Pentagon Officials To Outline Defense Budget Priorities

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will outline budget priorities during a news conference on Monday. A key question for the Pentagon: How to curb growth of military pay and benefits?

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Pentagon will begin making its case today for why a particular part of its budget must be cut. This is for the sake of self-preservation. The military has concluded that it cannot afford to pay as much for troops' salaries, health care and other benefits, including pensions. Those costs are consuming more and more of the defense budget, leaving less money for planes, ships and training.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is in the studio with us. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what, exactly, are we going to hear from the Pentagon as they begin unveiling this new budget?

BOWMAN: Well, David, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey today will outline what they call their budget priorities. So expect them to call for a smaller Army; some trimming of weapons programs here and there. But the priority that will get the most reaction is an effort to reduce the growth of military pay and benefits. This has been an issue for many years and some officials have said, quote, these costs are eating us alive.

GREENE: That's amazing language. I mean, if we're talking about pay and benefits eating the Pentagon alive over time - I mean, explain the problem to us, if you can.

BOWMAN: Well, for the Pentagon, these costs have been increasing at a huge rate over the past decade. One study found that during that time - the past 10 years - the average cost of pay and benefits for each active-duty soldier has gone from $54,000 to $110,000. Now that, of course, includes everything - pay, housing allowances, health care, retirement. And for military retirees, their annual cost for a family health care plan now is about $550 a year. Civilian families, of course, with an HMO pay five to seven times that. Now, defense secretaries have tried to rein this in by hiking premiums a little bit, and Congress just won't let them.

GREENE: Because - I mean, this seems like an obvious point but I mean, a lot of Americans feel that the government owes troops and veterans for their service. And so making the case that those - that money should be cut seems like a very hard case to make.

BOWMAN: It's a very hard case to make. And there was a recent fight, for example, to reduce by just 1 percent the cost-of-living adjustment for working-age veterans. First, it was approved by Congress, and then lawmakers went back and reversed it. Now, it not only shows the support on the Hill for the military and veterans, it also shows the power of veterans groups - the VFW, and so forth.

GREENE: So if the Pentagon is going to basically deliver this message - I mean, it's going to be the Pentagon itself saying they have to cut pay for their own people - I mean what, exactly, are they going to say? How are they going to make this argument?

BOWMAN: Well, we recently spoke with Gen. Dempsey - again, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs - about this, and he explained the problem in very blunt terms. Let's listen to what he had to say.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: It will become a crisis. The amount of money that the department has to spend could place us out of balance, meaning we won't have enough money to put into training and equipping and readiness because we will be overinvested in manpower costs. So what we're recommending is to slow the growth. I mean, that's where the money is.

BOWMAN: So Gen. Dempsey said that's where the money is. So they're looking at smaller pay raises, higher enrollment fees or deductibles for health care, smaller housing allowances; and I'm also told they're looking at cutting subsidies for the commissaries on bases.

GREENE: So just in the few seconds we have left, Tom, I mean if lawmakers resist this - and it sounds like it's pretty likely, some or many - what happens if the Pentagon can't make these cuts?

BOWMAN: Well, if they can't make these cuts, you can look at cuts elsewhere. Could be anything from planes to other aircraft; let's say tanks, and cutting back on maybe bases - maintenance at bases. But one person said this has to be done. He said the Pentagon is basically becoming a benefits organization that occasionally kills a terrorist.

GREENE: A lot of tough choices for the Pentagon. That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, David.

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