Some of these stresses will subside after the wars end, but larger questions about the force's sustainability will remain. Manpower costs -- including pay, benefits, healthcare, and housing -- represent the fastest growing part of the Pentagon budget. Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine general who chairs the Reserve Forces Policy Board, has famously quipped that the Defense Department is on track to become a benefits company that occasionally kills a terrorist. The current pay and benefits structure has grown over the past 40 years, and today reflects the need for generous compensation to recruit and retain a force in wartime, as well as the political value of financially supporting the troops. However, its sustainability, like many other parts of the Pentagon budget, has been called into question. The nation can probably afford a smaller force with the current package, or it can afford the current force with lesser compensation (and fewer deployments, too), but it likely can't afford both. The Pentagon must wrestle with these questions during its 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, and develop better options than the status quo for the president and Congress to consider, such as rebalancing the mixture of active and reserve forces, and addressing the mixture of service members, civilians, and contractors the force relies upon.
As the military evolves, so too will the veteran population. Over the next 30 years, the large conscription-based cohorts of the Cold War and Vietnam War will fade away, giving way to a population that is smaller, more dispersed, and more diverse in terms of age, race, and sex than previous generations of veterans. Based on current utilization and claims rates among post-9/11 veterans, the future veteran population will also place much higher demands on the Department of Veterans Affairs. This will extend the cost of military service for decades to come, and add trillions of dollars to the ultimate bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The VA has begun planning for this reality, but it must do more, adapting its benefits models, healthcare models, and physical infrastructure to serve the veterans of the future.
The federal government should not do this alone. Thousands of veterans organizations have sprung up over the past 12 years of war. However, these agencies and groups too often duplicate each other's efforts, act ineffectively, or worse, take funds that would be better spent elsewhere. We need a new business model for the broader community that serves veterans -- one that measures performance and rewards those who produce tangible, measurable results.
With the Iraq war over, the Afghanistan war ending, and the nation entering an age of fiscal austerity, the United States will face an array of hard choices about how to best support and sustain the all-volunteer force and its veterans. To begin with, America needs a national strategy to address the needs of the veterans and military community -- to set goals and priorities, and assign agencies, budgets, and personnel to meet those objectives. This strategy must balance our commitments to those who serve with our national resources and means to pay for those commitments. We must also use the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review process, and others like it, to make hard choices about military manpower and force structure. We can no longer rely on wartime excess to conceal the very real tradeoffs between people, hardware, operations, and other parts of our national security enterprise. And if we are to maintain the all-volunteer force model, one which asks so little of our nation but so much of our volunteers, we must find a better model for making decisions about where, when, and why to send our nation's sons and daughters to war.