Two targets for budget cuts now under close review are the commissary system and permanent change-of-station moves.
The Pentagon spends $1.4 billion subsidizing its 247 domestic and overseas commissaries, which provide groceries to some 12 million authorized customers each year. For those who use them, the commissaries provide a valuable benefit, providing groceries at cost, plus a 5 percent surcharge — saving customers an estimated $2.7 billion a year, according to the Defense Commissary Agency.
The system dates from the days when military members were underpaid and lived typically on post at installations far removed from local communities and grocery stores. Back then, they were a necessity, as they still are at remote and overseas locations.
But in an era when military families increasingly live off base and shop at local stores, the commissaries no longer cater primarily to the active-duty member and family. In fact, more than half of DECA’s customers are retired, and its largest-grossing stores are in the midst of thriving civilian communities with easy access to competing grocery chains, from Safeway to Wal-Mart and Costco.
That’s one reason the Pentagon is studying ways to reduce its growing commissary subsidy. Among the ideas on the table: closing smaller stores and selling beer and wine with a markup to offset operating costs. Both ideas seem tilted in the wrong direction, not because the motivation is wrong, but because they don’t address the core problem.
Closing smaller commissaries might be easy, because fewer people will be affected, and therefore complain. But logically speaking, some of those stores might be the most essential, because they are in remote locales. By contrast, it would make more sense to shut down stores in metro areas like San Diego and Fort Belvoir, Va., both of which rank among the DECA’s busiest, because there are so many other shopping options nearby. While these are high-cost areas, the military has housing allowances and cost-of-living allowances to account for that.
Selling beer and wine at the commissary, meanwhile, should be a nonstarter. The change would put the commissaries in direct competition with military exchanges, robbing one to help fund the other. To suggest otherwise would mean DECA hopes to increase alcohol sales on military bases. That would be bad policy, and even if that were possible, it’s not not going to help improve readiness.
Cutting back on the $4 billion the Defense Department spends on PCS moves is another challenge. The military has tried and failed to curtail PCS funding for years. But frequent moves and rapid assignment changes are so ingrained in the promotion system that one can’t be changed without the other.
Congress has agreed to cut PCS spending in 2014 by 5 percent. That’s a start — $200 million is real money — but it’s not enough. The Pentagon needs to launch a comprehensive career track review with the express intent to reduce PCS moves and to stop trying to prepare every new lieutenant and ensign as if he will be the next chief of staff.
The implications of such changes are profound for recruiting, promotions, pay, retirement and more. But all those systems were designed in a different era for a different military. Revising them, while effectively protecting those who have already made life decisions based on the existing system, can’t be put off forever. The military stands to gain from new ideas and new flexibility that could come from rethinking its career paths and systems.
Change and budget cuts are never easy. But adapting for a changing world is essential.