Officials Brief Senators on Personnel Budget Issues
By Terri Moon Cronk
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Apr. 19, 2013 Senior Defense Department officials outlined for a congressional panel this week what President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2014 defense budget request means for personnel programs for the active force, National Guard, reserves and civilian personnel.
Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee’s personnel subcommittee were:
-- Jessica L. Wright, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness;
-- Frederick E. Vollrath, acting assistant secretary of defense for readiness and force management;
-- Richard O. Wightman Jr., acting assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs; and
-- Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of Defense for health affairs and director of TRICARE Management Activity.
“The president’s plan implements and deepens the commitment to the new strategy, which meets [the Defense Department’s] needs in a complex security environment,” Wright said. The … budget request includes $137.1 billion for military personnel and $49.4 billion for military medical care, which add up to about a third of the base budget request, she added.
Wright also noted that the budget proposal was assembled in the face of “extraordinary” fiscal and budget uncertainty.
The March 1 sequestration order called for a nearly $41 billion reduction in DOD’s [fiscal] 2013 budget in the middle of the fiscal year, and the department faces substantial additional cuts of about $52 billion per year in fiscal 2014 and beyond, Wright said. Fiscal 2013’s sequestration cuts would also have major effects in fiscal 2014, she added.
But despite those challenges, Wright said, it’s possible to sustain “for generations to come” the all-volunteer force that has a proven record of unprecedented success in operations around the world.
“Our people are the department’s greatest assets, and we will continue to be the most powerful military force in the world by building and sustaining this extraordinary total force,” she said. “We must build the most appropriate total force by actively recruiting and retaining the best people for the mission with the appropriate level of compensation and benefits. Building and sustaining the right balance also requires [ensuring] constant vigilance of readiness.”
Wright outlined a “reflection of efforts” to better build, support and transition service members, and noted recent military policy changes and accomplishments, such as women in combat units and same-sex partner benefits. She also presented an overview of programs in sexual assault prevention and response, suicide prevention, tuition assistance, transition assistance and military overseas voting.
Vollrath told the senators that as DOD transitions from more than a decade of war, it is challenged to manage a total force with significantly reduced funding while maintaining operational readiness and capability.
“Potential furloughs, a current hiring freeze and reduced end-strength will create additional challenges and reinforce the need take a hard look at our programs and priorities and implement reforms and initiatives that achieve … maintaining operational readiness during this period of fiscal uncertainty,” he said.
U.S. forces are globally postured to conduct counterterrorism, stability and deterrence operations, maintain a stabilizing presence, conduct training to enhance national security relationships, and provide crisis response to protect U.S. interests, Vollrath said.
“Regrettably, the impact of sequestration will likely reduce readiness,” he added, “through reductions in maintenance, operations and training, and indirectly through effects on the accessions and training for personnel and the production pipeline for equipment. This is especially worrisome, as it may take years to recognize the shortfall, and even longer to mitigate or correct.”
Vollrath said DOD’s specific concerns include managing stress on the force, the return to full-spectrum training, ongoing operations preparation, resetting equipment, and budget austerity and uncertainty.
“A high operational tempo over the past decade, coupled with the recent budget cuts, magnified the risk of an imposed mismatch between the size of our military force and the funding required to maintain readiness,” he said. In the next year, DOD will identify elements such as critical readiness deficiencies and risks, and identify and put in place mitigation options, he added.
Vollrath said the budgetary challenges that face DOD include active-duty recruiting and retention to sustaining the ROTC, military pay and benefits, basic housing and family programs.
As part of total force management, DOD is dedicated to a mix of active-duty service members and reservists, civilians and contracted services to give commanders the capabilities and readiness they require, he said.
“We will ensure that our total force is sized and shaped to perform the functions and activities necessary to enable our capabilities and achieve our missions,” Vollrath said.
DOD’s use of the reserve component over the last decade has created a “new normal,” and while a volatile international security environment persists, a constrained DOD budget for the foreseeable future will put more burdens on training, equipping, recruiting and retaining the total force in fiscal 2014 and beyond, Wightman told the subcommittee.
“The reserve component as part of the operational total force makes business sense” as a force multiplier to the active-duty force, he added.
Wightman told the panel that reserve recruitment continues to grow, and retention remains a high priority. “Success in recruiting is essential to maintain the strength necessary for the Reserve Components to achieve their assigned missions,” he said.
Wightman pointed out that DOD’s Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve office has a mission that is “particularly relevant in an era of increased reliance on the reserve component to conduct worldwide combat operations and provide humanitarian response.” But because of sequestration, he added, the awareness of vital ESGR programs for Guardsmen and reservists might decrease, in addition to ESGR’s efforts to ensure employers and their reserve component employees are aware of their rights and responsibilities under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.
Wightman also emphasized the need for continued medical collaboration between DOD and the Veterans Affairs Department to fulfill “sacred responsibility of caring for those who have fought for our country,” he said.
“We need to reach an even deeper level of cooperation to better meet the needs of those who have served our nation in uniform, especially our wounded warriors,” he said. “It is a great priority for [personnel and readiness] to continue to strive to achieve our joint vision of a seamless ‘single system experience of lifetime services.’”
DOD and VA, he added, have made many important changes to the system of care for wounded warriors, service members, veterans and their families. “But clearly, there is considerably more work to be done, particularly to meet the needs of the post-9/11 generation of warriors,” he said.
Woodson told the senators that the health and medical readiness for service members’ deployment is a top priority, and he emphasized the importance of wounded warrior care. “We have a special obligation to our wounded warriors,” he added, “and their care will continue uninterrupted regardless of any fiscal challenges.”
But Woodson acknowledged that rising costs of the TRICARE health care plan, which began in 1996, are a serious challenge for DOD.
“Health care costs have grown substantially since 1996, while retirees’ families’ out-of-pocket expenses -- including enrollment fees, deductibles and cost shares -- [have] only grown by 30 to 40 percent,” he said.
DOD officials want to rebalance the cost share for working-age military retirees and make other cost-saving changes in the fiscal 2014 budget, he added. And even with those cost-saving adjustments, he added, TRICARE will remain one of the best medical benefits in the United States.
Woodson added that a series of strategic price reduction initiatives is underway that will save DOD about $60 million a year, and the department also is cutting administrative overhead costs in the Military Health System by streamlining processes, reducing unnecessary reports, studies and commissions, and initiating other actions that will result in more than $200 million in reduced personnel and contract costs each year.
As the hearing neared its end, Wightman summarized the Pentagon’s position.
“We must be vigilant in our efforts and resources to ensure that we provide all the necessary recruiting, training, support and transition tools for success,” he said. “The department is committed to our service members’ success. Whether it is on the battlefield, at home with their families, or after they have faithfully concluded their military service, we are committed to preparing service members for whatever challenges they may face from warrior to veteran. They deserve no less.”