The debate about the administration’s decision to cut regular US Army troop strength from 518,000 now to 450,000 by 2019 is still going on, and looks likely to continue for a while. There’s a lot of disagreement about whether cutting active duty personnel is the best way to handle the budget cuts, or if military funding should be reduced at all, but the Army itself has a more immediate problem – carrying out the first stage of the reduction in force.
Right or wrong, the service has no choice but to get on with it, and it’s a big challenge. A large part of the reduction, including most of the junior enlisted slots that need to go, can be achieved through not replacing natural turnover. I believe the drawdown needs to be rank balanced – if you leave senior NCO and field grade officers untouched, it creates a promotion roadblock for aspiring captains and E-5s, and reduces their incentive to stay in. That means both voluntary and involuntary separations through the rank structure up to full colonel.
Soldiers and officers who’re being separated have a right to expect support and loyalty from the Army – that’s all part of the military deal. If the Army doesn’t look after its men and women as well as it possibly can, they’ll lose trust in the Army, and the military is built on trust. That means keeping the number of involuntary separations as low as possible and helping the unfortunate selectees to prepare for transition as well as possible. Unfortunately, around 1% of the active duty force is in the bracket for consideration, and while most of that number won’t be picked, there will still be thousands of disappointed soldiers told their career has come to a premature end.
The Army has just launched an overhaul of its transition assistance scheme, now called Soldier For Life, and that’s going to be the first source of help for most of those leaving the service. There will also be extra benefits for anyone who’s involuntarily separated; these will include separation pay, plus early retirement for eligible personnel with 15+ years of service. Separation payments for officers are predictable, with a captain on 8 years of service getting $50-60,000. For NCOs, it’s a lot more dependent on MOS – some trades will be over-staffed in the new structure and those asked to leave from those specialties are likely to get less.
“Soldiers and officers who’re being separated have a right to expect support and loyalty from the Army.”
As well as financial support, those separating will get time to transition – 12 months for enlisted men and 9 for officers. During that time they’ll have the chance to start reintegrating into civilian life and looking for a second career. For those who want to serve on, there will be some opportunities in the reserves and National Guard. Private contract work is also an option; the range of jobs is narrowing as Afghanistan starts to wind down, but for anyone with the right skills, there will still be places open.
The end of a military career is always a bittersweet moment, and it’s worse when it’s coming as part of a systematic reduction of America’s military capabilities. Sadly there’s nothing the Army can do to avoid downsizing unless new funding is granted. Let’s just hope the process will be handled as painlessly as possible.