National Security

The Pentagon spends $1 billion a year to pay unemployment to service members; Mattis’ parting shot: Afghanistan needs 20k post 2014; Pentagon, strictly enforcing CODEL travel; Where did $60 billon go in Iraq; What happened in Wardak; and a little more.

By Gordon Lubold 

The Pentagon spent nearly $1 billion in 2012 to provide unemployment benefits for former service members...who left the military voluntarily. As the Pentagon confronts a $46 billion sequester that will mean drastic cuts to programs and operations and, soon, furloughs for civilian employees, it spends a staggering $1 billion a year on an entitlement program that sends unemployment checks to soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines after they leave the military voluntarily. That's in stark contrast to civilians in the private sector, who do not receive unemployment compensation when they leave a job of their own volition, and the program's skyrocketing costs are alarming the services.

So if a Marine lance corporal, say, completes his four-year obligation and opts not to re-enlist, he can receive unemployment for as long as 92 weeks, even though he chose to separate from the military. According to a fact sheet on the program -- known as Unemployment Compensation for Ex-servicemembers, or UCX -- from the Department of Labor: "If you were on active duty with a branch of the U.S. military, you may be entitled to benefits based on that service. You must have been separated under honorable conditions. There is no payroll deduction from service members' wages for unemployment insurance protection. Benefits are paid for by the various branches of the military, NOAA or USPHS."

The well established but little-known program, which has been in place for decades, was designed to help service members transition out of the military and into paying jobs in the private sector. Unemployment among some groups of veterans, especially those of the 9/11 generation, is higher than the national average, as much as 11 percent. And many believe service members separating from the service do in fact need time to make the transition. But it is the extent to which the benefit allows former service members to collect unemployment that has some defense officials wondering if the Pentagon can continue to afford such a program.

In 2012, the Defense Department paid $928,225,000 to former service members who received honorable discharges, according to data obtained by Situation Report. That amount was actually down from the $936,728,000 the Navy, Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force paid for service members to collect unemployment in fiscal 2011. But the cost to the services has tripled since 2003, when the services paid about $300 million total for the benefit, according to DOD data.

According to the Department of Labor, 120,000 service members drew unemployment benefits in 2012; the year before it was 118,000; and in 2008 only about 71,000 service members took advantage of the program. Over the last five years, 517,057 former service members have drawn unemployment after leaving the military. Read more on this below. 

Welcome to Wednesday's Snowquester edition of Situation Report, where it appears the ice-in-the-toilet ritual to make it snow is starting to work. We swear this is real. Follow me @glubold. Or hit me anytime at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com. Sign up for Situation Report here or just shoot me an e-mail and I'll put you on the list. And as always, if you have a report, piece of news, or tidbit you want teased, send it to us early for maximum tease. If we can get it in, we will. And help us fill our candy dish: news of the military weird, strange trends, personnel comings-and-goings and whatnot.

Pentagon Comptroller: we will strictly enforce CODEL travel policies. Comptroller Robert Hale provided "additional guidance for handling budgetary uncertainty" in a letter dated March 5 obtained by Situation Report. Among other things, Hale told top officials at the Pentagon that while the military would continue to provide military transport to members of Congress, it would only do so under necessary circumstances. Hale: "Organizations need to ensure that travel of members and employees of Congress is sponsored by the DoD only where the purpose of the travel is of primary interest to and bears a substantial relationship to programs or activities of DoD and is not solely for the purpose of engendering goodwill or obtaining possible future benefits."

Hale also said that the services should consider "significant reductions" in tuition assistance, he directed that the Pentagon not issue discretionary bonuses to civilians, and he warned employees against participation in "international events," except those where individuals are supporting foreign military sales. All "demonstration flying" with the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds and other demonstration groups will cease April 1, as Situation Report reported last month. Military musical and ceremonial units will "not be permitted to travel" beyond the local area, according to the guidance.

The U.S. may be done with "big footprint wars," but there's a host of problems with going "light." There is far less political will -- or funding -- to fight big wars anymore, and the Obama administration will lean heavily on its "partners" to get things done around the world. But, writing on FP, Jonathan Morgenstein says that it's not so simple. "[O]ften prospective partners -- including the Colombians and the African Union states -- have less than ideal human rights records. Consider the case of the rebel group known as M23. Over the past year, M23, a Rwandan proxy militia, has committed large-scale atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Last November, in response, the United Kingdom suspended all assistance, military and civilian, to neighboring Rwanda. Fifteen major human rights groups called upon the U.S. government to ‘cut all military assistance and suspend other non-humanitarian aid' as well. Instead, President Obama chastised Rwanda's President Paul Kagame by phone, but only scaled back U.S. security cooperation by a mere $200,000 (out of $200 million) -- hoping that mild displeasure would allow it to maintain Rwandan support for U.S. interests and coax changes in Rwandan policy."

