. He is the vice president for defense and foreign policy issues at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank. He's also the author of three books, most recently, "The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Feel Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free." He joins us in studio with Andrew Tilghman, who is a senior writer and Pentagon correspondent for the Military Times newspapers.
TILGHMANDeborah Bradbard joins us by phone. She's the acting director of research and policy with Blue Star Families. That's a nonpartisan -- nonprofit organization created by military families. She's also a licensed clinical psychologist. I'd like to go directly to the phone to Brett in Chevy Chase, MD. Brett, you're on the air, go ahead please.
BRETTHi. Thank you. I just wanted to introduce an idea. First of all, I think that there's nothing that you can say about the families that have put up with these two wars that could be -- you could do enough justice to them. I mean, when you think about the 1 percent of Americans who have sacrificed, that's key. But I also think it's important to introduce some realism in that when we establish many of the programs that we're not talking about, that the department is now talking about cutting, they were established, you know, incentives to bring young -- the best and the brightest into the military.
BRETTAnd over time, as everything tends to happen over time, they become more of an entitlement. And so I think that there's a real question here of how much do you need to incentivize our war fighters and how much of it is an entitlement, particularly when you look at the top -- or mostly on the back end. They're for the people who are serving, the 20 and up years. They're not really for the people that necessarily are on the ground day in and day out.
NNAMDIChristopher Preble, what do you say?
PREBLEI think that's right. I think that we -- when we move to the all-volunteer force, we needed to create and it took a little while to figure it out. We needed to create a system that would attract the best and the brightest. And I think we have and I think we have unquestionably the finest military we've ever had in terms of its training, in terms of its motivation, in terms of the quality of the recruits and retention, et cetera.
PREBLEBut as the force is drawn down, I think what we're likely to see is an even more elite force that's slightly smaller but still exceptionally well trained. And I think that some of these things on the margins -- and commissaries are good example is that when these were instituted, many of these were bases that did not have ready access to retail grocery stores. And now, many of them do.
PREBLEAnd so they're not really providing a benefit that cannot also be provided and is being provided by the private sector.
NNAMDIDebbie Bradbard, how do you respond to the argument that what started out as an incentive is now being regarded as an entitlement and that should not be the case?
BRADBARDWell, I think what we're going to have to do going forward is we're going to -- this is a test of the all-volunteer force. And I think with some of these cuts that we're looking at we're sort of reaching a tipping point where I'm not sure that some families will feel like they can continue to recommend service to the next generation. And so, I think what we do now does have implications for the all-volunteer force in the future.
BRADBARDAnd so, we don't know what the contingencies are that will drive people in the future. And I think they change from year to year and depending on what's going on in the world. So I think, you know, we need to look at this from a historical perspective. You know, we -- being in the military is oftentimes considered a family business and it does get passed on from generation to generation. And the way we treat this generation does have implications for the next.
NNAMDIAndrew emails us to say, "My father works for Northrop Grumman and believe it or not has always been for cutting military spending. He says through his work as a military contractor, he has seen the government's overspending first hand. America's government needs to learn how to spend more maturely, especially if we hope to eventually expend on national health care and other programs."
NNAMDI"As a son of a military contractor, I believe this problem of overspending is way bigger than individual families. This is a necessary move for the future of our country." Andrew, do you have any idea what the sentiment in Congress on both sides of the aisle reflects this?
TILGHMANYeah, I think that there is a sentiment that that's very true. Unfortunately, addressing it seems to be one of the most intractable problems in Washington over decades. And it really brings up one of the things that I think gets lost in this discussion a lot is we're focusing a lot on these compensation issues because they're controversial and there's a lot of emotional issues attached to them.
TILGHMANBut, you know, if the DOD is going to cut commissary subsidies by a billion dollars, that's only $1 billion out of a budget of $500 billion. You know, if they cut housing allowance like they're talking about, they're going to save $1 billion a year out of a budget of 500 billion. So, really, you're looking at all of these compensation things -- I'm not even sure they're going to be 1 percent of the entire budget.
TILGHMANSo, you know, if you look at other parts of the budget, you know, the Navy is going to spend tens of billions of dollars on aircraft next year. The Air Force is going to spend tens of billions of dollars on aircraft. And, you know, some of those things are being adjusted too, but I think that your listening makes a good point in terms of just keeping this in perspective in terms of the vast sum of money being spent.
PREBLEOne thing I want to make a quick point about is -- and we talk about the burden of the families, which I understand completely. And, you know, having deployed a couple of times myself and I know what it's like to be far away from family and friends, we really should be thinking about what it is we want our military to do in the first place. And I think that's the conversation that needs to go hand in hand with the discussion.
PREBLEIt's not just what we spend on it, what we give to our military, it's what we expect them to do with it. And my point all along has been if we're going to have a smaller military, and I think we are, and if we're going to give them slightly less stuff that is equipment and weapons systems to work with, and I think we are, then we need to think very seriously about the missions of that military. And that, I think, we haven't really had that conversation as a country yet.
NNAMDIYou have pinpointed some programs, even as Andrew has talked about, we are only talking about a small amount out of more than 500 billion. You pointed the controversial F-35 fighter that apparently is remaining untouched.
NNAMDIWhat's your feeling about that?
PREBLEI think that this program has become so big and so complicated that it, on the one hand, people feel like they can't possibly touch it. On the other hand, I think they can't possibly not touch it. It's just too big. And I think -- it's so tragic because this program was started with cost containment in mind. They were going to develop, you know, three different aircraft and leverage the common airframe against -- with the Air Force and the Marine Corps and the Navy just hasn't worked out that way.
PREBLESo I was disappointed, frankly, that Secretary Hagel didn't take a harder look at the F-35.
NNAMDIDebbie Bradbard, budget decisions generally framed as an either/or situation. You can have this, but if you have, to give up that. Do you think the cuts will ultimately see coming out of this proposal kind of black and white or are we likely to end up with a lot of shades of gray?
BRADBARDWell, I think what I would like to see is that we don't set up a falls choice where we're saying it's either, you know, these family programs or benefits or pay or its readiness. I think there are some things in between that need to be on the table, efficiencies that, you know, we are talking about a drop in the bucket in terms of the overall defense budget. And I think there are efficiencies that haven't been looked at yet that could come out of that budget.
BRADBARDAnd as we're talking about changing the structure of the military, going back to some of the points that were just made, my hope is that, and I think the hope of many of my colleagues that work with military families, is that we will proactively be sharing information with service members, veterans and their families so that they can prepare for that for structure change and the implications that go with it.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time. Very quickly, Andrew Tilghman, this week we got the preview. Next week, Secretary Hagel sends the full 2015 budget to Congress. What's the timeline for this moving forward?
TILGHMANWell, the secretary will push out the budget along with every other federal agency. He'll go to the Capitol Hill next week to testify, to basically explain to the Hill why he's doing what he's doing and then, you know, the sausage machine will crank up and we'll see what happens.
NNAMDIAndrew Tilghman is a senior writer and Pentagon correspondent for the Military Times newspapers. Christopher Preble is the vice president for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute and author of three books, most recently, "The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free." And Deborah Bradbard is acting director of research and policy with Blue Star Families, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization created by military families to raise awareness of challenges their community faces.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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