America's two promises to troops: A "stark choice" between weapons and benefits

US Army/Sgt. 1st Class Mark Burrell

The sun sets behind U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Jamie R. Johnson, a platoon sergeant from Bayonet Company, 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, Task Force No Slack, in Afghanistan's Kunar Province March 17.

Article Highlights

  • When will policymakers stop ignoring the stark choice between weapons and benefits?

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  • The goal is simple: we want to ensure you are never in a fair fight.

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  • Today, as defense budgets fall, these two sacred promises by Americans with their military are in direct conflict.

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America likes the idea that we have made a solemn promise to generously compensate our military service members. After all, the argument goes, how can we ever fully repay them for risking their lives for us? Providing  benefits like low-cost premium health care, comfortable pensions, housing allowances, grocery discounts, tuition assistance, tax breaks and much more, feels like the right and honorable response.

Because so few serve on behalf of the rest of us, the nation has wanted to ensure we give the very best to those who risk death on the battlefield. Americans view it as their obligation, as well, to take exquisite care of those personnel and their families after they return from combat.

There is, however, another unspoken contract between Americans and our forces in uniform: we will make sure you get the best weapons and technology, along with the best intelligence, training and logistics money can buy. The goal is simple: we want to ensure you are never in a fair fight. Should fighting start, we tell them, we’ve done everything we can to make sure the enemy will die and you will live.

Today, as defense budgets fall, these two sacred promises by Americans with their military are in direct conflict. Though few seem to realize it, including the ones financially securing those obligations (i.e., taxpayers and Congress) and those living it (soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and their families).

Both promises are now being called into question and risk unraveling as the military endures its third year of defense budget cuts, including sequestration. No longer can the military expect the same pay, benefits or world-class facilities and access without realizing that they increasingly come at the expense of combat power, innovation, training, readiness and modernization.

Yet policymakers still ignore the stark choice that now confronts them. During the recent mark-up of the president’s 2014 defense budget by the House Armed Services Committee, members of Congress showed that they want to continue to fund generous compensation and benefits regardless of the negative impact on funds needed for the equally important priorities of training, maintenance, readiness, modernization and innovation.

Congress will now not be able to rapidly reverse declining readiness, training and maintenance backlogs across the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.

Lawmakers’ decision to keep excess domestic bases on the books for yet another year, for example, virtually ensures that more money will be taken out of modernization and innovation. By not shrinking the large Pentagon civilian workforce, Congress and the Obama Administration will likely wind up further delaying the overdue upkeep of ships, vehicles and aircraft across the service’s aging fleets.

It is noble and important that America continues to maintain its contract with those who serve by providing them with generous compensation. But it is harmful to those very same troops to undercut the other contract that demands they get the best equipment and training along with a state of high readiness for whatever the nation asks of them.

In these uncertain economic times, the President and Congress must strike a better balance between arming our military with the latest cutting-edge capabilities and wide-ranging benefits ranging from bases to compensation.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.

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