Mattis goes public with his recommendation for a post-2014 force for Afghanistan. The E-Ring's Kevin Baron writes that Gen. James Mattis, the outgoing commander of U.S. Central Command, laid down a big marker yesterday when he disclosed his recommendation for the size of the American force in Afghanistan after 2014: 13,600 troops, with the potential of another 7,000 from the international community. That's far larger than what the White House seems to be considering. In Brussels at the NATO defense ministerial recently, the German defense minister accidentally or not-so-accidentally announced the the U.S. would keep 8,000-12,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014; Surprised American officials  immediately responded, saying various numbers were under consideration and that that range was not U.S. only and included an international contribution. 

From the hearing yesterday, in an exchange with Republican Sen. John McCain:

Mattis: "The post-2014 force, senator, that decision I know has not been made yet. It's still under consideration. I have made my recommendation."

McCain: "Which is?"

Mattis: "That recommendation is for 13,600 U.S. forces, sir."

McCain: "And how many NATO?"

Mattis: "Well, I -- not something I control..."

McCain: "Right."

Mattis: "but I assume it'd probably be around 50 percent of what we provide." 

Mattis, unplugged. After years of being under what seemed to be a gag order, Mattis was back. At least temporarily. At a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mattis was asked about sexual assault in the military after it was recently disclosed that an Air Force three-star, Craig Franklin, reversed a decision in a sexual assault case involving Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, dismissing the charges against him. During the hearing yesterday, McCaskill asked Mattis what he thought about it. Mattis, who has a history of colorful quotes, got a laugh when he responded: "You show us someone who conducts themself in a criminal manner along these lines, and I am dry-eyed when I put my beloved troops in jail the rest of their life for all I care."

This from a Marine who famously told Iraqis in 2003: "I come in peace. I didn't bring artillery. But I'm pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I'll kill you all." Mattis' "Wikiquote" page here.

Their Vanity Fair cover shot: Annie Leibovitz couldn't have done any better than this shot of Mattis and his hearing swim buddy, Adm. Bill McRaven, by Andrew Harnik of the WashTimes.

The complexities of Wardak. Disagreement about what happened in Wardak has forced a negotiation over the future of the American presence in the Afghanistan province. Reports of torture, disappearances, and other abuses, first laid at the feet of U.S. Special Operations Forces operating in Wardak, resulted in President Hamid Karzai calling for an end to U.S. operations there. American officials now say they are trying to work it out. But a report in the LAT this morning explains the discrepancies between the U.S. and the Afghan government and how this could contribute to problems for the end-game. The LAT, with reporting in Washington and Wardak: "The story was gruesome: A university student, captured in a U.S. special forces raid, was found decapitated and with his fingers sliced off. Amid a groundswell of public anger, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office cited that incident, as well as reports that nine villagers had been abducted from their homes, when he decided last week to bar the elite U.S. troops from a volatile province at the doorstep of Kabul, a move that could one day put the capital at risk. But the account of the young man's death was wrong, U.S. and local Afghan officials say. He was snared by armed men, not U.S. forces or their Afghan allies, according to Afghan law enforcement officials. In police photos of the body, he has one finger chopped off and a gash on one side of his neck, but he wasn't beheaded."

"Just not strategic thinking": In Iraq, too much money spent, too few results. So says the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Stewart Bowen, in his final report, which details the spending of more than $60 billion in taxpayer dollars to support programs and projects in Iraq. The report "urges and substantiates necessary reforms that could improve stabilization and reconstruction operations, and it highlights the financial benefits accomplished by SIGIR's work," according to an online cover page of the report, released this morning. AP's Lara Jakes, a former bureau chief in Baghdad, writes: "Ten years and $60 billion in American taxpayer funds later, Iraq is still so unstable and broken that even its leaders question whether U.S. efforts to rebuild the war-torn nation were worth the cost." Jakes quotes Kurdish government official Qubad Talabani, the son of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani: "You think if you throw money at a problem, you can fix it.... It was just not strategic thinking."

Unemployment benefit for former servicemembers, continued.

For the services, growing alarm. The services have quietly watched the entitlement cost for unemployment steadily rise for years. Although unemployment is paid through each state and the District of Columbia, the Department of Labor submits a bill to each of the services on behalf of unemployment recipients, according to a spokeswoman at Labor. But now, as each one confronts massive cuts from the sequester -- and continuing worries about the size of future budgets -- those bills are making the services more and more anxious. Privately, service officials say the program is blowing a widening hole in their budgets and want the Defense Department to re-examine the policy. But past attempts to modify the program have been rebuffed by senior leaders who fear that meddling with an entitlement program that helps transitioning service members -- many of whom are war veterans -- is politically and perhaps morally untenable.

