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How much does an active duty soldier cost per year, and can we afford it?

ASK THIS | November 09, 2009

The all-volunteer armed forces are said to be so expensive that they either will get smaller or go broke. Columnist George Wilson says leaders need to be asked how they plan to deal with rapidly rising, unaffordable costs.


By George C. Wilson
The all-volunteer military that took over from the draft in 1973 has become so expensive it will either have to get smaller, not bigger as Congress desires, or declare the ci­vilian equivalent of bankruptcy and resume the unpopular draft calls of the Vietnam era.
This is the prediction of retired Marine Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, a fully certified expert on military manpower. He was the longtime aide for former Senate Armed Services Chairman Sam Nunn, D-Ga. Punaro himself chaired the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves, which issued a report last year on how those forces should be transformed. He was also on Pres­ident Obama’s short list for Army secretary.
Our all-volunteer military “has priced itself out of the market” under the flat or reduced Pentagon budgets Punaro sees in our future, he said.
But nobody in Congress or the administration wants to look hard how we’re riding to the poorhouse in Cadillacs because none of the ways to stop the skyrocketing cost of recruiting, fielding and retiring the military is politically appealing: raid­ing the Pentagon’s hardware, maintenance or research accounts; settle for a smaller military force or go back to the draft.
Yet military manpower costs are in the same kind of “death spi­ral” former Pentagon analyst Franklin Spinney rightly predicted would lead toward the nightmare of pilots taking turns flying the one aircraft their service could afford to buy because of its high cost. The new Air Force F-22 fighter, for example, costs about $350 million for just one plane, when research and development costs are included.
In 2005, GAO took a dizzying plunge into how much it costs to recruit, train, pay, house, care for and pay retirement, health and other benefits for one active duty soldier.
It threw up its hands, sounding this complaint: “No single source exists to show the total cost of military compensation. Tallying the full cost requires synthesizing about a dozen infor­mation sources from four federal departments and the Office of Management and Budget.” The Pentagon should appoint a com­pensation czar to keep track, GAO said.
Its auditors made an educated guess that, in FY04, the all-volunteer military was costing, when averaged out, $112,000 a year for every trooper and officer on ac­tive duty. The cost has gone way up since 2004 because Congress and the Pentagon have heaped more money on the military to save it.
Of the 1.4 million military men and women on active duty, not counting ac­tivated Reservists, only about half are deployable to battlefields around the world because so many are in overhead jobs like handing out towels in a gym, Punaro lamented. This means the troopers who know how to fire a rifle or drive a Humvee are sent to Iraq and Afghanistan again and again.
A smaller Army and Marine Corps would crash head-on into the plans of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the field commander in Afghan­istan, to get enough additional U. S. troops from Obama to put a full-court press on the densely populated areas of Afghanistan.
The most recent CIA estimate of Afghanistan’s population is 28.4 million people. Let’s say about half that number live in densely populated areas threatened by the Taliban. Applying ac­cepted counterinsurgency doctrine that it takes one soldier to protect 50 civilians, McChrystal would require 300,000 troops to protect 15 million Afghans. Where would all these protectors come from even if McChrystal gets 100,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan? Certainly our NATO allies are not going to send in the other 200,000. And the Afghan people don’t trust their own army and cops to protect them.
Recall that at the end of 1968 the United States had 536,100 U.S. personnel in South Vietnam and a native military num­bering 820,000 men and women and still lost the war in a country whose population was then 16 million, a little over half Afghanistan’s.
Gen. David Petraeus, McChrystal’s boss, directed the writing of the Army’s new field manual entitled “Counterinsurgency.” That manual states that “a counterinsurgency effort cannot achieve lasting success without the host nation government achieving le­gitimacy.” The corruption that plagued the election of Afghani­stan President Hamid Karzai means McChrystal will be starting his pacification effort from behind the goal line, no matter how many additional troops Obama sends him.
Because the future of today’s all-volunteer military will largely determine what the United States can do at home and abroad to combat terrorist and other threats, some unit of Congress should demand the Pentagon answer questions like these: What is each person in our active duty force costing the taxpayer today counting everything? What will that cost be 10 years from now? How will you curb or pay that rising cost? Is it economic folly to pay salaries and benefits to officers for 60 years who only served for 20 years? How many military aviators got flight pay while filling desk jobs on active duty and then received tax free disability payments upon retiring? What are your plans for transferring military people out of jobs civilians could do?

This column first appeared in National Journal’s congressdaily.com

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