Commissaries face gravest threat

Tasked by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to find ways to preserve force readiness amid sharply falling budgets, his comptroller and the Joint Staff have asked the Defense Commissary Agency for a plan to close all stateside base grocery stores, say military resale community sources.

Tom PhilpottTime will tell if this is just the loudest warning shot yet fired by a department desperate for budget relief, or if stateside commissaries, still enormously popular with military families and retirees, are viewed by current military leaders as a costly relic burdening a financially stressed force.

Under Secretary of Defense Robert Hale, the department’s top financial adviser, and Air Force Lt. Gen. Mark F. Ramsay, director of force structure, resources and assessment for the Joint Staff, reportedly requested the plan in a meeting with military personnel policy and commissary officials.

It was to be briefed soon to Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Another high hurdle if the plan is to be included in the Obama administration’s fiscal 2015 defense budget request would be signoff by the Office of Management and Budget and the White House.

The military resale industry already has reminded Hagel in a letter that, at Camp Pendleton, Calif., Aug. 7, President Obama told Marines that closing commissaries is “not how a great nation should be treating its military and military families.”

Also, First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the vice president’s wife, have for several years led a nationwide initiative in support of military families, called Joining Forces.

It is hard to imagine them staying silent as action is taken to end prized discounted grocery shopping on base.

Commissaries rely on taxpayer subsidies of $1.4 billion a year to operate 247 stores worldwide.  They now face their gravest threat in decades because of the budget sequestration tool formula in the 2011 Budget Control Act, and Congress’ failure to replace it with a balanced debt-reduction deal.

Military leaders have testified often this year that they can’t roll back weapon programs or shrink the force fast enough to absorb in a balanced way $50 billion a year in cuts demanded from sequestration.

So operations, maintenance and modernization dollars are decimated to achieve near-term savings.  Training and readiness are plummeting, say the service chiefs.

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

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