Defense Issues: Volume 11, Number 24-- America's Armed Forces: A Shared Commitment The U.S. military today is smaller but fully ready to do what is asked of it. We must ensure service members remain ready and provide them the quality of life they and their families deserve.
Volume 11, Number 24
America's Armed Forces: A Shared Commitment
Prepared statement of Edwin Dorn, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, to the Personnel Subcommittee, Senate Armed Services Committee, March 13, 1996.
Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, I am honored to appear before you today to present an overview of Department of Defense personnel issues.
The United States military continues to be the best-trained and best-equipped fighting force in the world, as its performance over the past year in the Persian Gulf, Haiti and Bosnia-Herzegovina illustrates. During this period, our forces have also continued to manage the downsizing with skill and spirit. Our forces are now smaller but fully ready to do what we ask of them. We must ensure they remain ready and provide them the quality of life they and their families deserve. Secretary [of Defense William] Perry and I look forward to working with this subcommittee to attain these ends.
In this statement I will discuss the manpower levels requested in the president's budget and then detail the steps we are taking to maintain readiness and quality of life. ...
The president's budget request for active military, Selected Reserve and civilian manpower for FY [fiscal year] 1997 continues the downsizing that began in the late 1980s. At the beginning of FY 1996, active duty military strength was at 1.518 million; by the end of FY 1997, it will decrease to 1.457 million. Selected Reserve strength will be reduced to 901,000. Civilian positions will decrease to 807,000 by the end of FY 1997.
The drawdown of the active component to congressionally mandated permanent end strength levels is now almost 90 percent complete and will be about 97 percent complete after the reductions planned for FY 1997. Even though the number of active duty personnel already has been reduced by more than 655,000 since FY 1987, the number of service members who have been involuntarily separated has been quite small. Much of the credit for our success is attributable to the strong support and encouragement of Congress, which provided the separation incentives (Voluntary Separation Incentive, Special Separation Benefit, Temporary Early Retirement Authority) and transition programs needed to effect the drawdown in a sensible and sensitive manner.
Through the Reserve Component Transition Assistance Program, the department has successfully reshaped and balanced the reserve forces. The transition program includes Special Separation Pay, Early Qualification for Retired Pay, continued eligibility for commissaries and exchanges and extension of Montgomery GI Bill educational assistance. This program will enable the department to complete almost 90 percent of its drawdown and restructuring plans by the end of FY 1996 and 97 percent by the end of FY 1997.
The department began streamlining infrastructure and reducing its civilian work force before National Performance Review reductions were proposed. Through creative use of our transition programs, we have been able to hold our involuntary separations to less than 9 percent. The DoD Priority Placement Program has placed over 136,000 workers in its 30-year history and continues to find jobs for an average of over 900 displaced employees per month. We have been aggressively using downsizing tools provided by the Congress.
Civilian reductions have amounted to 23 percent between 1987 and FY 1995. By September 1999, an additional 104,000 positions will be eliminated, with further reductions anticipated. The reductions are based on reinvention and streamlining of workload and missions, base closures and reduced fiscal resources. Our goal is to maintain effectiveness while managing the reductions both efficiently and humanely.
The department's first priority is maintaining readiness to execute the National Security Strategy. As last reported to the Senior Readiness Oversight Council, U.S. forces are at a high state of readiness, as exemplified by our current operations in Bosnia and throughout the world. The department anticipates that we will be able to maintain this high state of readiness, assuming the timely reimbursement for contingency operations. U.S. forces must be manned, equipped and trained to deal with the dangers to U.S. national security, including response to major regional conflicts, overseas presence operations and other key missions.
Personnel readiness results from three factors: quality people, quality training and quality of life. We recruit those whose background and aptitudes indicate a high probability of completing their obligation while performing well in their occupational fields. We manage people carefully, provide them with rigorous and realistic training and ensure we assign well-qualified people to each job. Finally, we make a genuine commitment to "people first" programs that recognize their service.
A steady flow of high-quality recruits is an important component of readiness. In spite of the fact that our military forces are growing smaller, each service must enlist enough people each year to provide a flow of seasoned leaders for the future. DoD must recruit about 200,000 young people annually for the active duty armed forces and approximately 160,000 for the Selected Reserve.
