The Worst Money We Could Save

Feb. 1, 1987

The armed services their wounds barely healed from the recruiting and retention disasters that gutted their ranks in the late 1970s and early 1980s, may be headed for another military manpower crisis. That, anyway, is the opinion of Secretary of the Air Force Edward C. Aldridge, Jr. “I see a crisis in a continuing expansion of collateral missions — that is, missions outside our basic charter — without additional manpower authorizations,” he says. “I also see a crisis in a growing force of technologically sophisticated systems without enough quality men and women to operate them.”

For some time now, Congress has been unwilling to authorize the Air Force the full number of additional people if has needed to assume new missions, such as interdiction of drug traffic, and to field new systems, such as the Ground-Launched Cruise Missile, the B-1B bomber, and the Peacekeeper ICBM. At public and congressional insistence, all of the services have diverted manpower to more intense management of spare parts and to the conduct of a campaign against waste, fraud, and abuse. For the most part, the services have been left to satisfy these manpower needs by internal realignment of personnel. In FY ’87, for example, USAF got 350 additional military manpower authorizations, but met another 9,100 new requirements “from within the existing baseline.”

The services have drawn down some functions to man others of higher priority, transferred missions to be Guard and Reserve, and assigned civilian employees and contractors to do jobs once performed by military personnel. For any men and women in uniform, unpaid overtime has become a part of the daily routine.

The manpower gap is widening steadily, but it is only one part of the problem. Driven by intense budgetary pressures, Congress has begun to dig for savings in pay and benefit programs. Military retirement — long regarded as one of the best benefits the services have to offer — has dropped in value by twenty-six percent since 1980. Military pay trails compensation in the civilian world by 9.4 percent. Appropriated fund support for morale, welfare, and recreation activities will be reduced, DoD-wide, by $69.5 million this year. Some overseas tours have been lengthened, and base-of-preference assignments have been canceled to save money.

This is a bad time for the comparative attractiveness of a military career to be diminished. The population of military-age young people in the United States is declining, and with each passing year, the services will have to compete harder with other prospective employers for the talent available. Secretary Aldridge’s perception of a coming crisis is well founded.

Unfortunately, the end of the reductions and economies is not yet in sight. The Air Force must absorb a $95 million cut in Permanent Change of Station (PCS) funding this year. No feasible idea identified so far would result in savings anywhere near that amount. Cancellation of all Stateside moves for the entire year would save no more than $50 million. The Air Force reduced PCS moves from 642,000 in 1974 to 287,000 in 1986, but the cost per move has gone up. Most of the PCS budget is used for overseas assignments.

To save money last year, USAF delayed the return of people completing overseas tours until the new fiscal yea had begun. This worked a real hardship on families with children, who did not arrive in their new locations until months after school had started. The Air Force has said that it does not intend to delay returns form overseas again.

Finally, in one of the hardest-hitting manpower directives to date, Congress has told the Defense Department to reduce officer personnel strength by six percent over the next three years, beginning with one percent cut this year. The situation took on new dimensions December 4 when Secretary of the Navy John Lehman suggested that the whole cut fall on the Air Force and the Army. Citing a “grotesque imbalance” among the services in officer-enlisted rations, he proposed that the Navy and the Marines be exempt from reductions until all services are within a ratio of 1:6.5. The present ratios, he said are as follows: Marines, 1:8.9; Navy, 1:7.0; Army, 1:6.1; and Air Force, 1:4.5.

Secretary Lehman’s comparison is catchy, but there is less to it than meets the eye. The question, “How many people do you need?” is meaningless without also asking, “To do what?” The answer will vary will mission and circumstances. That, one presumes, is why Mr. Lehman’s Navy requires a richer mix of officers than does Mr. Lehman’s Marine Corps. The Secretary’s proposal and the arbitrary percentage cut ordered by Congress have a misconception in common: Both presume that any organization, regardless of function, should fit some universally ideal configuration model that prescribes a “correct” percentage of officers.

Perhaps the sea services have been shortchanged on officers, but the raw numbers and ratios are no proof that this is so. Valid force configurations are determined only by the careful analysis of specific requirements. This is how the services and their subordinate units justified their manpower allocations in the first place. If existing force levels and officer percentages are excessive in terms of actual requirements, then no reasonable person could object to reductions. But it makes no sense to cut on the basis of intuition, magic ratios, or whim.

The Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget reduction drill has the Administration and Congress in a tight spot. There have already been instances when long-term logic lost out to the urgency of short-term savings. It could happen again in this case. If so, another military manpower crisis becomes a virtual certainty. Then, once recruiting and retention have deteriorated to an adequate mess, we will decide that such a condition is intolerable and begin rebuilding. Because of the unfavorable demographic trends, the reconstruction promises to be even more difficult and expensive than it was last time.

The short-term gain of military manpower economies may look good now, but it could be some of the worst money the nation has ever saved.