For a Marine officer who's moving from one duty station to another, the Defense Department pays an average of about $3,100 to store and move his or her vehicle.

Yet for an Army officer making a similar move, the same vehicle storage and transportation costs less than half that, $1,288.

Those were among the many eyebrow-raising charges identified in a recent Government Accountability Office report on the military's rising costs related to moving hundreds of thousands of troops each year to new duty assignments.

Across the force, spending on what the military calls permanent-change-of-station moves is up 13 percent since 2001, increasing from $3.8 billion that year to $4.3 billion in 2014, according to the GAO.

Those costs are rising despite efforts by the individual services to reduce the frequency of PCS moves. Across the force, the number of annual moves has dropped by 12 percent, from about 731,000 in 2001 to about 646,000 in 2014, according to the report.

But per-move costs are trending higher. Since 2001, on average, the cost of an average PCS move has risen 28 percent, from $4,200 then to about $6,700 today, according to the report.

For years, Congress has pressured the Defense Department to cut PCS-related spending, which includes household goods shipping fees, storage, travel allowances, temporary lodging expenses and other costs.

The services vary significantly in their costs. For example, the Air Force has the highest average total per-move cost at $8,548, nearly twice the Marine Corps' average of $4,679. The Air Force told the GAO that might be because the Air Force has more officers than the other services.

Officers consistently have more costly moving expenses than enlisted troops due to the higher allowances for household good shipment weights and travel expenses incurred.

Specific moving costs also vary significantly among services. For example, the Marine Corps reported that the average per-move cost for nontemporary storage shot up from about $600 to nearly $1,500 between 2010 and 2014. The other services failed to provide enough detailed data to know if they had seen a similar rise.

In fact, a general lack of detailed data on PCS costs earned DoD criticism from auditors.

"Without periodic evaluations of the efficiency of the PCS program, DoD will not have an analytical basis for identifying changes in PCS per-move costs over time and the specific factors associated with such changes," according to the report.

The services also show big variances in the cost of moving dependents' travel during a PCS move. For example, the Marine Corps pays an average of more than $1,600 to move  for officers’ dependents' travel and more than $1,400 for travel of enlisted members' dependents during a move. The Air Force pays only about $600 to move for dependents' travel during a move. The Marine Corps says that is partly explained by its policy of allowing service members to PCS on their own, with families joining them later in a separate move if that is more convenient.

One major contributor to the general rise in PCS costs was DoD's 2008 move to raise the maximum allowance for temporary lodging from $180 to $290 per day, according to the report.

Although the services have reduced their total number of PCS moves, the GAO said the services could probably lower their figures even further.

Auditors noted that the services consistently have failed to meet their own "time-on-station" requirements and instead frequently order troops and their families to pack up and move before they complete a standard 36- or 48-month minimum stay in one place.

For example:

  • The Army aims to keep a soldier at a duty assignment for 48 months. But Army data shows that from 2009 through 2014, at least half of the enlisted personnel moves within the continental U.S. occurred at or before 38 months. And for officers, at least half of the moves within the continental U.S. occurred at or before 34 months.
  • The Navy aims to keep a sailor at an assignment for 36 months. For enlisted sailors, that's about the average, but for officers, at least half of the moves within the continental U.S. occurred at or before 33 months.
  • The Air Force officially changed its policy in 2009, raising the time-on-station requirement from 36 months to 48 months. But since 2009, the median time on station for officers fell from 43 months to 37 months.
  • The Marine Corps officially wants a Marine to remain at an assignment for 36 months. But in recent years at least half of the Corps' enlisted personnel moves within the continental U.S. occurred at or before 32 months. For officers, the Marine Corps data show that at least half of the moves within the continental U.S. occurred at or before 35 months.

The services have tried to reduce PCS costs in several ways in recent years. Those efforts include encouraging service members to voluntarily reduce the weight of household goods shipments, shifting to more cost-effective approaches to ship and store household goods and encouraging personnel officials to opt for local or regional reassignments to replace longer-range PCS moves when feasible.

The GAO criticized the services for not keeping closer tabs on PCS costs and their changes over time.

"As DoD officials continue to manage potential budget reductions, including implementation of sequestration, the PCS program is likely to be a continued focus for finding inefficiencies and cost savings. However, DoD does not have consistent and complete data on PCS costs and moves and, therefore, cannot publish this information in the services' budget justification materials and provide it to decision-makers in Congress and DOD," the GAO report said.

Auditors recommended that the Pentagon intensify its efforts to keep more detailed records of PCS costs.

Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.

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