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Leaders’ message to Congress: The U.S. Army is on the mend

Monday, May 07, 2018

Army leaders painted a mostly upbeat picture as they testified at a recent hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The hearing focused on the $182 billion budget request for fiscal 2019.

“The Army’s readiness across its formations is improving and, if called upon today, I am confident we would prevail in any conflict,” said Secretary of the Army Mark T. Esper.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley shared Esper’s opinion that the Army is getting stronger. “In short, we have a better Army today than we had just a short time ago,” he said. The 2018 budget “was significant,” Milley said.

Adding, “It has a tremendous impact on the future readiness and the current readiness of our Army and impact on morale of the force.

“What these monies have done is stopped a steep decline. It stopped the bleeding of the Army, and we are on the mend.”

However, along with the positive news came a familiar refrain from the leaders, “Fiscal uncertainty has done a great deal to erode our readiness and hamper our ability to modernize,” Esper said.

Milley said the Army needs consistent and predictable funding to continue to improve.

“You are not going to dig out of a 10-year trough in two years,” he said.

Top priorities

At the hearing, Esper told the lawmakers that people, values and alliances were the top priorities. Specifically, taking care of soldiers, civilians and families topped his list.

Recommitment to Army Values and the Warrior Ethos was second.

Strengthening relationships with allies and partners came third, according to his April 12 statement.

In a joint statement, Milley and Esper said, “The Army is committed to taking care of our soldiers, civilians, and their families by maintaining opportunities for promotions and schooling, providing attractive career options, and continuing quality of life programs.

“We ensure the well-being of our people through world-class medical services, quality facilities to live and work, and child care and youth services.

“New civilian hiring initiatives for spouses promise to accelerate work opportunities on Army installations, while other reforms may allow them to sustain careers by reducing the frequency of moves.

“The cumulative effect of these programs is to increase retention through increased satisfaction with Army life,” they said.

House authorization panel releases fiscal 2019 ‘views and estimates’ letter. The chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee released the details of their recently submitted “views and estimates” letter to the House Budget Committee.

The letter, authored by committee chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and ranking member Adam Smith, D-Wash., urged the Budget Committee to adhere to Congress’ two-year spending deal on defense, provide the Pentagon with timely funding and emphasized their intent to focus on “restoring readiness shortfalls.”

The letter said, “Supporting the funding levels for current and future requirements will be necessary to recover readiness shortfalls, and this support should be specifically identified in the upcoming budget resolution.”

The letter also outlined gaps across aviation, ground and naval forces, as well as unmet needs for munitions, facilities maintenance and space capabilities and also mentioned Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ testimony that the effects of budget caps are worsened by multiple stopgap funding patches.

One area singled out for attention in the letter was the Survivor Benefit Plan/Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (SBP/DIC).

Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) is a benefit paid out by the Department of Veterans Affairs to a surviving spouse and dependent children if a member dies of a service connected cause.

The Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP), a form of insurance provided by the Department of Defense to military retirees, does not require service-connected death or disability for survivors to receive payments.

This includes deaths while on active duty and after retirement if the cause of death is due to an injury or disease contracted while the member was on active duty. However, Congress expanded the coverage to the survivors of individuals who die while on active duty, effective September 10, 2001.

Under these provisions, the surviving spouses of active duty personnel who die are provided an annuity, but do not contribute any payments to receive that annuity. If the survivor of a military retiree is also eligible for and receives DIC, the SBP payment is reduced dollar for dollar by the DIC amount.

As the letter notes, the committee, whenever possible, has attempted to bridge the gap by creating payments known as the Special Survivor Indemnity Allowance (SSIA).

“While this was a major achievement, this was only done internally by significantly increasing TRICARE pharmacy co-pays through FY 2026. This source of mandatory spending is unavailable to our committee for any future adjustments,” the committee leaders wrote.

Adding, “Repeal of the offset is currently estimated to cost approximately $8 billion in mandatory spending over the next 10 years. As you are aware, we have no flexibility to generate this amount of savings within the mandatory allocation of funds for National Defense, so we would like to work with you to increase direct spending levels for the committee to resolve this issue.”

The letter was released as the Armed Services Committee announced it will begin consideration of the fiscal 2019 Defense Authorization Bill with its full committee markup set for May 9.