How the U.S. Military is Thinking about Supporting its Own

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Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.

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OPINION — “First, and foremost, we support the men and women who serve in the United States military in this bill. Most specifically, we serve the people who are economically struggling the most by a 4.6 percent pay raise, increase in the basic housing allowance, increase in the basic needs allowance, making sure that the price of items at the commissary do not go up so much as to price people out of it.”

That was Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee last Thursday, as he introduced debate on the House-Senate-agreed version of the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

It wasn’t really a debate since only 40 minutes was set aside to discuss the 4,408-page bill which has been in private discussions since last July. The agreed upon legislation authorizes spending $847.3 billion in fiscal 2023, $45 billion above what President Biden originally sought. That includes $816.7 billion for the Defense Department (DoD), and another $30.3 billion for nuclear weapons programs in the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which is part of the Department of Energy.

Most public reporting of the House-passed bill approved last Thursday by a 350-to-80 vote, focused on a Republican-pressed rescission of the mandate requiring service members to get a Covid-19 vaccination.

Less mentioned is the initiation of many programs directed at new enlistees and lower-ranked military personnel at a time when Army recruitment missed its target by 10 percent this year and the other services also had a harder time getting volunteers and keeping them.

Perhaps the most interesting provision requires the Secretary of Defense to hire a nonprofit entity or federally-funded think tank “to conduct research and analysis on the value of basic pay for members of the Armed Forces.” The purpose of the study, according to a House-Senate Armed Services press release, would be “to revise, the basic pay tables to modernize and more realistically and fairly compensate service members.”

In short, the proposed two-year study is to assess “the model used to determine the basic pay in the current [DoD] pay tables,” and to analyze “whether to update the current model to meet the needs of the 2023 employment market,” according to the legislation.

For example, 20 years ago, a DoD compensation commission set the level of military pay at the 70th percentile of earnings for civilians facing the same demands as military service, believing that would be enough to recruit and retain the personnel required for voluntary military service.

The proposed new study is directed to analyze “how basic [military] pay has compared with civilian pay since the 70th percentile benchmark for basic pay was established; and whether to change the 70th percentile benchmark.” It also is to make “an assessment of whether to modify current basic pay tables to consider higher rates of pay for specialties the Secretary determines are in critical need of personnel.”

The legislation requires the Armed Services Committees be briefed on the study a year after the measure becomes law, with the final report being delivered “not later than two years after the date of the enactment of this act.”

Back in October, when I wrote a column about the drop in recruitment, I referred to a DoD Fall 2021 poll which asked, “If you were to consider joining the U.S. military, what would be the main reason(s)?” 58 percent answered “Pay/money,” and 48 percent said, “To pay for future education.”

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The proposed study in the NDAA seems to be a response to that poll.

In a move directly related to recruitment, the legislation revives authority for the Defense Secretary to compile information on students in U.S. secondary schools aged 17 or older in 11th grade or higher. Those schools receiving federal funds must provide military recruiters with access to campuses as well as student information, such as names, addresses, electronic mail addresses with the proviso that what’s gathered cannot be disclosed for any other purposes than recruitment.

The legislation also tasks the Comptroller General to evaluate DoD’s marketing and recruiting efforts to determine how to use social media and other technology platforms to convey to young people the opportunities and benefits of service in the Armed Forces. Another provision calls for a report on the efforts of the Department of Defense to increase marketing and advertising with minority-owned media outlets and advertising agencies to adequately reach racial and ethnic minority communities.

To get more money to enlisted service personnel and their families, the legislation not only adds two percent to the basic housing allowance, but also increases the maximum allowable income for tapping into the Basic Needs Allowance (BNA) – a new Pentagon program that begins in January 2023.

BNA will provide a monthly allowance for active-duty service members whose gross household income falls below a certain level of federal poverty guidelines. When originally approved, families would qualify if their income fell below 130 percent of federal poverty guidelines, but the new legislation raised that to 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines, a change that increased the annual income level allowed for qualification by about $4,000.