In recent years, DoD has done well in attracting high-quality recruits. In FY 1995, 96 percent of all active duty recruits held a high school diploma and 71 percent scored above average on the enlistment test. Fewer than 1 percent of new recruits scored in the lowest acceptable category on the test. The department also was successful in recruiting for the reserves, with 90 percent of reserve accessions holding a high school diploma and more than two-thirds scoring above average on the enlistment test and less than 2 percent scoring in the lowest acceptable category. Higher levels of recruit quality reduce attrition while improving hands-on job performance, which is essential to unit performance and readiness.
Over the past several years, enlistment propensity had declined as the services experienced serious cuts in recruiting resources. In FYs 1995 and 1996, recruitment advertising was increased by $89 million and $31 million respectively. That investment, coupled with hard work by our recruiters, is paying off. Results from the 1995 Youth Attitude Tracking Study indicate that the decline in propensity may have abated. However, recent surveys indicate higher recruiter stress and dissatisfaction, along with a range of quality of life concerns.
Accordingly, the department asked the services to review recruiting policies and practices with a goal of reducing pressures that might lead to potential improprieties. A joint study of recruiter quality [of] life issues is focusing on potential improvements in health care, child care and housing. The Congress recently authorized an increase in Special Duty Assignment Pay from $275 to $375 per month. We are now developing implementation plans, in coordination with the services.
Because recruiting is vital to readiness, then-Deputy Secretary John Deutch established the Senior Panel on Recruiting in April 1994 to provide oversight at the highest levels of the department. This panel deals quickly and effectively with any emerging problems. The department has also initiated a joint-service study to evaluate the viability and cost-effectiveness of alternative concepts for recruiting support.
We will continue to monitor trends to ensure we maintain high quality standards in enlisted recruitment. With adequate resources and realistic recruit quality requirements, we can sustain a diverse, high-quality military force that is ready and able to respond to the nation's defense needs.
The department continues to sustain balance in its officer accession program, with a mix of new officers from a number of sources: Reserve Officers Training Corps (36 percent of officer accessions), which provides a varied academic and geographical mix; officer candidate programs (20 percent) that provide growth opportunities for the enlisted force; and service academies (15 percent), which provide officers who couple a deep understanding of the military culture with important technical skills. Other officer accession programs support the professional branches: direct appointment (14 percent) and health professional programs (6 percent). We believe that this mix across commissioning sources provides appropriate balance and diversity.
While recruiting is the crucial first step in creating a ready force, retaining and carefully managing personnel during the course of their careers is just as important. As the drawdown nears its end, our focus has shifted from selective departure to broad-based retention. Our retention incentive programs are designed to maintain the high level of readiness needed to perform the missions we are called upon to perform, and we will work with the Congress to ensure that retention programs, such as re-enlistment bonuses, are funded at appropriate levels.
There is a common misconception that promotions have slowed because of the drawdown, but that is simply not the case. The services have worked hard to provide reasonably consistent promotion opportunities in order to meet requirements, ensure a balanced personnel force structure and provide a meaningful opportunity for all service members. Promotions have remained generally steady during the drawdown. Officer and enlisted promotions remained stable through FY 1995, with promotion opportunities and pin-on points relatively consistent with those of previous years.
However, reductions in end strength, coupled with adjustments in force structure, have caused the services to re-examine their officer requirements with regard to the number of field grade officers. We will be proposing permanent grade relief to achieve the number of mid- and senior-grade officers needed to perform Defense missions. Also, we are working with the Joint Staff on a number of projects designed to improve joint officer management.
One such measure is a process to ensure those positions that fully meet the intent of the law are on the joint duty assignment list. The department appreciates the support the Congress has given us in the past, particularly the revised authorities reflected in the FY 1996 Defense Authorization Act, to improve our management of joint officers. As we enter new territory with the implementation of the department's first requirements-based JDAL, we look forward to improved utilization of officers who are trained and experienced in joint matters.
The Reserve Officer Personnel Management Act, enacted with the FY 1995 Defense Authorization Act, becomes effective on Oct. 1, 1996. Involving over 200 changes to existing law, ROPMA is the first comprehensive overhaul of reserve officer personnel management statutes since the Reserve Officer Personnel Act of 1954 and will affect approximately 250,000 officers not on the active duty list. It provides flexibility in managing Guard and Reserve officers, provides career visibility to individuals and will help maintain a cost-effective reserve component personnel structure. The department is actively updating Guard and Reserve manpower and personnel policies in conformance with ROPMA.
