The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff today urged senators to “grandfather” any changes Congress makes to the military retirement system.
The term refers to allowing changes to affect only service members who join the military on or after the effective date.
Testifying at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing alongside Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine H. Fox, Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr. discussed changes from the Bipartisan Budget Act to the military retirement system, slowing growth in Defense Department manpower costs and keeping faith with America’s troops and veterans.
“When I came into service as a young, aspiring fighter pilot, I didn't think I was very smart -- I didn't really know or understand what promises were being made to me,” Winnefeld said. “But I did feel like I was going to get 30 days of leave, I was going to be able to have my own personal health care covered, and that I was going to be able to retire at 20 years.”
Current and retired service members have those expectations, he said, so grandfathering any changes made through legislation would prevent a sense that they are not receiving what they were promised.
The Bipartisan Budget Act, passed on Jan. 15 and slated to take effect in December, caps the annual cost of living adjustment for working-age military retirees at 1 percent below inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index. The inflation adjustment would return to its full amount when a veteran reaches age 62. The omnibus bill exempts disabled veterans and survivors, medically retired personnel and Survivor Benefit Plan annuitants.
“The inclusion of the ‘CPI-minus-one’ provision has clearly led to considerable and understandable anxiety among those who are currently retired or who are planning for retirement,” Winnefeld said. “I want to make it clear that [Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey] and I, and the service chiefs and senior enlisted leaders, support grandfathering any changes to our military retirement structure.”
Dempsey has testified several times on this point, the admiral noted. “The current CPI-minus-one provision does not fit within that principle,” he added. Winnefeld said DOD leadership believes changes to the retirement plan, if appropriate, should be made only after a holistic look at the many variables involved in such a plan.
The vice chairman also clarified that the Pentagon isn’t seeking to cut service members’ pay, but noted military compensation continues to rise “at a time when our entire budget is under great pressure.”
“We are not advocating a cut in pay,” Winnefeld said. “We are trying to slow the growth of military compensation. The trajectory we have been on over the last decade, though necessary to address a deficit we were in, is not sustainable.”
Contrary to what some are reporting, he said, none of these proposals would reduce the take-home pay of anyone in uniform. For context, the vice chairman cited statistics showing military pay and compensation have increased by more than 80 percent since 2001, surpassing private-sector wage growth by nearly 40 percent.
Additionally, Winnefeld said, the Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation concluded that to attract and retain the best that America has to offer, military pay should equal around the 70th percentile of civilians with comparable education and experience. “But in 2000, mid-grade enlisted personnel only placed in the 50th percentile,” he added. “By 2009, our higher compensation trajectory enabled us to more than close this gap.”
In 2012, the QRMC reported the average enlisted compensation between the 85th and 90th percentile, understandably so during a decade of war, Winnefeld told the Senate panel. “While these percentile numbers are not a goal, they are an indicator that we can and should gradually place compensation on a more sustainable trajectory,” he said.
Winnefeld emphasized the importance of good stewardship over the resources with which American taxpayers have entrusted DOD to protect the nation.
“This means investing prudently to maintain the highest quality all-volunteer force, while simultaneously getting the best value for the capability, capacity and readiness that we need to win decisively in combat,” he said. “In the end, we believe the most important way we keep faith with the fantastic young men and women who volunteer to defend our nation is to only send them into combat with the best possible training and equipment we can provide. Controlling compensation growth in a tough budget environment will help us do just that.”
(Follow Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone Marshall on Twitter: @MarshallAFPS)