For the sake of our military and the Republic it defends, we must cultivate a societal and organizational shift that sees military service not as the noble obligation of the few, but as an opportunity for the many. The many benefits offered as part of the greater American social contract should be contingent upon, at the very least, the willingness to give to their nation before receiving from it. Meeting this objective will require fundamental legislative and bureaucratic shifts to allow the All-Volunteer Force to maintain its dominant international status at a less strenuous cost, in both its short-term cost and its long-term fiscal obligations, on our nation.
The All-Volunteer Force has succeeded magnificently. Forty years later, however, the fuel for that success, namely fiscal largess, is in unquestioned risk. As Milton Friedman correctly observed, the All-Volunteer Force is the proper military for the defense of a Republic founded upon freedom. To ensure its continued success, however, will require significant adjustments to benefits and retirements to maintain the bedrock of security the world relies upon today, and maintain its existence in the near future of limited budgets. The current status of half our serving enlisted as careerists is unnecessary, expensive and unwise.
The current military retirement system remains a vestige of the draft-era militaryIn our current national financial state, revisiting some of these bypassed considerations is critical to ensure the health and viability of the military.
Almost 75% of American 17-24 year-olds are ineligible for military service for legal, physical, or educational reasons. The military already competes for the best of America’s youth. This increasingly limited recruiting pool is less damaging to the military than it is to society as a whole. Margaret Meadaccurately saw the societal benefits of universal service. “Universal national service, she noted, in addition to solving the problem of fairness for those who are asked to serve in the military, in contrast to those who are not, is above all a new institution for creating responsible citizens alert to the problems and responsibilities of nationhood in a rapidly changing world.”
The current military retirement system remains a vestige of the draft-era military. At the time of its inception, the long term costs of the All-Volunteer Force model were largely minimized in the desire to quickly create a volunteer force capable of facing the immediate Soviet threat. In our current national financial state, revisiting some of these bypassed considerations is critical to ensure the health and viability of the military. Of the 16 major studies of the U.S. Military Retirement system from 1948 to 2005, only one (the 1st Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation of 1967-1969) recommended contributory retirement. There is a fundamental assumption in these reviews that we need to maximize the time in service of our professionals. This assumption is flawed. The military is strengthened by youth and diversity, which our current “20 or nothing” retirement plan discourages. Constrained intellectually by the 20-year retirement, to encourage service beyond the 20-year mark is obviously beneficialwhy pay two service members (one serving, one retired) for the same position?
Some argue a more mature military is a strength. As a Reservist, I see areas of the military art where the wizened warrior is of benefit. By and large, however, the military is a young man’s (and woman’s) profession. The Marines have developed a younger force by virtue of an admirable combination of recruiting and adherence to historical cultural norms. The average age of a Marine is 25 (while the other services all average around 29-30 years old). The Marines have deliberately developed a commanding position where being a Marine, former or otherwise, is a benefit in and of itself. Young Marines are given leadership authority at a lower rank and the service enjoys personnel costs significantly lower than their fellow services. To the great benefit of the National Guard, many of these former Marines fill our ranks continuing their service to our nation in an equally admirable, yet less expensive manner. The larger services cannot hope to emulate a recruiting strategy formulated on 70 years of immaculate strategic communication. But they can look at a recruiting strategy of “get in, get out, and move on” and attempt to emulate that successful model.
The uncomfortable fact is that our current military compensation is essentially correct by the law of supply and demand. Should we wish to decrease compensation, as we must, the demand for military service must be somehow encouraged via other, more creative, means. We must acknowledge that a younger force is cheaper, but no less effective. We must make military service, for its own sake and not for direct compensation, valuable to America’s youth. The simplest and most viable way to do this is to directly link government employment and benefits to military service. A federal job, in the current economic environment, is a highly valuable resource. While veterans’ preferences exist for many positions, they are most often not the deciding factor. For those who are physically qualified, they should be. This would encourage those who wish to serve in government to invest a few years of their lives to the military before continuing on in other, equally valuable, ways. Likewise we have magnificent educational benefits for military service while still offering billions in grants to students who would otherwise be eligible for service in uniform.
The requirement of a modern, professional military likewise demands a modern, professional and, above all, mobile workforce. The mechanism for this desired mobility is the contributory retirement system often called collectively a 401K. The federal government already has a system in place mirroring thisthe Thrift Savings Program. The military has adopted the program, albeit absent the matching contributions. The military should immediately begin phasing out the non-contributory 20 year retirement plan and implement a matching Thrift Savings Program.
As with the GI Bill, which is also contributory, new recruits would be given the onetime, non-reversible option to choose matching contributory retirement or standard 20 year casino pa natet retirement. How the young men and women choose can be the basis for maintaining a system of options, or simply removing the 20 year retirement option altogether. Buyouts for current service members should be considered within the context of limited near term budgets. With a portable retirement plan, we would no longer have the mid-grade sergeants and officers filling unneeded billets in unneeded commands. The military now is understandably loath to remove a mediocre career service-member at the 15 year mark, or even the 10 year mark. With a retirement plan based on all or nothing, to abandon someone who has invested most of their adult life to the service is morally and organizationally wrong. The freedom to leave the service when either the service or the service member believe it to be in their own best interests is in no way a detriment to the mission.
Likewise, we offer a buffet of benefits to attract recruits who may only be interested in a single aspect. The many benefits of military service include health care for family members, educational benefits both while in service (tuition assistance) and after service (GI Bill and its many manifestations.) Other benefits include: choice of job skills, choice of duty assignment location, enlistment bonuses, and student loan repayment, among others. Most often, these benefits are offered en masse, notwithstanding that most recruits are only focused on one or two items as incentives to enlist. Yet, as their career progresses, they often end up utilizing all of them.
Why offer both tuition assistance and the GI Bill? If a recruit is interested in dependent health care, then the other factors should be at the whim of the service. Choice of military skill may preclude other benefits. If the military offers to train a high paying civilian equivalent skill, then why continue to pay for other job training through heavily subsidized college courses? The development of an à la carte menu of benefits will have huge personnel cost savings with little loss of recruiting. As recruits choose or don’t choose, up front bonuses will prove to be a much cheaper alternative to entice a would-be service member than long-term, open-ended, expensive and expansive benefits.
Removing the 20-year retirement, wholly through voluntary measures, would give the military the needed flexibility in times of war and peace and in times of plenty and austerity. Likewise, limiting and tailoring benefits to focus on the immediate recruitment would provide budgetary stability and control over the length of a service member’s career. The military’s budget problems are the Nation’s problem. The Nation must likewise share the burden in correcting it for the sake of the welfare of both our men and women in uniform and the taxpayers whom we voluntarily defend.
Lieutenant Colonel Paul Darling is an Alaskan Army National Guardsman assigned to the National Guard Bureau Joint Staff as a strategist. The views presented here are his own and do not represent the views of the Alaska Army National Guard or the U.S. military.
[Photo: Flickr Commons, National Guard]