Best Defense

Nate Fick: It is time to discard the military’s 20-year retirement system

The other day I saw a note that Nate Fick, the wunderkind CEO of CNAS, had written about our military personnel retirement system. I liked it so much that I asked him if I could use it as a guest item. By Nate Fick Guest contributor and one of Tom’s bosses Isn’t it fair to ...

ewen and donabel/flickr
ewen and donabel/flickr

The other day I saw a note that Nate Fick, the wunderkind CEO of CNAS, had written about our military personnel retirement system. I liked it so much that I asked him if I could use it as a guest item.

By Nate Fick
Guest contributor and one of Tom’s bosses

Isn’t it fair to postulate that our military personnel system is fundamentally anachronistic and merits another look?

Cliff retirement at 20 years of service, for instance, strikes me as a relic of an age when twenty years in the Army left a veteran a broken man, with blown joints, no hearing, and a limited ability to work in an agricultural or industrial economy. Advances in medicine, lengthening lifespan, and the shift to a service economy in this country (albeit with large swaths of agricultural and industrial employment across the workforce) make me wonder — as a taxpayer — why we’re paying 38-year-olds as they embark on their second full career.

In my admittedly anecdotal view, few (if any) good high school or college grads join the military for the promise of retirement pay, but plenty of mediocre ones decide to stay for it when they already have 10 or 12 years of service. Perverse incentive?

So can we shift the burden of those payments forward, offering better pay and recruiting incentives (better housing, better healthcare, etc) so that we at least accrue some warfighting benefit from the expense while also building in the flexibility to grow and shrink the expenditures since they’re not then a lifetime mandatory benefit? Pay for it on the back end with a graduated retirement system starting at 30-ish years, perhaps split in some way between the current defined benefit system and a career-long defined contribution system.

The result: lower and more flexible personnel costs that are heavier on discretionary spending and lighter on mandatory spending, and a system more aligned with your view (quite correct, in my opinion) that people are much more important than things — paying our young warfighters more and our “retirees” (if we can call someone in his 30s that with a straight face) less.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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