In the area of civilian management, the military departments and defense agencies are pulling functions from their installation civilian personnel offices into regional service centers to improve productivity and customer service, while reducing costs. We plan for 23 regional centers to perform those functions that can be performed more efficiently and effectively from a central operation. Thirteen projects to streamline and automate functions that account for at least half of the standard civilian personnel office workload have been completed or are nearing completion. We are also developing a standard DoD system to allow immediate access to current civilian personnel data, provide on-line update of employee data, reduce training and operational costs and improve productivity. A commercial off-the-shelf software package has been selected as the basis for the modern data system. Our target system should be deployed in FY 1998.
We are encouraged by the successful implementation of policies that have opened more jobs to women in uniform. Today, almost 80 percent of all jobs and over 90 percent of all career fields within the military are open to both men and women. This means we are able to put the right person in the right job unencumbered by unnecessary gender restrictions. There are still some challenges to overcome in this area; however, we believe the changes will enhance the personnel readiness of our smaller armed force.
The secretary has been very firm and clear about the issue of fairness. Discrimination and sexual harassment jeopardize organizational readiness by weakening interpersonal bonds, eroding unit cohesion, and threatening good order and discipline. The department supports readiness by comprehensively addressing human relations issues and by expeditiously investigating and resolving discrimination complaints. DoD strives to ensure that it is an organization where every individual is free to contribute to his or her fullest potential in an atmosphere of respect and dignity.
Rigorous and realistic training is the foundation of personnel readiness. This includes entry-level training, specialized skill training and professional development courses. The department invests about $30,000 per recruit during basic and initial job training alone. We offer over 20,000 different courses -- an investment of $15 billion -- that produce 1.15 million graduates annually. These programs ensure that we develop well-qualified leaders.
Cost-effective training to promote effective reserve component integration into total force missions means increasing opportunities for joint training missions with the active forces and making good use of all the tools available, especially technology. During the coming year, we will continue to identify training opportunities to involve reserve components in more peacetime operational missions and to promote innovative training opportunities in U.S. communities. These measures will increase reserve readiness as a result of meaningful involvement in peacetime missions, while also helping to reduce active component personnel tempo (perstempo) and operating tempo(optempo).
This year, the department is launching a major effort to provide a more universal, comprehensive and systematic program of civilian career and leader development. This effort has already led to the establishment of a new civilian training philosophy. Called Growing the Gold, this program is creating a cross-component system of civilian leadership development with policies and procedures more closely aligned with those of the military.
The focus of Growing the Gold is a more DoD-team-based approach to the training, education, assignment and promotion of DoD's civilian personnel. This comprehensive redesign in civilian career and leader development responds to the president's call for greater and smarter investment in human capital, as well as to recommendations from the Commission on Roles and Missions.
Competitive pay, realistic perstempo standards, health care and improved housing and community support programs enhance the services' ability to keep and grow future leaders, gain a return on training investment and reflect a commitment to service members and their families.
The secretary of defense has made quality of life one of his top priorities. In November 1994, we embarked on an ambitious course to assess and improve quality of life. The president announced an unprecedented initiative that added $25 billion to the defense spending plan to provide more funding for readiness and improve quality of life programs.
As part of this initiative, the secretary allocated $2.7 billion to the Future Years Defense Program to increase Basic Allowance for Quarters, initiate a new cost of living allowance for high-cost areas in the United States, improve housing, expand child care, bolster recreation programs and enhance family violence prevention.
He established a quality of life task force of outside experts to provide recommendations for improving housing and the delivery of community and family services and to provide options for reducing the time service members spend away from home for training and mission requirements. At the same time, he chartered an internal quality of life executive committee to support and implement the task force recommendations.
We are now analyzing these task force recommendations and have achieved numerous accomplishments during the past year that are significantly improving quality of life. I am going to highlight a few of our initiatives in the areas of compensation, health care, housing, support to families of service members currently deployed, and community and family support programs.
