Pay reform eyed to support reserve

By Tom Philpott

To address the strain on U.S. forces, Congress and the Department of Defense formally should endorse the concept an “operational reserve” that would be trained and supported to fight, on rotational basis, alongside active forces in the global war on terrorism and any future conflict.

But for an operational reserve to succeed there must be sweeping reforms made to Cold War-era pay, retirement and promotion laws and policies for both active forces and reserve components.

Those are two key conclusions of the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves, which delivered its 368-page final report last week after more than two years of study.

In an interview, commission chairman Arnold L. Punaro, a retired Marine Corps Reserve major general, said he and other commissioners were skeptical when the concept of an operational reserve was raised as the panel began its work.

“Because I knew what a profound change this was,” he said.

But Punaro said the commission soon recognized that the Reserve and National Guard were being tasked like an operational reserve without Congress or Defense officials ever having discussed the concept or making the bold and systemic changes needed to make the concept work.

Congress since 2002 has enacted 168 separate pieces of legislation to address the needs of reserve forces, half of them initiated by DoD. But this approach has been timid, incremental and ineffective, the commission said.

“If all those 168 changes had the desired effect, why is it that the National Guard today is less ready than it was when we issued our (interim) March 1 report?,” Punaro asked. “It’s a patchwork. If you’re going to have a true operational Guard and Reserve — and we believe there’s a compelling case in favor — you’ve got to make these fundamental changes.”

For example, the commission concludes, an operational reserve cannot be sustained relying on compensation and promotion systems developed during the Cold War for an active force of more than 2 million and strategic reserve components that were expected to be mobilized very infrequently.

Punaro said it is time to heed the advice of every recent pay study, and many others extending back 40 years to when the all-volunteer military first was conceived. These include:

• Phase out the 20-year military retirement system. Punaro said it delivers benefits only to a small fraction of the force (15 percent of enlisted members) while others leave with no portable retirement benefit. It should be replaced by a plan offering vesting after 10 years; government contributions to a Thrift Savings Plan; new pay gates to encourage longer careers and annuities delayed until age 57 to 62 depending on years served.

• Replacement of the up-or-out promotion system, which forces too many experienced members to leave prematurely. Promotions should be regulated by a less rigid “competency-based” system.

• Replacement of the time-in-grade military pay table, which rewards longevity. A new pay system should emphasize skill level and performance.

Punaro and Commissioner Patricia L. Lewis, who led the panel’s review of compensation issues, said the commission wants all current service members “grandfathered” from any change to retirement.

During a five-year transition period, new entrants would be given the choice of staying under the current system or shifting to the more modern alternative.

“We think this five-year evaluation period, and the option to look at a different sort of approach, is so critical,” said Lewis, a former senior staff member the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at:
milupdate@aol.com