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Self-Inflicted Wounds Harming Military Readiness, Morale and Veterans | Commentary

Congress and the Department of Defense’s recent attempts to save money have injured vital areas: military readiness, morale and the veteran community. Intentions of recent legislation to curb spending have been admirable. The Congressional Budget Office recently confirmed that no sequester is needed due to Congress’ adherence to its budget laws, at least until 2016. However, continued cost reductions hinder the Navy’s ability to be a strong force for our defense and further neglect our military and veterans.

DOD has struggled with several top procurement priorities, potentially harming Navy overall readiness. This past month, the Office of the Secretary of Defense recommended the Navy reduce the order of its versatile Littoral Combat Ships from 52 to 32. The LCS is to make up the largest percentage of the projected 306-ship fleet. Reductions of this scale would be a major blow to the Navy’s operational capabilities unless a replacement platform was devised to fulfill the capability gap, achieve fleet goals and allow rational maintenance rotations. The fiscal 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, prohibits continued funding for the LCS program past LCS-25 and LCS-26 until the secretary of the Navy provides Congress with a report. This report has yet to be issued, thus a final decision on LCS procurement would benefit from its findings.

Concerns about vulnerability as a result of “nuclear readiness” result from the two-year postponement of the Ohio-Class Replacement SSBN(X) Program, designed to phase out older Ohio-class nuclear-powered ballistic submarines, the most survivable and most important segment of the United States’ three-pronged nuclear deterrent program. As these older subs retire, there will be a period of about seven years where the fleet will have a minimum of 10 operational submarines, leaving no room for unplanned maintenance.

Also jeopardized is the replacement of the Navy’s aging fleet of MH-60 Seahawk helicopters, which are adaptable, multimission aircraft. The rate of retirement for the current fleet partnered with late-arrivals of the replacement model creates a 15- to 20-year “Helo-gap” where the inventory is alarmingly low. The increased capabilities added to the platform and lack of available aircraft mean the MH-60s perform longer and heavier flights, reducing reliability and raising concerns for safety and mission success. Thus, measures to reduce equipment costs can raise costs in the form of increased costs of maintenance, less successful missions and even injury.

Actions by Congress and the administration have also negatively impacted military morale. The recent authorization act allows the president to set military pay increases at 1 percent, a reduction from the 1.8 percent rate suggested by the Department of Labor Employment Cost Index. It’s the lowest pay increase since 1963. The fiscal 2004 National Defense Authorization Act mandated military pay raise matches the minimum calculated for the private sector, determined by the Employment Cost Index. With rising costs of living, cuts in military pay raises can harm morale and have side effects that decrease performance levels and hurt overall military recruitment and retention. The administration says this pay raise cut saves the federal government about $500 million this year, a relatively small amount in an average national $1 trillion budget.

Also impacted is the veteran community, particularly by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013. The act reduces the cost-of-living adjustments for veterans’ retirement compensation to 1 percent below inflation as determined by the consumer price index. Earlier this month, Congress was able to amend the Bipartisan Budget Act with the Omnibus Appropriations Bill, which included a provision exempting disabled veterans and survivors from the cuts. Everyone else, however, faces the current COLA reduction, beginning in 2015. Our nation’s veterans depend on this deserved compensation to maintain their livelihood, especially in this current economy.

Congress and the Defense Department have, through sequestration and budget cuts, landed major blows to our Navy’s overall readiness, morale within our military and the veteran community. The side effects stemming from these cuts could impact the fleet’s ability to perform as a nuclear deterrent, success of future missions, and performance and recruitment. Our Navy and veterans have made sacrifices for their country, but that doesn’t mean that they should be the first to be sacrificed by Congress and DOD.

Anthony A. Wallis is director of legislation for the Association of the United States Navy. He served as a congressional staffer in the House and Senate from 2004 to 2011 and received a master’s degree from the U.S. Naval War College in 2010.

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