Since 1994, the law regulating the annual increase in military pay has called for pay raises that trail the increase in private sector pay. It is essential that military pay remain competitive. In order to lessen the disparity with private sector raises, the president's budget funds a 3 percent military pay raise that emphasizes the department's commitment to pay comparability. This commitment sends a very positive message to uniformed personnel that their country values their services and recognizes the unique hardships, obligations and dangers of military service.
In FY 1996, the secretary added $43 million to housing allowances in order to reduce the amount of out-of-pocket housing expenses for the two-thirds of military families residing in civilian communities. We have increased our FY 1997 budget to maintain housing allowances at current levels. Also in FY 1996, the secretary added $17.2 million to provide cost of living allowances within the United States where payments for goods and services exceed the national average by more than 9 percent. This CONUS [continental United States] COLA increase improved living standards for 30,000 service members living in high-cost areas. Our FY 1997 budget maintains the CONUS COLA at current levels.
For reservists, two legislative changes adopted in 1995 will contribute to personnel readiness and improved quality of life: the establishment of mobilization income insurance for Selected Reservists and the requirement to provide Selected Reservists with a low-cost dental insurance program. Both of these changes will be implemented beginning in FY 1997.
Military personnel deploying to Bosnia-Herzegovina continue to receive normal pay and allowances. In addition, deployed troops are receiving imminent danger pay, family separation allowances and other special pays. Thus, up to an additional $352 per month will go to deployed troops. We also support tax waivers and delays. The amount will vary for civilian counterparts.
The department continues to support military retirement pay as a critical element of the overall military compensation package. Any changes to this system amount to broken promises and have a negative impact on retention and morale of our service members. At the same time, the department strongly supports cost of living allowances to military retirement pay in order to maintain a measure of income security for those who complete military service careers.
We envision a number of long-term compensation improvements and now are analyzing issues and developing appropriate legislative proposals. For example, we hope to move toward a pay for performance-oriented military pay system. While we recognize that increased pay for experience is important, we believe that promotion and its associated responsibilities should be the principal determinant of pay; appropriate reforms to the pay table can help us to achieve that goal.
We also hope to refine our housing allowances so that they increasingly will be able to provide the right amount to every pay grade, in each location where our members are stationed. We want to ensure that the allowances are credible and sufficient to provide each and every service member with the ability to obtain housing that meets minimum adequacy standards. Key to our long-range vision is the ongoing work of the Eighth Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation.
As part of the quality of life review, the department looked at the demands made on personnel, especially time away from home. The quality of life task force made several observations and recommendations that will be reviewed for their potential to help reduce personnel tempo and turbulence. Additionally, the department continues to support programs aimed at increasing the stability of families despite requirements for service member deployments.
Our goal is to find a balance between mission and training requirements and service members' need to be with their families. To accomplish this goal, the quality of life executive committee will fully evaluate task force and internal recommendations, which include reviewing programmed training and deployment schedules, expanding use of reserve components to reduce the personnel tempo for the active force and increasing contractor support of certain functions.
Military medicine faces compelling challenges at this time of unprecedented change in the nation's health care system. One priority is medical readiness -- the need to be prepared wherever and whenever service members are deployed, with the highest quality of care. At the current pace of worldwide operations, our high focus on medical readiness has never been more important. Another equally important task is to supply accessible, high-quality health care to the active duty force, family members, retirees and other beneficiaries not currently involved in operations.
More than 8.3 million people are eligible to receive health care from the military health services system. Direct care is delivered worldwide in 120 hospitals and numerous clinics. Care is also purchased from the civilian sector through the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Uniformed Services and TRICARE support contracts. The medical portion of the president's FY 1997 budget is approximately $15.4 billion, or 6.2 percent of the entire defense budget.
TRICARE is the DoD regional managed health care program for members of the uniformed services and their families, and survivors and retired members and their families. TRICARE brings together the health care delivery systems of each of the military services, as well as CHAMPUS, in a cooperative and supportive effort to better serve military patients and to better use the resources available to military medicine.
TRICARE introduces to beneficiaries three choices for their health care delivery: TRICARE Standard, a fee-for-service option which is the same as standard CHAMPUS; TRICARE Extra, which offers a preferred provider option with discounts; and TRICARE Prime, an enrolled health maintenance organization option.
