Group surveying military pay, benefits ahead of proposed cuts

Friday - 1/27/2012, 9:15pm EST

Todd Harrison, senior fellow, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments

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The Defense Department has unveiled details of a 10-year strategy for defense cuts — including reductions in military pay and benefits.

But before any large-scale changes are made, service members should be given a chance to voice their opinions of their compensation packages, a defense think tank argues.

Earlier this week, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments launched a survey designed to glean from service members their attitudes about DoD benefits.

Gradual cuts?

In the interim, the Pentagon revealed details of its budget request, including proposed cuts to military benefits, which are slated to happen gradually.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta indicated standard pay raises would remain in effect for the next two years. However, by 2015, he said those raises would drop off. DoD will also seek approval from Congress to require retirees to pay more in fees, copays and deductibles — which will be phased in over a five-year period.

Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the role that DoD's personnel costs play in the astronomical growth of the defense budget is no secret.

"So when we're looking at the prospect of a flat or declining defense budget over the next decade, personnel costs are going to be a major issue," he told In Depth with Francis Rose.

Understanding what service members value

"The Pentagon is already starting to move to make changes in the compensation system," Harrison said. "And basically our point here is: Before we start tinkering with things, before we start making changes, we need to understand first how service members actually view different parts of their compensation package."

The survey will help in illuminating what service members value when it comes to their benefits, which range from healthcare and retirement costs to basic pay and bonuses, Harrison explained. "All these different forms of compensation — how do they all rack and stack next to each other in the minds of service members?"

Surveying service members will help in fostering a greater sense of maximizing the value of compensation, rather than simply cutting benefits, he added.

"The way benefits have been added and expanded over the past decade has been somewhat in a haphazard manner," Harrison said. "And this is not just the fault of DoD, it's Congress as well. When money was flowing freely, they added things freely without a lot of understanding of where they were getting the best value for every additional dollar of compensation they added."

The risk in the current economic climate, he said, is that Congress or the department could begin cutting benefits in an equally haphazard manner. "And it could have a serious impact on things like recruiting and retention," he added.

The survey is divided into three parts. In the first part, respondents rank various options for changing military benefits. The second part asks users to compare all the different benefits to each other in terms of importance. The final stage involves comparing two specific proposals in what's known as a pairwise ranking. For example: Would you prefer a 5 percent increase in basic pay with a potential of 10 percent in performance-based bonuses? Or, would you prefer a 10 percent increase in basic pay with no performance-based bonuses?

Not necessarily new ideas

The recent discussion about slightly scaling back military pay and benefits has been some time in coming.

"These are actually proposals that have been floated in the past," Harrison said.

The idea of raising TRICARE fees for working-age military retirees extends back to the Bush administration. And a provision requiring a $200 annual fee for TRICARE for Life, the program for retired service members, is similar to what President Barack Obama recommended to the deficit-cutting congressional supercommittee last fall.

"it really isn't a surprise that these things are coming up again," he added.

The center launched the survey Monday, and it will stay open for another couple of weeks, Harrison said. The final results will be compiled in a report.

"We're going to go around town and brief the results to people both in the department and on the hill," he added.

This story is part of Federal News Radio's daily DoD Report. For more defense news, click here.

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