Will an Across-the-Board Pay Raise Stop the Personnel Exodus?

September 21, 1999

Comment: #320
Discussion Thread:  #s 115, 126, 127, 129, 134, 136, 149, 152, 155, 160, 161, 195, 206, 233, 238, 240, 242, 245, 249, 283, 303

Why are people leaving the military in such alarming numbers?

This is by far the most important readiness problem now facing the U.S. military.

Leadership in the Pentagon and on Capital Hill want the taxpayer to believe the retention problems can be solved by the time-honored expedient of throwing money at the problem. They want to increase pay and benefits across the board. The elite would have us believe people join and stay in the military for financial reasons rather than for a chance to experience the loftier ideals of duty, service, honor, and country. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many other factors are at work, including widespread dissatisfaction with leadership. New readers may find the discussion thread helpful in understanding the larger dimensions of the retention problem.

As these earlier messages show, the retention problem has been growing for several years. In fact, email from the field has been a far better early warning indicator than the statistics produced by the Defense Department. Two years ago, on August 18, 1997, for example, George Wilson, the dean of the defense reporters, wrote in the Navy Times that the Internet is awash with back-channel e-mail traffic documenting the mounting anger and frustration of troops in the field.

I have seen much of this traffic over the years, and although it does not comprise a scientific sample, it does document the first-hand experience of soldiers and airmen charged with carrying out the Defense Department's mission. The troops speak of shortages of spare parts and engines, aging equipment, rising rates of cannibalization, morale-busting "workarounds," increased workloads, longer hours, decreased opportunities for realistic training, under-strength units, decaying infrastructure (one colonel wrote that he uses crack sealant to keep his disintegrating airport parking ramp from washing away in thunder storms), excessive deployments, and more frequent family separations than during the Cold War. Many older officers are retiring after their squadron or battalion command tours, leaving a growing gap in the ranks of experienced post-command colonels and Navy captains. Junior officers and enlisted men are turning down promotions, refusing assignments to prestigious schools, and leaving the military in droves.

Most alarming, in my view, is a growing breakdown of trust between senior and junior officers. The seniors say readiness and people are the Defense Department's top priority, yet they spend billions to buy unneeded Cold War weapons, while basic needs in the field go unmet. Not surprisingly, a growing number of junior officers now believe their seniors will sell them out rather than risk their careers by stepping up to the hard decisions ... and they are voting with their feet. Many junior officers view attempts to retain them with lucrative bonuses as bribes.

As noted above, this information is not based a scientifically structured sample, and many in Versailles like to dismiss email as "anecdotal," preferring to rely on the "fell-good" statistics produced by the big green machine.

Senator Domenici asked the General Accounting Office (GAO) to make an independent examination of these readiness problems in a more scientific manner. That report is now out (GAO/NSIAD 99-197BR, September 15, 1999 -- but is not posted yet on the internet).

This GAO report appears to confirm the picture painted by the email. GAO analysts surveyed 1,000 officers and enlisted members. Of those surveyed, 40% of the officers and 62% of the enlisted expressed dissatisfaction with the military and are intending to punch out. But the Press Release below states that dissatisfaction has less to do with money than the courtiers would have us believe. Factors other than pay were more important shapers of dissatisfaction.

A friend on Capital Hill volunteered his assessment of the implications of this study. The Press release below is followed by that assessment. They speak for themselves.

----[Domenici Press Release]--------

(202) 224-7082
SEPTEMBER 20, 1999


  1. -- U.S. Senator Pete Domenici today aired his concerns that the retention of military personnel in the Armed Forces "may very well get worse before it gets better," citing a new study that finds a majority of enlisted personnel are dissatisfied with the military and intend to leave the service.

  2. General Accounting Office (GAO) has released "Military Personnel: Perspectives of Surveyed Service Members in Retention Critical Specialties," the report on a study requested by Domenici and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) on the military personnel retention issue.

  3. GAO surveyed 1,000 service members in "retention critical military specialties." It found that 40 percent of officers and 62 percent of enlisted personnel say they are dissatisfied and intend to leave military service.

  4. retention problem continues despite increases in military pay and pension changes which Congress has made based on recommendations by President Clinton and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The reason for this is simple. Pay and pension are important, however they are hardly the whole story; they are not even most of the story," Domenici said.

  5. Findings of the study include:

  • No single factor is driving the high level of dissatisfaction. A variety of factors are causing the problems.

  • 62 percent of the factors driving dissatisfaction involve "work circumstances," such as unavailability of spare parts and equipment, inadequate personnel levels, high deployment rates, and little time with family and friends. Only 23 percent of the factors driving dissatisfaction involve pay and pensions.

  • While both officers and enlisted personnel cited retirement pay as something they are dissatisfied with, this complaint may result in some part from their being told by the JCS -- in the absence of a confirming study--that pensions since 1986 are inadequate and should be increased.

  • 77 percent of officers state they are financially comfortable; however, only 40 percent of enlisted agreed. Base pay is an issue for enlisted, but it is much less so for officers.

A Senate Appropriations Committee member, said that because the GAO study is only now concluded, it is too late for Congress to rewrite its defense authorization and appropriations bills for FY 2000. However, the implications of the study will be a prime focus for him and other senior members of Congress in the coming months, especially if the implications of GAO's study become apparent and the retention crisis continues or worsens.

-------------[End Domenici Press Release]------

---------[Begin Congressional Staffer's Assessment]-----

"Despite the GAO findings that other factors are more important to retention than across-the-board pay increases and pension changes, Congress is about to endorse in the FY 2000 DoD Authorization Conference Report that recommends such across-the-board increases. To make matters worse, Congress will make no distinction between officers and enlisted ranks. These measures will cost $13.7 billion over 5 years; $40.2 billion over ten. DoD has been asked what part of these costs are for pay raises to the ranks of O-5 (Lt Col/Commander), but DoD has not yet responded.

Also, according to a recent Army Times article, enlisted personnel have noted with derision that DoD's "pay table reform" rewards some officers significantly more than enlisted.

Based on the forgoing, it may be appropriate to conclude -

  1. Neither DoD's nor Congress's more costly increases in pay & pensions fully responds to the level and nature of dissatisfaction among service personnel, especially enlisted personnel, that GAO found.

  2. DoD may not be not over the hump of today's retention problems.

  3. The problems are very likely to remain until DoD's civilian and military leadership address more difficult and complex issues than just simple, but costly, pay and pensions. These include

  • the non-availability of spare parts, equipment, and personnel;

  • the frequency and nature of military deployments;

  • insufficient time with family and dependents;

Finally, leadership should address the all-important moral issues, such as leadership, esprit de corps in units, taking pride in military values and culture, and other intangibles."

----[End of Staffer's Comment]-----

Chuck Spinney

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