All active duty members will be enrolled in TRICARE Prime, and families of active duty personnel who choose to enroll in TRICARE Prime will have no enrollment fees. All Medicare-eligible DoD beneficiaries, and those CHAMPUS-eligible beneficiaries who elect not to enroll in TRICARE Prime will remain eligible for care in military medical facilities on a space-available basis.
TRICARE will provide health care coverage to active duty personnel and their families, and retirees, survivors and their families until the retirees reach age 65. At that point, retirees become eligible for Medicare and lose their eligibility to use civilian health care providers under the TRICARE program. However, Medicare-eligible retirees may continue to use the services of military treatment facilities as they are entitled to under law.
The department spends about $1.4 billion per year on over-65 retirees yet receives no reimbursement from the Health Care Financing Administration for that care. The department believes it has a moral obligation to provide health care for its retirees in the TRICARE HMO program and has sought legislation that would enable us to enroll over-65 retirees in the TRICARE HMO program and to seek reimbursement from HCFA for their care.
The department is strongly committed to dealing with specific issues such as any adverse health effects that may have resulted from service during Operations Desert Shield/Storm. We are conducting an aggressive, comprehensive clinical diagnostic effort to determine, as far as possible, the causes of the symptoms in Persian Gulf veterans as described by the National Institutes of Health technology assessment workshop panel. All Persian Gulf veterans are being offered an intensive clinical examination.
Results from evaluations of over 18,500 patients completing the Comprehensive Clinical Evaluation Program show that the majority have a definitive diagnosis or diagnoses that span a broad range of clinical entities for which they are receiving treatment and responding favorably. For those remaining, who have less definitive diagnoses, the department has established specialized care centers where patients requiring further attention will continue to be evaluated and treated.
For Operation Joint Endeavor, the department is implementing enhanced medical surveillance measures. These measures involve conducting medical assessments and informing personnel regarding potential health risks prior to deployment; collecting data to localize health problems, facilitate outbreak investigations and assess hazardous exposures during the operation; and doing medical assessments, evaluations and epidemiological studies, and maintaining rosters upon return of the forces.
In addition, the department is conducting a demonstration aimed at the families of reserve component personnel who have been activated for Operation Joint Endeavor. This demonstration will allow the families of reservists called for more than 30 days to use CHAMPUS without having to meet the annual deductible. Families of reservists called for 179 days or more and who reside in an area where TRICARE Prime is offered may enroll. Both of these measures are designed to alleviate potential hardships on the families of men and women called to serve.
Last year, the department placed special emphasis on trying to redress the condition of military housing. This was one of the cornerstones of the secretary's quality of life initiative. We have made progress in both family and bachelor housing, but we have only begun.
Family housing, like other quality of life programs, is key to readiness and retention. We have found that the number of personnel remaining in the military from bases with high-quality housing is about 15 percent higher than those stationed at places with lower-quality housing. This is a telling figure when deferred maintenance and replacement have resulted in 64 percent of military family housing being classified as "unsuitable" by the services. Our FY 1996 budget contained a $500 million increase over that previously planned and programmed in FY 1996. This increase is allowing us to construct or repair over 11,000 family units.
We found similar problems in our bachelor housing. The average age of a barracks is 40 years, and 62 percent of our military bachelor housing is considered substandard due to overcrowding and poor conditions. We began to rectify this situation with an FY 1996 increase of $673 million for barracks construction and maintenance. As a result, 71 projects are funded this year to increase availability and improve conditions. Our FY 1997 budget reflects the secretary of defense increase of almost $201 million for barracks repair, maintenance and construction. These funds continue improvements in privacy and other amenities to another 5,000 bachelor living areas.
The final piece of our housing initiative is our exploration of private sector partnerships. We set aside $22 million in FY 1996 to stimulate partnerships with a goal of increasing affordable and quality housing. These projects focus on funding homebuilding, with lease-back options via private sector housing ventures/partnerships. We established a Housing Revitalization Services Office that is overseeing these efforts and have programmed an additional $20 million in our FY 1997 budget to continue this program.
We are providing dynamic support systems for military families of those mobilized and deployed in support of peace-keeping in Bosnia. All military community and family support systems play a role, including those of the National Guard and Reserve.
Lessons learned from previous deployments show that the primary issue for service members and their families is need for information. Accurate information flow and family support systems help our families cope with daily challenges while service members are deployed.
