Military officer in Congress warns against continued defense spending cuts

Military officer in Congress warns against continued defense spending cuts

A retired military officer in Congress is cautioning against continued budget cuts like those troops faced after Vietnam that he says broke morale and hollowed out the force.  

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), a retired Marine Corps officer and prior-enlisted soldier, outlined some of the biggest challenges facing the military during a speech April 5 to MOAA's board of directors, chapter leaders, and headquarters staff members. Pilots aren't getting enough flight hours, pay raises have stagnated, and re-enlistment bonus accounts are underfunded, Coffman said, during the dinner held outside Washington, D.C., after MOAA's annual Storming the Hill event. 

Coffman, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee's subcommittee on Military Personnel, said Congress must find ways to help the military retain its best and brightest. 

“I think right now in the Air Force alone, we're down about 1,500 pilots,” he said. “We're trying to sort through how we keep people in the military. … It seems to be at that 12-year mark where we're losing people.” 

Boosting re-enlistment bonuses is one way to retain servicemembers like pilots who fill in-demand roles, he said. But they also need to find ways to relieve the pressure after 15 years of high operational tempo, Coffman added. 

One way to do that, he said, could be to build up the National Guard and Reserve to take some of the pressure off the active-duty force. 

“If you look at the pilot shortage, they're going to fly for the civilian airliners,” he said. “And a lot of them would love to fly in the Guard or Reserve. So do we plus-up the Guard and Reserve to reflect that? Those are the tough decisions we have to make.” 

Coffman spoke just hours after the military's service chiefs spent much of the day on Capitol Hill explaining how another continuing resolution would harm the military. A continuing resolution would force the military to operate under FY 2016 spending levels for the next several months. 

That kind of spending gap “creates years of stress - over and above the inherent stress of deployed operations,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson told lawmakers. Servicemembers and their families have been absorbing that stress, he added. 

Coffman is cautioning against the type of hollow force he said he joined when enlisting in the Army in the early 1970s.  

“What I remember … is how broken it was coming out of Vietnam,” he said. “The racial divisions, the low morale, the lack of discipline. And it wasn't just the Army - it permeated all the services.” 

Today's generation of troops, who Coffman led in Iraq after coming out of retirement in 2005, are some of the most motivated and educated that have ever served in uniform. He said he considers it his duty to make sure they will never feel forgotten, as some troops did after the contentious Vietnam War. 

“When I look at the force today, I just think we have the most elite force this country has ever seen,” he said. “It's extraordinary.”  

Photo credit: Steve Barrett