The Realities of the FY14 Sequester

Currently there’s talk on Capitol Hill regarding increased defense cutbacks for the upcoming fiscal year.   It seems that when most Americans hear this, they think to themselves ‘That’s too bad, more troop cuts…’, and move on with their business.  While some attention has been given to the effects of any increased cuts to troop strength, it frankly has not gained a significant foothold in the interest of everyday Americans.  However there is more to the story than just cutting numbers; it is the sub-bullets on the talking points that will significantly affect the day to day life of virtually everyone wearing the uniform.  And this needs to be seen.

Let me first state that in a nation that is tightening its belt, the Department of Defense should not be given a pass and should do its share.  Also on the table are several options for cuts that could be considered appropriate for doing one’s part, such as cutting the $1.6 billion dollar subsidy for US-based commissaries (grocery stores on military bases).  While the tax-free and somewhat discounted perk is nice to be sure, when times are tough, members of the military can probably live with shopping at their local Walmart like everyone else.

However there are several other proposals that seem insignificant at first glance, but will significantly affect members of the military’s careers as a whole; ones that are not really understood or considered by those not wearing the uniform.  In particular, one of the ideas currently being tossed around is to potentially freeze promotions and permanent change of station (PCS) moves.  Although in brief that sounds like a painless and common-sense move, such actions could have some of the most severe implications of all the sequestration cuts.

Most can quickly reason why military members would not be very accepting about promotion freezes.  However, let me spell out what exactly that entails and means for your average person in uniform.  The military does not operate on a reward system of bonuses or other incentives like those found more commonly in the civilian sector.  With the exception of the Army’s “Broadening Opportunity Programs” for example (the other services have similar programs), which are graduate degree programs and/or prestigious fellowships that are available almost exclusively to officers and only given to about fifty total people each year across the entire Army, there is no other incentive other than early promotion.  And even then, advanced promotion is usually limited to about one year ahead of one’s peers (which is a whole other blog post in and of itself…).

Therefore, if promotions are frozen, any incentive to go above and beyond has completely been taken out of the equation.  What would be the point?  Why would a service member want to devote weekends or off-duty hours away from loved ones, or even to volunteer for that next deployment?  What good would all that do compared to the next guy who just does the minimum?

Any perhaps even more detrimentally, any service member who has already dedicated years of service (anywhere from one to even twenty-five, including combat or other deployments) trying to do that above and beyond to get ahead has just had that wiped away in an instant.  Imagine if an employee had a production incentive that would give him or her a large bonus at the end of the year, and he or she had in fact met those milestones, only to have her boss come bonus-check day say “Times are tough right now, never mind.”

Add on top of that the freezing of those in uniform in their current duty locations.  That also does not sound like too bad of an idea, almost a no-brainer.  However in the military, certain key jobs are required for career progression.  Other jobs such as training or recruiting are designed to broaden service members, giving them increased experience that again, makes them competitive for the only incentive they have: promotion.  So a PCS or location freeze, even if temporary, will not only likewise and further affect a service member’s ability to compete for advanced promotion, it will have a counter-effect by building up the pool of those eligible for new assignments and promotions, ultimately making competition steeper and likely setting back service members by years.  And in the military, several years means different ranks, and a different rank equals a significant and permanent difference in monthly retirement funds.

Undoubtedly those that chose to put on the uniform do so out of a desire to serve the country that they love.  However the US military needs more than just patriotic recruits.  It needs the best and brightest to continue to wear the uniform after their initial enlistment expires, to create and (most importantly) sustain a core of senior leadership.  This is an absolute must if the military services are to even function at a basic level, let alone fight and win conflicts.  Should these types of cuts actually go into place, the already-small incentives for retention will be gone, and along with it will likely go the best we have in uniform, and therefore our ability to ultimately defend this great nation to the best of our ability.

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