This time last year the Air Force unveiled a plan to cut Air National Guard strength by 5,100 members along with more than 200 Guard aircraft. They touted this as a reasonable efficiency, in part because Guard squadrons cost more to operate than active duty squadrons.
That argument was dead wrong, says Maj. Gen. Arnold L. Punaro, a retired Marine Corps reservist and chairman of the Reserve Forces Policy Board. In a new report, the advisory board he leads urges the Department of Defense to stop ignoring the true and increasingly "unsustainable" costs of active duty forces.
The board said it doesn't seek through its arguments to spare reserve components at the expense of active forces as forces draw down. But the kind of flawed cost data the Air Force used for cutting the Air National Guard is symptomatic of a larger problem for the entire Department of Defense: Unacknowledged personnel costs that threaten the volunteer force.
As described by Punaro in a phone interview, the Air Force looked primarily at the higher pay of Air National Guard units, with personnel generally older and more experienced, and concluded their costs to be higher than for active forces.
It was a pattern Punaro recognized.
Soon after he became chairman of the reserve advisory board late in 2011, he said, he began fielding queries from the most senior Defense civilians and military officers asking why the Guard and Reserve was so expensive.
"I would say, 'Who's telling you that?' They'd recite some spiel," Punaro said, "and I would say, 'Let me ask you a question: How many family housing units, childcare centers, dependent schools, commissaries, barracks, military hospitals or tactical equipment shops have we built to support the 850,000 Guard and Reserve personnel who have been mobilized since 9/11?' And of course the answer is zero."
In truth, reserve component members, when not activated, cost less than a third of active duty counterparts given disparities in health coverage, base housing or allowances, future retired pay, commissary subsides, dependent schools and other family support and quality-of-life programs.
The board's report argues that, unlike defense contractors bidding to build ships or combat vehicles, Defense policy makers don't have to account for "fully burdened and life-cycle costs" of personnel, even though military personnel costs have reached $250 billion a year or about half the entire defense budget.
The report claims the "fully-burdened per capita" cost to the government of an active duty member is $108,307 in pay and benefits, a figure usually calculated 20 percent higher because it includes their health care, dependent education, housing and commissaries. The equivalent per capita cost of reserve component members is $34,272, with 30 percent of that linked health care improvements under TRICARE Reserve Select.
The report and Punaro stress that their push for better methods of cost accounting is not intended to protect reserve components as defense budgets shrink. But every section of the report makes clear the Reserve and Guard leave a lighter footprint on budgets than does the heavier boot of active forces when full costs are shown.
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: email@example.com