Board’s radical plan criticized

The Defense Business Board’s proposal to shift the military to a cheaper “contributory” retirement plan is “radical” and was released publicly without due regard for the impact it would have on troop morale in wartime.

That was the charge leveled last week by Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., chairman of the House armed services’ subcommittee on military personnel, during a hearing where Defense officials were called to discuss a more thorough review of retirement they are conducted for the future force only.

The DBB report, which called the current retirement system “unsustainable” and “increasingly unaffordable,” took several hits at the hearing including from military associations and, indirectly, defense officials.

Jo Ann Rooney, principal deputy under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said “the department acknowledges the military retirement system appears expensive (but) it is neither unaffordable nor spiraling out of control as some would contend.”

Rooney said DoD has been studying ways to revise retirement, in part because the national debt crisis is requiring deep defense spending cuts. But the study is balanced, she said, “weighing the impact of a new system on recruiting and retention, considering the welfare of individual service members and families, which includes grandfathering our existing force … and acknowledging our responsibilities to the American taxpayer.”

Some House colleagues joined Wilson in criticizing the DBB. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., an Army Reserve physician, blasted the DBB for proposing a civilian-life retirement plan with only sketchy information on how it would affect those serving today, including in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But other lawmakers found merit in the DBB blunt findings that the current retirement system is too rigid, too costly and provides no benefits to the 83 percent of service members who separate short of 20 years.

Rooney gave Wilson and colleagues the same assurance they got a few weeks back from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, that current members would be protected from any proposed retirement changes.

Rep. Susan Davis (Calif.), ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, welcomed some of the DBB arguments for reform. She said, for example, that more fairness must be a goal when only 17 percent of members serve long enough to retire, and that some who leave without benefits have served more time in combat than members who reach the 20-year benefit threshold.

She also noted that today’s retirees live longer than folks did when the 20-year formula was set in 1949. Life expectancy then was 66.2 years for a white male and 58.9 for a black male. By 2009, it had climbed to 76.2 years for a white male and to 70.9 years for a black male. And many retirees today go on to have “another full career in a different field,” Davis said.

Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., a former Marine and Army reservist with enough combined service time to earn an annuity at age 60, said the current system needs reform so at least some benefits accrue to members with fewer than 20 years. Coffman also pressed for more compensation, if not specifically more retired pay, to reward the toughest military careers.

“There is such a wide disparity in occupations in the military,” he said “I have to tell you there are a lot of them where people show up to work in the morning and leave in the afternoon, and it’s not a whole lot different from, quite frankly, a civilian job,” Coffman said. “And there are those jobs that are just tough.” Those in tougher jobs, he said, should be paid more.