Still, while it may not be low-hanging fruit for a Defense Department that must find billions of dollars of trims, cuts to the benefit are ripe for consideration. Officials tell Situation Report that the current unemployment compensation program should be better aligned with the benefit available in the private sector - for people who are laid off or otherwise lose their job - not necessarily for service members who can collect unemployment for months on end after electing to leave the service voluntarily. We're told that one way to achieve a fair compromise would be to expand various Transition Assistance Programs, or TAPs, that help servicemembers transiton out of the military. Such programs, which vary between services, could be tailored to pay service members for a limited period of time as they leave active duty and search for a job in the private sector. The expanded TAP program would be created in place of what is currently offered under the unemployment compensation program, saving the Pentagon billions of dollars.

An analysis of the issue by RAND in 2008 concluded: "Our analyses suggest that the sharp rise in the UCX caseload is not evidence of a substantial weakening of the civilian labor market for recent veterans. Instead, our analyses suggest that the increase in the UCX caseload is due to changes in the population of veterans eligible for UCX. This includes a sharp increase in the number of veterans who qualify on the basis of their reserve service and a sharp increase in the length of reserve deployments. Nevertheless, the sharp increase in the UCX caseload might suggest a rethinking of the UCX program."

 

Noting

  • San Diego Union Tribune: More in Congress want to demote distinguished warfare medal.
  • AP: ISAF will no longer publish attack figures for Afghanistan.
  • FP's Af-Pak: Where is the Afghan voice on post 2014?
  • Defense News: White House won't veto House Continuing Resolution.
  • Politico: New poll: Cut spending, but spare the military.  
  • Danger Room: Over $8 billion of money spent on Iraq was wasted outright.
  • Battleland: Sequester, what sequester?  

National Security

The Army will leave $6 billion worth of gear in Afghanistan; Hagel’s first foreign defense minister visit is Israel’s Barak, today; DHS goes commando; How will Hagel be with the press? And a little more.

By Gordon Lubold

The U.S. Army is planning to leave about $6 billion worth of equipment in Afghanistan after 2014. The service is in the middle of planning a major "retrograde" that will account for the bulk of the vehicles, gear, and other materiel after more than 11 years of war. Situation Report is told that the Army has approximately 1.38 million pieces of equipment in Afghanistan valued at roughly $28 billion. Of that, it plans to bring home about 757,000 pieces, or about $21 billion worth of materiel, and "divest itself" of about 628,000 pieces of equipment valued at about $6 billion, according to Wayne Hall, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon. "We will bring back those items that will support the Army's approved force," Hall told Situation Report. "We will also bring home items with security trade restrictions." We're told the Army will leave behind in Afghanistan equipment that is obsolete, does not meet criteria to return home, or is not "cost effective to return."

The Army has about 28,000 vehicles and trailers that must be shipped out of the country, and there are another 90,000 shipping containers of equipment the Army expects to be recovered, identified, and repacked for shipment, Situation Report was told by an ISAF spokesman in Kabul. "In cases where the material is excess to the needs of the Army or transport costs exceed fair market value, the materiel will be donated or disposed of." The Pentagon is planning a VTC briefing from Kabul with top logistics brass on retrograde on Wednesday.

Buds reunite: Israel's Ehud Barak arrives at the Pentagon this morning. The Israeli defense minister will arrive at the building's River Entrance at 10 a.m. to meet with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel -- his first meeting of a foreign defense minister, and by design. After a confirmation process that called into question Hagel's commitment to Israel, the new SecDef wanted to make sure Barak would be the first visit. Hagel has known Barak for more than a decade, since he was prime minister. "It's expected to be a meeting of old friends, ready to keep up the great work accomplished in the past few years under Panetta," Situation Report is told by a defense official. The two will discuss how to "continue to address potential threats from Syria and Iran" and how the Pentagon will maintain its support for Israel, including rocket and missile defense development "in this time of fiscal uncertainty," we're told. "These programs cost a lot of money and department leaders are grappling with how to still provide urgent funds after Congress failed to resolve sequestration." The meeting will include Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey. 

Welcome to Tuesday's edition of Situation Report, where contrary to the wishes of some in the DC area, we are looking forward to the "stripe of snow" and hope it actually happens. . But just to make sure, we've got a tray full of ice for the toilet. Follow me @glubold. Or hit me anytime at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com. Sign up for Situation Report here or just shoot me an e-mail and I'll put you on the list. And as always, if you have a report, piece of news, or tidbit you want teased, send it to us early for maximum tease. If we can get it in, we will. And help us fill our candy dish: news of the military weird, strange trends, personnel comings-and-goings and whatnot.

