The Military Needs Reform, Not a Raise



“Because we do not expect major changes in the composition of the armed forces, we do not expect major changes in the relationship between the armed forces and the rest of society … We do not believe that an all-volunteer force such as we recommend will become isolated or alienated from society.”
Gates Commission on the All-Volunteer Force, 1970

Over the last 60 years, the U.S. military has undergone two fundamental shifts in respect to personnel and civil-military relations. The post-war period of the 1950s saw the establishment of America’s first large standing military (and a permanent armaments industry) while the post-war period of the 1970s saw the end of active conscription and the creation of the all-volunteer force.

Today, the era of persistent conflict has continued unabated with a small cohort of Americans bearing the burden of those wars. It is time for us to finally recognize the impact of these two major shifts. America’s propensity for intervention remains high and its military is more isolated than ever.

Military service is primarily defined by the act of placing one’s life at risk for a country and a cause. But service today requires many other sacrifices that stem from changing cultural norms among the American public and a military culture that has failed to keep pace.

On Feb. 12, the Army announced that a 2.6 percent military pay increase was part of the service’s $148 billion budget request for fiscal year 2019. In the Army’s own press release, it was noted that if approved by Congress, this would be the largest pay increase for the services in nine years. Not included in this 2.6 percent pay raise for soldiers are the 2.9 percent and 3.4 percent raises for housing and food allowances, which account more directly for increases in the cost of living.

Although these pay raises are well-intentioned, they are neither necessary nor even aligned with the long-term interests of the military and the country. In fact, the proposed raise obfuscates the military’s more complex challenges and the need for deeper institutional change. In this way, raising military pay is another example of the deepening civilian-military divide in a society where war has become background noise that most Americans don’t have to worry about.

Money Isn’t the Problem

The Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation in 2012 (the most recent available study) found that average regular military compensation for enlisted personnel and officers corresponded to the 90th and 83rd percentiles, respectively, for comparable civilians. Five years later, researchers from the Center for a New American Security continued this analysis and concluded that “[t]o the extent that any civil-military divide exists with respect to compensation, this divide favors the military.”

Despite being paid significantly above average wages for their skills, the military is facing manning shortfalls in critical billets such as cyber experts and pilots. Shortages for pilots alone are estimated in excess of 2,000. To address these shortages, the services are offering up to nearly half a million dollars to retain qualified officers. More worryingly, increased numbers of waivers for entry into service have been repeatedly used since 2003 in order to meet recruitment needs.

Money does not seem to help keep people in the military. There are numerous factors that compensation cannot account for: frequent moves, the high demands of training exercises, and, of course, deployment and the risk of life. This raises a new and more fraught question about the motivations of people who continue to serve when the main incentive is compensation, not quality of life or job satisfaction. As Dr. Tim Kane and others have pointed out, compensation is not the primary reason for low retention – it’s culture.

With such high military pay, low performers have an even greater incentive to stay if they fear losing this generous benefit. What’s worse is that when low performers exit the military they will likely remain unemployed longer because of distorted perceptions of compensation. Instead of a smooth transition into a new job or career, these now-veterans will likely receive unemployment compensation – a benefit funded by the Defense Department.

What’s more concerning is that Kane’s analysis shows that high performers will leave if their contribution is rewarded equally as that of the underperformer. Workers, especially millennials, would rather be paid less and respected. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines want merit, not money. They want talent management, not industrial-era career tracks in an up-or-out system. They also want families and their spouses want careers of their own. These are the real barriers to retention in the military, and they’re not something money can buy.

The Soldier and the State

This discussion about low retention fails to address a deeper issue: low volunteerism. What does it say about public support for the current conflicts when so few Americans are volunteering to serve– despite being compensated so well?