The measure also calls for a variety of bonus increases starting with raising from $50,000 to $75,000 the top bonus limit given to two-year enlistees. Top bonuses for re-enlistment that now are at $30,000-per-year are raised to $50,000 for each year a person agrees to serve. At the same time, some other bonuses and incentive pay levels are increased. For example, the top level for Nuclear Officers is raised to $75,000 from $50,000.

The military personnel that run the growing force of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) are a category singled out in the legislation for a special study to “identify opportunities to provide more support services and greater recognition of combat accomplishments.” This study by the Defense Secretary is to look at RPA crew incentive pay, retention bonuses, promotion rates, career advancement opportunities and even mental health care availability. In the latter category, the legislation even specifies the study look at “whether RPA crews receive post-separation health (including mental health) care equivalent to crews of traditional aircraft.”

Under another provision, the Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Secretaries of the military services are to develop within six months, “a near-term plan to correct readiness shortfalls in the Cyber Mission Forces.” The plan is to include “the proper force mix of civilian, military, and contractor personnel,” and the “use of compensation and incentive authorities, including increasing bonuses and special pays, and alternative compensation mechanisms,” necessary to meet requirements.

Some changes might raise eyebrows. One section in the proposed law authorizes the Service Secretaries to reimburse service members for up to $4,000 for expenses related to pet relocation arising from a permanent change of station to or from an overseas posting. Another provision calls for a study on the “feasibility, advisability, and considerations of expanding eligibility” of foreign citizen “au pairs” for the pilot program to provide financial assistance to members of the armed forces for in-home childcare.

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One other change ordered by the legislation is worth publicizing.

Back in June 2019, then-President Donald Trump gave the Pentagon four months to develop a new policy which would allow athletes who are military service academy graduates to play professional sports immediately upon graduation. At that time, the policy was such that graduates had to serve two years active duty before joining a professional sports team with the provision they would serve their remaining three years in the Reserves.

In November 2019, then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper set out new guidelines which allowed academy graduate athletes with specific approval of the Defense Secretary, to immediately join professional teams with a promise they would eventually fulfill their military service or repay the costs of their education.

The new legislation says directly, “That the cadet may not obtain employment as a professional athlete until two years after the cadet graduates from the Academy.” The House-Senate agreement on the bill said that the Esper plan “contorted Department of Defense policy governing Academy graduates and professional sports deliberately circumvents these recent laws.”

The proposed fiscal 2023 NDAA also deals with two nuclear weapons that the Biden 2022 Nuclear Posture Review recommended be eliminated. One involves funds for research and development for a new, low-yield nuclear, sub-launched cruise missile (SLCM-N); the other deals with life extension and modification funds for the 40-year-old, 1.2 megaton-yield B-83 bomb as a weapon for underground targets.

The legislation delays spending for research and development on the SLCM-N cruise missile and nuclear warhead until a series of studies are provided to relevant congressional committees. The studies, some of which could take as long as nine months, cover the operational, deterrence value and foreign policy implications associated with deploying SLCM-Ns on U.S. Navy vessels.

For the B-83, there is to be one six-month study directed at “options to hold at risk hard and deeply buried targets.” The study is to include “an evaluation of the sufficiency of current or planned nuclear and non-nuclear military capabilities to satisfy such requirements,” with “the B-83 nuclear gravity bomb as one of the options” after its service life extension.

I must point out that the new earth-penetrating, B-61-12 tactical bomb, which is just being deployed, was always considered the replacement for the B-83.

Meanwhile, according to the legislation, only 25 percent of the estimated 600 B-83s in the stockpile may be deactivated or retired with current funds. The fate of the remaining 75 percent of the B-83s will await the results of the deeply buried target study.

The Senate is expected to pass the bill and get it to President Biden’s desk within the next week. Carrying it over to the next Congress, when Republicans control the House, could require more negotiations.

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