Our military family is greater than any one person. America expects us to protect the homeland and secure our interests around the globe. The only way to accomplish this is to fly, fight and win as a team. To do this, we must recruit and retain the best talent America has to offer.
Today, Congress is at a pivotal point in negotiations concerning defense funding and policy bills. The Senate-proposed fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act Section 604 language regarding Basic Allowance for Housing creates a division among service members and needs to be removed. Not only would this proposed language strip BAH away from married military-to-military couples, but it would also reduce BAH for single members who elect to live together and pool their resources. BAH is an important part of military compensation, and cutting it in this fashion would be akin to a significant pay cut for many military families.
I am against this for two reasons:
First, I believe individuals earn military compensation based on their service as individuals. Taking away from dual-service couples would be tantamount to a significant pay cut for one — and that's not fair. Currently, 92 percent of co-located active-duty airmen fall within the ranks of captain (O-3) to major (O-4) and staff sergeant (E-5) to master sergeant (E-7). Changing the law would result in a BAH loss of $11 million for these subgroups. It effectively creates a financial penalty when Air Force members marry, significantly affecting enlisted andofficers. For example, two non-prior enlisted second lieutenants (O-1) married with children and living together at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Hampton, Virginia, would receive $1,401 per month less in BAH for a yearly loss of $16,812. In addition, it is equally unfair to unmarried troops who choose to live together. Two enlisted staff sergeants (E-5) not married but living together at Joint Base Langley-Eustis would each receive $195 less per month in BAH, for a total monthly loss of $390 and a yearly loss of $4,680.
Second, I fear this change would disproportionately impact our female service members. A 2014 Rand study, "Improving Demographic Diversity in the U.S. Air Force Officer Corps," indicates that at the five-year career point, 32 percent of female officers are married to a military member of any service in contrast to only 8 percent of male officers married to another military member. This is the time we begin to see the most significant disparity in retention rates between male and female officers, and we are working hard to retain our top female talent through our diversity initiatives. If approved, this provision could set us back. At least one member in each dual-service couple would have a powerful monetary incentive to look for a career elsewhere.
Bottom line: Section 604 could have a negative retention impact at a time when we need to retain our best people and grow our ranks modestly for the future.
Today, the United States Air Force is the smallest we've been since our inception in 1947. Our aircraft are the oldest they've ever been with an average age of 27 and many fleets are substantially older. As a result of 25 years of sustained combat operations, more than half of our combat Air Force is not sufficiently ready for a high-end fight — a fight against an enemy with complex integrated air defenses, surface-to-air missiles, and the capability to shoot us down.
Meanwhile, demand for our capabilities continues to grow around the world; the military is making significant contributions in the fight against the Islamic State group, reassuring allies in Europe and the Pacific against a resurgent Russia and an assertive China, providing humanitarian relief when disaster strikes and protecting our homeland.
With all that said, we are mindful of the budget pressures and have proposed a number of ways to save money. For example, we slowed overall growth in BAH without singling out certain service members. But Section 604 goes too far.
These cuts to BAH are not the kind of reductions our troops deserve. If there's something Congress needs to cut, it's the Section 604 language.
Deborah Lee James is secretary of the Air Force.