DHS goes commando. The Department of Homeland Security is now using MRAPs -- like the Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected vehicles the military uses in the war zone, Killer Apps' John Reed reports. "This MRAP has been modified to carry ‘operators' (not officers -- it's as if we're sending SOF teams to serve warrants now) riding shotgun on the outside of the vehicle or inside the heavily armored truck while they service ‘high-risk warrants.' Notice the firing ports below the windows, which are thick enough to stop a .50 caliber bullet," Reed writes. "Whether justified by the criminal threat or not, the notion of MRAPs loaded with ‘operators' who are tricked out in what used to be special-ops gear performing law-enforcement duties -- like serving a warrant -- seems excessive, if not a little creepy. Wouldn't the normal armored trucks that SWAT teams have used for the last 30 years cut it?"

Uncle Sam Wants You -- to look at this retrospective of 150 years of military recruitment, in posters, here, from "Men Wanted for the Army" in WW I to an Air Force poster of a badass-looking airman from 2011: "It's not science fiction." 

There's no stronger force than a spouse scorned. The Pentagon's tone on sequester has changed slightly. Since Hagel assured the public last Friday that the Pentagon would be able to protect the nation despite the "unnecessary" political standoff, the building has begun to argue that the sequester will have other effects. The E-Ring's Kevin Baron writes: "The Obama administration seems to be deploying a new argument for its first post-sequester message bomb: Since images of abandoned missile silos didn't seem to work, cue the clips the schoolchildren of deployed troops, their teachers locked out of their jobs, and their poor, young military mothers pushing shopping carts through government-run grocery stores in search of slightly discount-priced diapers and ground beef. Don't laugh. If the specter of nuclear disarmament can't move John Boehner and Gene Sperling, skeptics think military spouses just might."

When it comes to the press, Chuck Hagel will probably be more careful than Panetta -- but not because of his bruising confirmation fight. He's likely to be more circumspect because that's just how he is, we're told. Whereas Panetta was gregarious, happy, savvy in the ways of the source-press dynamic, Hagel's interactions with the news media have always been less animated. In the Senate, Hagel wasn't known for being overly friendly, or unfriendly, to the press, just a straight shooter, a former Hagel staffer told Situation Report.  Hagel knew some journalists personally but he didn't necessarily have an interest in building a press "posse," a group of reporters with whom he had a special relationship, we're told. But: "He understands everybody has a job to do and that you know there is an important symbiotic relationship between the media and him," the former staffer told Situation Report.

Situation Report is also told by a senior defense official: "You can expect regular and direct engagement with the press. He knows that as Secretary of Defense, this is extremely important. He's the consummate straight shooter, and that will serve him well."

China watchers' fears confirmed: As $46 billion gets lopped off the Pentagon's budget, China's new leader protects his growing military from cuts. Alas, Chinese President Xi Jinping's military budget is a paltry $114 billion -- but that's up almost 11 percent from the year before, reports the WSJ this morning: "It is the first budget since Mr. Xi took over as Communist Party and military chief in a once-a-decade leadership change in November. Military spending has increased at a similar rate for most of the past two decades, but this year's increase comes as China's overall economic growth begins to slow. Diplomats and analysts say Mr. Xi has moved faster than expected to establish himself as a strong military leader, making a series of high-profile visits to army, navy, air force and missile-command facilities in his first 100 days in office, and launching a campaign to enhance the armed forces' ability to ‘fight and win wars,' according to diplomats and analysts."

The Pivot

  • AP: U.S., China, agree on sanctions for North Korea
  • Reuters: North Korea to scrap armistice if U.S., South Korea continue drills.
  • Time: Could Denis Rodman's visit affect U.S. policy?  
  • AP: China destroys nearly two tons of Ikea chocolate cake. 

Noting

  • Duffel Blog: Hipster joins Army to be ironic.
  • Defense News: Despite sequester, House panel proposes budget hike for Pentagon.
  • Danger Room: Army outsources defense strategy, armchair generals wanted.

Into Africa

  • Reuters: France says 15 militants killed in overnight fighting.
  • Daily Mail: Belmokhtar killed in Mali.
  • All Africa: Al-Qaida confirms French killed AQIM leader Abdelhamid Abou Zeid.
  • Ahram Online: Chad emerges as regional superpower in Mali conflict. 

Arab Winter

  • CS Monitor: Iran nuclear talks: Saudis, IAEA, voice doubt over Tehran's intentions.
  • WSJ: A political murder in Tunisia upsets progress in a rare Arab spring success story.
  • The Telegraph (blog): Why Obama may be changing his mind on Syria.
  • Time: Inside the chaos of the anti-Assad rebellion in Syria.