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Draft report touts Reserves as bargain

Pentagon analysis likely to fuel debate over force mix

May. 20, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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The Defense Department is preparing to send a controversial report to Congress that explains in detail how Reserve-component troops are substantially cheaper than active-duty members — an official analysis that is likely to fuel a growing debate about the future shape of the all-volunteer force.

Based on a two-year study conducted within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the report marks the military’s first attempt to provide an itemized cost for the active and Reserve components in an effort to help determine what mix of forces can provide the most efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

According to a draft copy of the report obtained by Military Times, the Pentagon analysis concludes that Guard and Reserve troops not only are cheaper when in drilling status but also when fully mobilized, in part because their overall compensation is lower when taking into account noncash benefits such as retirement accrual and health care.

Moreover, the overall costs for outfitting units with reservists are lower because part-time troops do not tap many military perks such as family housing, DoD schools, installation-based family support and the moving stipends that active-duty troops get every few years when they are reassigned, according to the draft report.

For example, an Air Force master sergeant from the active component costs taxpayers a total of $129,000 per year, while an Air Force Reserve master sergeant mobilized for a full year costs $107,000, according to the report.

Costs are only one factor in decisions about force mix, the report notes. Critics of the Reserves say they take months to mobilize and ultimately are not as well-trained as the full-time career force.

Nevertheless, the data support the claims Reserve-component advocates have made for years — that the Guard and Reserves offer taxpayers a bargain for building up national security capabilities.

The Pentagon’s study could affect political debates about military budget priorities. It comes at a time when the services are preparing for a new round of budget cuts, and Army and Air Force leaders have suggested their Reserve components should bear the brunt. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have criticized those plans.

The report’s underlying data come from the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, or CAPE, the Pentagon’s internal directorate that focuses on the budgetary aspects of national security programs, according to officials familiar with the report.

CAPE “is the impartial referee for costing and force analysis for the entire department,” said one congressional staffer who is familiar with the report. “Do I think this study will make a huge splash? Absolutely.”

The Pentagon disavowed the draft copy obtained by Military Times, dated April 26, 2013.

“The draft report was released prematurely and there are some inaccuracies; the department does not stand by it,” said DoD spokeswoman Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins. “We cannot comment on the report prior to the final version being completed and sent to Congress.”

But a Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the data appear finalized even if the language that fleshes out the 34-page report may undergo further revisions. Congress passed a law in 2011 requiring DoD to draw up the analysis, but it remains unclear when an official version will be finalized and released publicly.

The military has about 1.4 million active-duty troops and an additional 800,000-plus troops in the Guard and Reserves.

The report does not draw any broad conclusions about the services’ individual decisions on force mix. The financial calculation varies for every unit depending on its manning, equipment and training requirements. For example, cost comparisons for infantry brigades involve distinctly different numbers than for fighter squadrons.

“Because the general considerations vary widely by unit type, it is difficult to define a one-size-fits-all set of rules for determining [active/Reserve] mix,” the report notes.

A key variable in the cost analysis is how often units deploy. The higher the operational tempo, the more cost-effective the active component appears to be.

The Pentagon report pencils in specific policies on deployment-to-dwell time ratios. For the active component, that’s considered to be maximized at a 1-to-2 ratio, meaning troops spend might spend one year deployed and be at home for two. For the Reserve component, that is typically a 1-to-5 ratio; reservists can expect to spend five years at home for each year they are ordered to mobilize and deploy.

Questions about force mix are drawing increased attention from Congress. It tends to closely scrutinize issues affecting the Reserve components, a significant presence in every state and many individual congressional districts.

Last year, after the Air Force proposed cutting the Air National Guard by 5,100 airmen and more than 200 aircraft, outraged lawmakers ordered those plans on hold and created a commission to closely study the issue.

Army leaders recently said the current budget crunch will force them to crop another 100,000 soldiers from the total force, and preliminary plans call for taking about 80,000 from the Reserve components. The Army also recently canceled mobilization plans for 41 Reserve-component units and said active-duty troops would fulfill missions as part of a short-term budget-cutting effort.

No one suggests the entire military should transform itself into a Reserve-based entity. Experts caution that an effective Reserve component requires an institutional core of active-duty forces to provide for functions like recruiting; education; and training, acquisitions and administration.

But top Reserve-component officials worry they are losing influence in the Pentagon just as the military is preparing to potentially rewrite the national security strategy for a new era of austerity.

Reserve advocates want to retain the high readiness levels and central role that the Guard and Reserves have played for the past 12 years as an operational force that routinely contributes to the national defense strategy, and worry about those forces returned to the Cold War-era model of a strategic Reserve that rarely mobilizes.

The Reserve Forces Policy Board sent a memo to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on May 6 urging him to appoint Reserve officers to take part in the current 60-day strategy review and the Quadrennial Defense Review later this year.

“The Reserve Components offer an affordable option ... that can be used when needed. Making arbitrary cuts for the sake of component equity does not make sense,” the memo stated.

The Math

The report delves deeper than any previous Pentagon document into the basic math of military personnel and readiness. It attempts to translate combatant commanders’ requirements overseas into total force manpower requirements — and their pricetags — back at home.

To start, the report says one measure of overall military strength is the capacity to support forward-deployed units on a rotational cycle, such as the current forces in places like Afghanistan and South Korea.

It poses the example of a Army Brigade Combat Team in the active component that is operating on a 1:2 deployment-to-dwell cycle. The Pentagon can deploy one BCT, but it will need to have two additional similar units back at home in order to maintain that overseas presence by replacing the redeploying BCT and allowing time for it to return to full readiness with a two-year dwell time for resetting and retraining.

For an active-component BCT, the cost to man, train and equip the unit is about $277 million each year. Getting it ready to deploy costs an additional $8 million, making the total cost for a deployment-ready BCT about $285 million.

For the same unit in the Reserve component, the cost to man, train and equip a BCT in drilling status is about $66 million, and the added cost of ramping it up for a real deployment is an additional $97 million, for a total of $163 million.

But those two total costs — $285 million for an active component BCT versus $163 million for a reservist BCT — cannot be compared directly because active-component units deploy more often, a disparity that must be factored into the math for taxpayers and force planners.

The report concludes that the Pentagon’s total force would require seven Reserve BCTs in order to sustain one forward BCT continuously; in other words, one forward-deployed and six back at home in drilling status moving through their rotation and training cycles.

That is based on the authors’ assumption that a Reserve BCT operates on a 1:5 mobilization-to-dwell cycle. The report notes that reservists cannot deploy overseas immediately after mobilizing, but rather must spend roughly three months training at home first. So the Reserve BCT on a year-long mobilization will spend only about nine months deployed with “boots on the ground,” the report said.

In short, the long-term capability of three active component BCTs is on par with seven Reserve component BCTs, assuming those particular deployment-to-dwell policies, the report says.

The draft copy of the report stops short of a making a final comparison, but a back-of-the-envelope calculation based on the report’s number and assumptions suggests that the cost of maintaining three active-component BCTs — one deployed and two dwelling at home — is about $839 million a year.

In comparison, a similar capability to project one BCT overseas using Reserve units — one BCT deployed and six in drilling status back at home — would cost about $625 million a year, or about 25 percent less.

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