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Commission to decide on military pay

Given the rising demands on U.S. forces from a global war on terror, including long, arduous tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Defense officials will ask an independent commission to assess whether current pays and benefits are right for attracting and retaining a quality force.

The Department of Defense plans to announce a seven-member commission of outside pay and personnel experts to study the sometimes confusing mix of pays, allowances, bonuses, special pays and non-cash benefits that has evolved out of the Cold War era of large standing forces.

The adequacy of Reserve and National Guard compensation also will be reviewed, given the greater reliance today on those components.

The commission could begin work as early as April and make recommendations to the secretary of defense by early 2005.

Making the pay system more flexible to compensate warriors battling terrorists and protecting the homeland will be a goal, an official said. Another will be ensuring “balance” between pay and non-cash benefits and between current and future compensation such as retirement.

Defense officials say obvious weaknesses in existing pays have become apparent during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. An example is the lingering controversy over Congress’ decision last April to raise monthly Family Separation Allowance by $150 and Imminent Danger Pay by $75. Lawmakers believed the hikes were the best way to boost pay quickly for deployed forces and mobilized reservists. The increases were made retroactive to October 2002 and were to expire by October 2003.

Defense officials opposed the increases as inefficient for rewarding combat forces.

The department promised to give Congress a replacement pay plan, aimed more precisely at personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would involve higher Hardship Duty Pay, which can vary in amount between arduous assignments, and offset a roll back in FSA and IDP in combat areas.

As 2003 came to close, however, Congress voted just to extend last April’s FSA and IDP increases at least through December 2004.

The department is expected soon to recommend keeping Imminent Danger Pay at $225 a month, making permanent last April’s $75 increase.

On FSA, the department likely will recommend only a partial roll back. The old FSA rate of $100 a month had not been adjusted since 1991 and deserved to be raised. But $150 probably was too high. So Defense officials are expected to recommend some lowering of the current $250 rate.

For troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as of Dec. 31, the department might recommend that current FSA recipients be grandfathered from a cut until they get back home.

The whole flap might have been avoided if the military had had a more flexible pay for troops in combat areas. Individual services too have found themselves handcuffed on occasion by a too rigid pay system.

The Army, for example, needs to keep some units in Iraq beyond the promised 12-month rotation date so it wants to provide them extra compensation. Charles Abell, principal deputy of David Chu, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, responded Jan. 20 with a new incentive package for “involuntary” tour extensions of up to $1,000 more a month. For that, Abell had to combine two existing pays.

Hardship Duty Pay, he said, can be raised by $200 a month to the reach the $300 ceiling set in law. Also, members involuntarily extended in Iraq will be eligible to choose between $800 a month in the new but little used Assignment Incentive Pay (AIP), or they can select instead a follow-on “stabilized tour” from which they can’t be deployed for at least as long as their tour of service in Iraq/Afghanistan.

Pay packages to reward “voluntary” extensions in Iraq — of three, six and 12 months — also are under review. Defense officials also will seek authority to pay up to $1,000 a month in Hardship Duty Pay. Long term, HDP could provide the kind of targeted pay flexibility Congress and the department lacked last April.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at:

[email protected]