We have fielded several initiatives to provide this kind of support. For example, family readiness training is provided throughout the entire deployment cycle to ensure appropriate information and support for each phase, including pre- and post-deployment. We have also established five hot lines in Germany and a Bosnia home page on the Internet.
In addition, our dependent schools overseas are providing assistance groups with certified counselors, school psychologists and social workers. These groups will provide counseling to children to help them cope while their military parents are away from home.
Finally, the department's morale, welfare and recreation programs provide numerous programs for families of those deployed and are also providing on-site programs and services to deployed service members.
The department provides social service, recreational and education programs wherever military families are stationed that mirror those found in civilian communities while being tailored to unique challenges associated with the more mobile military lifestyle. The department is also preparing a range of initiatives to maximize opportunities for reservists and their families to participate in military community life.
Our budget request continues funds for service member and family support programs; morale, welfare and recreation programs; off-duty voluntary education opportunities; the DoD Education Activity; and the Defense Commissary Agency and exchanges. Highlights from each of these areas follow.
Child Development. The DoD child care program is by far the largest and one of the most successful child development systems in the world. Over 65 percent of military spouses are in the labor force, and many require child care. The department recently reassessed the need for child care and documented that military families had some 299,000 children who need some kind of child care.
We are currently meeting about 52 percent of this need. The secretary added $38.1 million in FYs 1995, 1996 and 1997 to move child care availability toward the department's short-term goal of 65 percent of the departmentwide demand. We will accomplish this by increasing child care spaces by about 39,000 children, with most of these spaces in the school-aged care programs. Our ultimate goal is to provide 80 percent of the departmentwide child care demand in the future. Our FY 1997 budget requests funding to continue this initiative. We are also conducting tests of outsourcing child care, recognizing that the department is nearing maximum potential to meet child care needs on base.
Family Advocacy. The Family Advocacy Program, now in its 11th year, has contributed to making the rate of substantiated child abuse in military families less than half of the civilian rate. FAP has also been successful in protecting victims when child or spouse abuse has occurred and in treating both the victims and the abusers. During FY 1997, FAP will emphasize prevention of spouse abuse and provide advocacy services to victims of child and spouse abuse.
Model Communities (Youth Initiative). Installation commanders and parents have identified increases in youth violence and gang activity on installations as major concerns. As a result, DoD established a model communities incentive award program to encourage installations worldwide to take responsibility for the problems of youth and provide them with positive alternatives and a sense of connection to their communities.
Each participating installation submitted proposals defining their local needs and describing a plan to meet them. The 20 winning installations will serve as test projects for new ideas and as models for military bases around the world. The winners received up to $200,000 per year for a three-year period. Over the three years, DoD's investment in developing innovative programs in this area will be $6.4 million.
Family Center Programs. The department's 291 family centers continue to be the focal point for our basic social services and support networks for the military community, offering a host of education, prevention and social programs. In FY 1997, special emphasis will be placed on personal financial health and spouse employment assistance. The spouse employment programs will focus on helping job seekers find civilian sector jobs as the federal sector opportunities normally sought by military spouses dwindle.
Relocation and Transition Assistance Programs. Congress has directed the department to report on phasing out our relocation and transition assistance programs and on what, if any, residual funding is required. This report is being prepared; however, we do not view the basic functions of either of these programs as temporary.
The relocation program provides education and assistance to the more than one-third of our force that relocates each year. It has been and continues to be integral to our family center network and provides benefits far beyond its annual $18 million cost.
Equally as important, transition assistance to the almost 300,000 service members who leave the military each year remains a priority. The Defense Outplacement Referral System, a resume data base referral system linking private sector employers to departing service members and spouses, had over 69,000 personnel and 13,431 employers registered in 1995. The Transition Bulletin Board, an automated system that allows employers to list actual job openings that service members at military installations worldwide can see, had 47,343 job openings and business opportunities listed in 1995. These programs help service members find jobs more quickly and account for a cost avoidance of $152 million annually that would have to be spent for unemployment compensation.
While we cannot phase out our important relocation and transition programs, we are looking at innovative strategies for making them more affordable in the future.
