WASHINGTON — The Defense Business Board (motto: “Business Excellence in Defense of the Nation”), a panel of corporate types who advise the Pentagon’s civilian leadership, has trained its sights on a problem that urgently needs fixing: the military retirement system.

Didn’t know it was broken? Well, a recent DBB study concludes that military benefits are “more generous and expensive” than those available in the private sector, and have therefore become “unaffordable” and “unfair.”

Created back when military skills did not easily translate into civilian careers, the system is also unnecessary, the study argues. And with retirees no longer dying as quickly as they once did, it’s inconvenient to boot.

With the Pentagon facing growing pressure to tighten its belt, the DBB wants to lift a page out of the corporate playbook: “renegotiate” (a euphemism for “reduce”) the benefits package to which the workforce has become accustomed.

Of course, the workforce in this case has spent the past decade not pulling shifts on an assembly line or toiling in cubicles, but rotating between various theaters of war.

The current retirement system promises military members half of their pay (but not of the funds they receive for food or housing) for life in exchange for 20 years of service, with the percentage rising incrementally for more than 20 years of service.

In its place, the DBB advocates a 401(k)-type arrangement with service members and the government both kicking in. (The proposal would have no effect on members who, like me, have already retired.)

Employing what we might call the Afghanistan cost metric (an ACM is the monthly bill for waging the Afghan war, about $10 billion), military retirees cost five ACMs per year. By 2035, the present system will consume 11 ACMs – almost what it costs to fight in Afghanistan for a single year.

To avert this troubling prospect, the DBB wants the Pentagon to institute a tax-sheltered savings account to accompany service members into the post-military workplace. Counting on civilian employers to contribute, while stipulating that benefits would be “payable at age 60 to 65” rather than at 40 or 45, would reduce the money that the Pentagon must set aside.

In effect, providing for Capt. Smith’s retirement would become an individual responsibility, shared by however many future employers Smith could induce to pitch in. Less money for retirement would mean more for wars and weapons.

The current system makes it “very difficult to release personnel with 15 or more years of service,” the DBB laments. Yet it is precisely this group – the field-grade and non-commissioned officers who have borne the brunt of the post-9/11 wars – who “are a likely target for downsizing.” Eliminating troops short of 20 years, thereby denying them a pension, can entail costly severance packages.

In contrast, a portable 401(k)-type system can make it easier for the Pentagon to simply hand people their walking papers – much as corporate America does. Baldly asserting that today “military skills are transferable to the private sector,” the DBB ignores the fact that the unemployment rate for veterans is significantly higher than the national average.

Major savings along with greater managerial flexibility: At a time of massive budget deficits, it seems like a no-brainer. Yet as with many money-saving schemes, this one incurs hidden costs. And as used by the DBB, “flexibility” becomes a euphemism for dodging the real issue.

Conspicuously absent from the analysis is this phrase: “military profession.” Long diluted elsewhere in society, the concept of professionalism remains alive and well in the ranks of the armed forces, where an ethos of service and a commitment to a code of personal conduct have survived. That professional ethic helps to ensure that the officer corps is apolitical.

Keeping the military out of politics sustains, in part, the principle of civilian control. That is no trivial matter for a country that places so much emphasis on wielding armed might.

Whether out of malice or ignorance, the DBB would junk all that. “The All Volunteer Force has proven to be an outstanding success,” the DBB declares. Trimming retirement outlays appears to offer one way to keep that force fiscally viable.

Next on the docket will be cuts in medical benefits. You can count on it.

Over the past decade, that all-volunteer force has proved to be astonishingly durable. With only 0.5 percent of Americans bearing the brunt of the nation’s seemingly interminable wars – and with all but those volunteers and their families insulated from those wars’ effects – politicians have had a free hand in deciding when and where that force will fight.

Rather than reforming – that is, gutting – the retirement system for the men and women who devote their lives to defending their country, we need to rethink the all-volunteer force and what we expect it to do.


– Special to The Washington Post