Washington Think Tanks Make Big Push for Defense Reforms

By Jon Harper

Defense analysts from 15 think tanks across the political spectrum have joined forces to push lawmakers and the Pentagon to implement sweeping reforms that would free up money to invest in modernization and readiness.

Nearly 40 experts recently signed an open letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter and key congressional committee leaders calling for changes in military compensation, cuts in Defense Department infrastructure, and rebalancing the civilian workforce.

“Those of us who have joined together in support of these efforts may differ on many issues, but we are unified in our agreement on the need to pursue long-overdue defense and institutional reforms,” they wrote in the undated letter. “Failure to pursue these changes could come at great cost, increasing the chance that our service men and women will be unprepared for future challenges.”

Seven of the analysts who signed the letter took their message to Capitol Hill May 14, where they hosted an open conference to discuss their ideas.

One of the panelists, Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute, referred to their joint effort as the think tanks' "nuclear option."

A key focus of the proposed reforms is to rein in personnel costs by adjusting military benefits. Defense Department retirement pay and healthcare expenditures increased 107 percent and 74 percent, respectively, between 2001 and 2012, according to charts provided by the analysts. Pentagon leaders have warned that rising personnel costs are unsustainable and will eat into important modernization and readiness programs in the years ahead.

To tackle the problem, the analysts endorsed reform efforts by the congressionally chartered Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, which earlier this year proposed the creation of a 401k-like retirement system for troops and the use of commercial health plans for those currently enrolled in TRICARE.

Another major proposal floated by the panelists was the need for another round of Base Realignment and Closure, also known as BRAC.  It has been 10 years since the most recent iteration of BRAC, and the Defense Department estimates that it has about 20 percent excess infrastructure in the United States.

Ryan Crotty of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Pentagon will spend at least $40 billion this year on infrastructure-related costs. Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, said the Defense Department should present Congress a detailed list of unnecessary facilities to better make its case for BRAC.

Noting the growth of the civilian workforce (both DoD civilians and contractors) since 2001, analysts said the Pentagon should consider downsizing.

Despite the widespread agreement among defense analysts on the need for reforms, there are major political obstacles.

Although the House Armed Services Committee recently endorsed the retirement system proposal in its version of the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, it declined to authorize major changes to the military healthcare system — a lightning rod issue among veterans service organizations. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who spoke at the conference, said the Senate Armed Services

Committee is taking a similar approach in its version of the NDAA.

Lawmakers also declined to authorize another round of BRAC, which could eliminate jobs in their districts.

“Keep pushing us” on reforms, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told the panelists. “Be a little understanding, too, because we live in the real world and people have constituencies to represent and a variety of motives.”

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget

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