Morale, Welfare and Recreation Programs. The Department of Defense provides morale, welfare and recreation programs -- recreation and youth centers, libraries, sports and athletic programs -- to provide a wholesome community for our military members and their families. MWR programs also include revenue-generating activities such as bowling centers and golf courses, which not only provide recreational opportunities but also generate profits used to improve other community MWR programs. The programs and activities offered at our installations worldwide contribute to physical fitness and esprit de corps and aid in recruitment and retention of personnel.
During the last two years, the department has improved and updated MWR programs. Beginning in FY 1996, we increased funding to make service appropriations for these vital programs more consistent. Funds were targeted for improvements in Marine Corps and Army programs.
For FY 1997, the Navy has budgeted funds to improve fitness centers and libraries afloat, an action that will improve quality of life aboard over 350 ships. As a result of a finding from the quality of life task force, we will be examining the programs and facilities we provide for physical fitness on our installations and working with the military departments to address shortcomings.
Off-Duty Voluntary Education Programs. The department has historically spent about $220 million annually to support its very popular off-duty continuing education programs. About one-third of the active force participates in these programs, earning thousands of associate, bachelors and masters degrees from nationally accredited colleges and universities. The services provide their members with about $135 million in tuition assistance annually. Current initiatives include connecting all education centers to the Internet and expanding options for service members to take courses and complete degrees using distance education opportunities.
DoD Education Activity. In FY 1997, we project that we will provide education to some 87,000 students in our DoD Dependents' School System overseas and 33,000 through our DoD Domestic Dependent Elementary and Secondary Schools stateside. Additionally, we have oversight responsibilities and fiscal support of eight special contractual arrangements with local education agencies in five states and Guam, serving an additional 6,000 students.
During the past year, we have developed an aggressive strategic plan to support continued quality and integrate the President's National Education Goals into our system. We have also integrated a technology initiative aimed at improving staff and student performance into the 21st century. We have added $7.5 million to the DoD Education Activity technology plan to develop the president's technology initiative, which moves toward providing greater access to computers in classrooms, connects schools to the information superhighway, develops effective subject area curriculum software and develops teacher ability to help students use and learn through technology.
While we have been undergoing a tremendous amount of turbulence within our system over the past two years, we have successfully minimized any adverse effects on children's education. Students at our schools consistently scored eight to 19 percentile points above the national average in all Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills and American College Test areas over the past school year.
We project that we will complete most of our school closures and realignments in Europe and the Pacific by the end of this year.
Commissaries and Exchanges. The department continues to support our commissary system as an important element of the military nonpay compensation package and a critical aspect of quality of life. Secretary Perry remains firm that this benefit not be eroded.
Commissaries enhance income through savings of about 20 to 25 percent on purchases of food and household items for the military member and family. For those stationed overseas, commissaries are often the only source of American products and, in isolated or remote areas, the only convenient source of groceries. We continue to work toward greater efficiencies in these stores. The Defense Commissary Agency recently received the Hammer Award, recognizing significant innovations. It has also been selected as a candidate for the National Performance Review Performance-Based Organization status.
Exchanges continue to support our service members and their families by providing goods and services to them at affordable prices. The exchanges also generate revenues that fund recreational activities. During the past year, the department took a hard look at policies that describe where and when we can operate exchanges and commissaries. As a result, we have begun to allow certain exchange operations and commissaries on those installations affected by closure or realignment where a significant number of active duty service members remain.
Recognizing that members of the reserve component could also lose their exchanges and commissaries as installations closed or realigned, we opened up a new BXMart at Homestead Air Force Reserve Base in Florida. We will establish future test BXMarts only where programs indicate a profitable outcome.
Advanced weapons give U.S. armed forces tremendous advantages, but our national security ultimately relies on the quality and commitment of the men and women who serve in uniform and the civilian employees who support them. As the backbone of U.S. national security strategy, America's armed forces are ready today to carry out this strategy. To maintain that status, the Defense Department will continue to place its emphasis on quality people, quality training and quality of life.
The programs I have detailed to you in this statement are aimed toward these three goals, and we ask you to support them. With the continued assistance of this subcommittee and the Congress, we will ensure that the U.S. armed forces remain the best in the world.
Published for internal information by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), Washington, D.C. Parenthetical entries are speaker/author notes; bracketed entries are editorial notes. This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission. Defense Issues is available on the Internet via the World Wide Web at http://www.defenselink.mil/speeches/index.html.