Military Pay: Payroll Is Bloating the Defense Budget, It's Time to Consider Pay Cuts

An article on Military.com raises the question of whether we overpay members of our military. As a vet, you'd probably assume that I'm dead set against cutting military pay. You'd be wrong.

Payroll is, like in most organizations, a huge chunk of the miilitary's annual budget. According to militarypaychart.us, the Army's payroll for 2012 was $44.205 billion. That's officer and enlisted pay combined. For 2013, the Army's projected budget is $43.925 billion, a slight overall reduction. Here's the thing, officer pay for 2013 is projected to increase very slightly, leaving the enlisted fighters to take up the entire payroll reduction and then some.

This doesn't mean enlisted folks will get paid any less as individuals. What it means is that there will be fewer enlisted folks. Most of the officers will stick around and continue to enjoy longevity pay increases. Wait a minute, you should be saying to yourself (if not out loud), don't the enlisted guys do all the actual work? Why yes, yes they do. I'm not suggesting that the military doesn't need officers, but if you're going to cut back on the force, I'd suggest cutting back on overhead, not production.

This is why it's essential that the military look at cutting pay. You can't keep the same number of enlisted soldiers and sailors on duty and cut the payroll at the same time. Something has to give. Cutting the number of officers would be a good start, but you've got to have some leadership; you can't eliminate the entire officer corps. Which means you've got to consider other options.

As clearly sympathetic to enlisted folks as I am, you may be wondering how I could possibly consider cutting their pay. Well, here's the deal. They get paid better than many of you. The Army uses this fact as a recruiting tool (see an example here).

A corporal in the Army (E-4, a junior rank to which virtually every single enlisted solider rises within 2 years) earns $27,200 in base pay after 4 years of service. That's not a lot of money, but consider that the Army also provides housing and food, work clothes (more on that shortly), and health care. So, a single E4 in the Army has virtually no expenses. This is why barracks parking lots are jammed full of stylish new cars and also why the streets leading into any major military installation are lined with dealers of both new and used cars. Also tattoo parlors and strip clubs. And pawn shops. (Young enlisted troops are notoriously bad money managers, so pawn shops and pay day lenders are two of the five pillars of commerce in any military town.)

Many soldiers are eligible for on-post/on-base housing too, although the Army at least is leaning toward contracting out family quarters, so it's now treated pretty much like off-post housing. In other words, the Army gives you an allowance for rent and you pay your landlord with the money. For an E4, regardless of time served, that housing allowance is about $14,000 per year but varies on location. It can be much higher but is unlikely to be much lower. The basic monthly rates differ depending on your marital status: $588 for single soldiers who choose not to live in barracks and $784 for married soldiers, with or without kids. Is that enough to rent a house or apartment? Nope. But, does your employer give you money for rent on top of your monthly pay? Mine doesn't. 

One very unique allowance is called "BAH Diff." It's a differential housing allowance for formerly married soldiers with child support obligations. In other words, the Army basically pays child support for many divorced soldiers. This probably amounts to a nice chunk of the budget because the military is tough on marriages. I have long believed that military service should be limited to unmarried individuals not because we're paying too much child support for divorced soldiers but because, even in peacetime, the miltary is simply no place to raise a family. (I'm perfectly happy to discuss this separately and may get around to writing about it later.)

There is a raft of other incentive pay, to include combat pay, jump pay, and flight pay. There's also an annual clothing allowance; for an E4 with 4 years in service this amounts to over $440 per year. Subsistence allowance (meals) for enlisted personnel is currently $348 per month.

All told, an E4 brings in around $50k per year. Making E4 requires no college education and no advanced military training beyond basic and initial job training, which is often cursory at best. I'm not knocking enlisted ranks, but facts are facts. You don't have to be a highly trained fighting machine to be an E4. You've just got to have a super-human ability to deal with bullshit, marginally qualified superiors, and some physical discomfort. In other words, it's very much like many civilian jobs except that you cannot just walk in one day and tell the boss to shove it.

Getting shot at is a risk but only if you're deployed. The civilian job pay comparison above compares the pay of a civilian cop and a military cop. I'm no big fan of cops, but many, if not most, civilian cops risk life and limb every day in their own home towns. It's worth asking which deserves better pay. Of course this depends largely on your opinion of U.S. military intervention overseas (which also costs a LOT of money and is sometimes truly worth it).

Post Script:

There's another area where the military could save a few million without affecting readiness one iota: uniforms.

I've long argued that the Army wastes hundreds of thousands of dollars every year on dress uniforms. Every single enlistee gets one upon graduation and every one of these uniforms costs the Army approximately $300.00. Most soldiers will never wear this uniform for anything other than monthly inspections. I wore my dress uniform once and only once in four years. Dress uniforms should be issued on an as needed basis; most enlisted soldiers will never need one.

The Army has also spent billions of dollars changing uniforms. The current green dress uniform is now being phased out in favor of a new dress blue. The Advanced Combat Uniform (ACU) is also being phased out after a mere 8 years because it doesn't work. The Physical Training (PT) uniform has been changed at least a few times in recent years. Last year, the beret was dumped as the standard headgear in favor of the patrol cap which it replaced just 10 years ago (a stupid and divisive move - the beret is an utterly useless piece of headgear which looks awful when worn incorrectly, as it often is). Each time the Army changes uniforms, billions of dollars are involved and the change is not always for the better.