The Troop Losses Mount

May 1, 1992

Between the Japanese surrender in September 1945 and May 1947, the strength of the Army Air Forces dropped from 2,253,000 to 303,600. The demobilization was so fast that by late 1945, airplanes were stranded in all parts of the world for lack of mechanics to keep them flying.

Some recall the World War II demobilization and see today’s military reduction as a smaller and less severe version. The comparison is wrong in nearly all respects.

Most of the troops let go between 1945 and 1947 entered service after Pearl Harbor. They were eager to return to civilian life and good jobs as the economy shifted to peacetime production. The Army Air Forces had trouble recruiting and retaining people to fill their reduced ranks.

By contrast, the present cuts are borne by an all-volunteer force, including veterans with up to fourteen years of service who had counted on a full military career. Many of them will now be pushed out into one of the tightest job markets in recent memory.

In the winter of 1990, with war looming in the Persian Gulf, the Department of Defense put a “stop loss” order into effect, preventing troops from retiring or separating. Today, it is working to reduce the armed forces by more than a million military members and civilian employees, compared to the levels of 1987.

The Army is hit hardest of all the services, but the Air Force takes the second-deepest reductions, cutting its active-duty component by 29 percent and its civilian personnel by 23 percent.

Congress is allowing severance pay to those forced out and has approved two programs to induce departures. Those who leave before they are pushed can choose between the lump-sum Special Separation Benefit (SSB) 50 percent greater than involuntary separation pay–and the Voluntary Separation Incentive (VSI), an annuity for double the number of years served.

For a staff sergeant with 12 years’ service, for example, involuntary separation pay would be $21,349.

Down by a Million

1987 1997 Net Change
Active Duty
Air Force 607,000 430,000 -177,000
All services 2,174,100 1,626,000 -548,100
Guard and Reserve
Air Force 195,000 200,000 +5,000
All services 1,151,100 920,000 -231,000
Civilian Employees
Air Force 264,000 202,767 -61,233
Total Defense civilians 1,133,000 904,345 -228,655

The SSB lump sum is $32,024, and the VSI annuity is $5,337, paid for 24 years. As of March 23, the Defense Department reported that 40,182 persons (out of the year’s goal of 45,123) had requested separation under these incentives.

“Involuntary separation” is a technical term, says Lt. Gen. Billy J. Boles USAF deputy chief of staff for Personnel. “Many of the people who are taking VSI or SSB want to stay in the Air Force, but they understand that if they stay, they are very likely to be forced out with less compensation than if they leave voluntarily.”

The Air Force has met its reduction goals so far with volunteers, early retirements, and curtailed recruiting. Force-outs become almost unavoidable, however, if deeper reductions are ordered.

General Boles told the Senate March 26 that “the anxiety factor for our people is almost off the chart.” In their view, he said, the government is “breaking faith with the all-volunteer force” and defaulting on the implied promise of reasonable career security in return for good performance and faithful service. The anxiety increases with each new proposal to cut the force deeper, he said.

“Option C,” a force structure alternative suggested in February by Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, would cut 233,000 more troops by 1997 than the Pentagon plans. (The Air Force would lose 66,000 from active duty and 7,000 in the reserve components under Option C.) The consensus among military leaders is that Option C should be taken out and shot, but it has appeal for many in Congress.

Our consumption-oriented nation seems to regard the drawdown as a chance to squeeze a bigger “peace dividend” from the armed forces. The annual catalog of spending and revenue options, published in February by the Congressional Budget Office, included forty-three ideas for further defense cuts.

One of these options is holding military pay raises below inflation. CBO recognized that pay is higher in the private sector but said that, since the requirement for people in the armed forces is falling, “military pay could be even lower than it is today and still be competitive.”

As for the incentive programs, CBO said, “limiting military pay raises could accomplish the same goal of increasing voluntary separations but, unlike the incentives, would increase rather than offset the savings from personnel reductions.”

It has been a surprise to the budgeteers that so many of the departing troops–85.4 percent of them–chose the lump-sum SSB rather than the VSI annuity, which should be more attractive in the long term.

A plausible explanation is the need for immediate cash as they enter an uncertain job market. Some, however, may have had their bait of long-term assurances from the federal government and decided to take the sure cash and run.