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan represent the longest period of continuous war in America’s history despite low support and no coherent strategy. Moreover, the U.S. military is engaged in hostilities around the world that have surprised even the families of soldiers, as demonstrated recently following the casualties in Niger. Such disconnects arguably stem from Congress’ failure to review the Authorization for the Use of Military Force over the last 16 years. The military is being deployed to wars that the nation either is not aware of or does not support.

There has been little public outcry against these deployments. America has levied no war tax nor asked for shared sacrifices at home. The lack of engagement was epitomized by the words of one Army Lieutenant Colonel in Iraq in 2006: “We’re at war; America’s at the mall.

Coupled with decreased public engagement is the dangerous growing isolation of the American military. Multiple rounds of base closures have consolidated military families to only a few small pockets across the country. According to the Defense Department, half of the members of today’s military live in only five states and fewer Americans know anyone who has served in the military. The people most likely to join the military come from families with prior service, creating generations of military families and the early makings of a warrior caste.

With increased isolation from and lack of understanding of the institution, the American public has resorted to an almost reflexive support, continuously reporting rising trust in the military despite repeated scandals and its inability to win decisively. As other authors have pointed out, saying “thank you for your service” can ring hollow coming from a population so out of touch with the military. Military discounts and other perks can also offer an unspoken testament to that divide, particularly given the high compensation military men and women receive – the public and elected officials are content to let financial benefits serve as a stand-in for true support.

Reforms, Not Raises

Raising military pay is the easy but wrong way to address the Pentagon’s recruitment and retention challenges. “Who serves” and “why do they serve” are core questions that the country must face.

Many of the internal reforms needed to address the retention challenges were already proposed in 2015. By Pentagon and congressional standards, the Force of the Future was a radical attempt to modernize the military personnel system. The proposed changes could increase career flexibility (through changes to the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act) and provide non-cash benefits (such as less frequent moves or increased options for education while in uniform) that would improve career satisfaction and retention among service members. Estimates for the cost of the Force of the Future initiative were roughly $1 billion per year.

With such a high price tag, critics on Capitol Hill and elsewhere were quick to call this “an outrageous waste of time.” Sen. John McCain referred to many of the new proposals as “fringe benefits.” Ultimately, the Defense Department implemented a limited number of less controversial changes such as increasing maternity leave to 12 weeks for all services, extending child care hours, and modernizing the retirement system.

Basic math shows that a 2.6 percent increase on $150 billion in pay and benefits is nearly double the cost of implementing the entire Force of the Future proposal. More importantly, the initiative’s “fringe benefits” would likely have generated offsetting savings through decreased recruiting costs and lower turnover, thanks to higher-quality recruits and superior talent management. Admittedly, 2.6 percent is just in the budget request and needs to be approved by Congress, but the point is that any additional funding could be more responsibly allocated somewhere other than a broad pay raise.

It’s easier to spend more on military pay than it is to reform the monolithic bureaucracy or demand a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force to force a debate about national priorities. A better way to support the troops is to call for reforming how the military runs.

The military is not without blame. Instead of addressing this growing divide, many of the men and women with whom I served regarded the low volunteerism as further proof of their own exceptionalism and justification for high pay. Rising compensation over the last 15 years has risked making military service less about service and more like just another job. Senior leaders who have spent upwards of 40 years in this lifestyle may see their personal and family sacrifices as just another badge of honor. These leaders may also believe that the status quo will not change, preferring to simply accept the higher pay.

The proposed pay raise is just another incremental widening of the divide between the American public and those who serve. Paying the military more may be putting a Band-Aid on a small cut that misses the internal hemorrhaging. Addressing the military’s personnel management failures and America’s growing civil-military divide will require leadership. The first step is to say the hard thing: The military needs reform, not another raise.


Jim Perkins was an active duty Army officer for 11 years and now works in IT in Seattle. Previously, he was the executive director of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum and a Next Generation National Security Leaders fellow at the Center for a New American Security. His professional interests include national security, technology, innovation, and talent management. He tweets at @jim_perkins1.

Image: U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Naomi Shipley