- - Monday, March 11, 2013

Dear Secretary Hagel,

As a former soldier and senator, you are well-prepared for what you might encounter as you begin your new job. It won’t be easy, and the hardest part will be separating fact from fiction to make the best decisions.

Here is some advice. The most important thing you can do is challenge the “experts” who use misleading rhetoric and statistics to sway you toward their conclusions. 

You’ll hear that military personnel costs are “rising out of control” and will “consume future defense budgets.” Bean-counters use these bogus arguments – and pundits repeat them — to divert money from military people programs to hardware or non-defense programs.

Yet those arguments simply aren’t true.

Here are the facts:

The defense budget has consumed a progressively smaller share of federal outlays. Today, it’s at its smallest share in 50 years and will drop further – below 12.5 percent – by 2017. That share is projected to continue to decline for the foreseeable future.

Defense leaders complain military personnel and health costs are consuming roughly one-third of the defense budget – implying this is a dramatic increase from the past.

Yet personnel and health care costs have comprised that same budget share consistently for the last 30 years. They’re no more unaffordable now than in the past.

Moreover, this is a bargain when compared to the most similar corporations.

Personnel costs comprise 61 percent of the budget for United Parcel Service, 43 percent for FedEx and 31 percent for Southwest Airlines.

Your predecessors complained health care costs approach 10 percent of the non-war defense budget. However, health costs comprise 23 percent of the federal budget, 22 percent of the average state budget, 16 percent of household discretionary spending and 16 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product. By comparison, Defense’s 10 percent is modest.

Truth be told, the Pentagon has used the military health care account as a “cash cow” to fund other programs — $708 million was diverted from the fiscal 2012 account to other programs, and diversions totaled $2.8 billion over the last three years. 

The fiscal 2012 Department of Defense reprogramming request acknowledged retiree health costs declined 2.5 percent. Budget projections have reduced outyear health cost estimates three years in a row, and fiscal 2013 Defense Authorization Act changes will reduce them further.

One trick often used by critics is to cite the percentage increase since 2001 – as if costs before 2001 represented a reasonable standard.

The fact is cutbacks in pay, health care and retirement throughout the 1980s and 1990s caused retention problems in the late ‘90s that Congress has worked hard to fix over the last decade. Charting growth from a starting point in 2000 or 2001 inappropriately inflates apparent trends by including one-time changes from a decade ago that won’t be repeated in the future.

The rate of growth has dampened markedly in recent years, and will decline further in the outyears due a variety of cost-saving measures included in the fiscal 2013 Defense Authorization Act and new regional health care contracts for civilian care. 

The “military health cost growth since 2001” argument is based on 10-year-old data that are irrelevant to the future. 

Rather than foisting more of its health costs to military beneficiaries, defense leaders should focus on fulfilling their own responsibilities to provide efficient oversight of Defense health programs. They should be held accountable for correcting the real sources of excess costs and fixing problems by consolidating redundant, counterproductive health systems. 

We overcame service-centric biases to improve joint war fighting. We should do the same with a military health care system that features three separate service medical systems, four major health contractors and any number of subcontractors that compete counterproductively for budget share, without a single point of overall responsibility for health care budgets and delivery.

Those who seek to cut military pay, health and retirement benefits by making these programs look more like civilian programs overlook the fundamental difference between civilian and military conditions of service.

Most civilians are unwilling to accept a single tour of service in uniform, much less endure the extraordinary demands and sacrifices inherent in a 20- to 30-year military career.

No federal obligation is more important than protecting our national security.  The most important element is sustaining a dedicated all-volunteer force. The past decade of unprecedented demands and sacrifices highlight how radically different military service and conditions are from civilian life.

Existing career incentives are the only things sustaining a strong national defense through severe and protracted wartime conditions. 

America will remain the world’s greatest power only as long as it continues to fulfill its reciprocal obligation to our extraordinary, dedicated, top-quality, all-volunteer force. They’ve never let our country down. Please don’t let them down.

Retired Vice Adm. Norb Ryan Jr. is president of the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA).