WASHINGTON — The Pentagon, not usually known for its frugality, is pleading with Congress to stop spending so much money on the troops.
Through nine years of war, service members have seen a healthy rise in pay and benefits, leaving most of them better compensated than their peers in the private sector.
Congress has been so determined to take care of troops and their families that for several years running it has overruled the Pentagon and mandated more generous pay raises than requested by the Bush and Obama administrations. It has also rejected attempts by the Pentagon to slow soaring health care costs — which Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said are "eating us alive" — by hiking co-pays or raising premiums.
Now, Pentagon officials see fiscal calamity.
In the midst of two long-running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, defense officials are increasingly worried that the government's generosity is unsustainable and that it will leave them with less money to buy weapons and take care of equipment.
Clifford Stanley, the undersecretary of defense for personnel, told a Senate committee in March that rising personnel costs could "dramatically affect the readiness of the department" by leaving less money to pay for operations and maintenance.
With Washington confronting record deficits, the Pentagon is bracing for an end to the huge increases in defense spending over the past decade. Today, Gates is scheduled to give a "hard-hitting" speech in Kansas on fiscal discipline, in which he will warn military leaders that "we'll have to take some dramatic measures ourselves to sustain the force we have," his press secretary, Geoff Morrell, told reporters.
Health care alone is projected to cost the military $51 billion next year, nearly one-tenth of the Pentagon's budget, excluding the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2002, wages have risen 42 percent, compared with about 32 percent for the private sector. Housing and subsistence allowances, which troops receive tax free, have gone up even more.
But Congress — including members opposed to the wars — has made clear that it considers military pay and benefits sacrosanct.
The Pentagon's attempts to rein in personnel costs have also run into opposition from powerful lobby groups.
"Any attempt to link rising military personnel costs with shrinking military readiness is total nonsense," Thomas J. Tradewell Sr., leader of Veterans of Foreign Wars, said in response to Stanley's comments.
Advocates for troops and retirees say the main reason for the increase in wages is that they were way too low to begin with.