Military pay raises and benefits can’t be used to help balance the Pentagon’s budget without risking national security, the head of the House Armed Services Committee cautioned on Tuesday.

“I see the challenge within personnel costs, but we have an all-volunteer military,” Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said during a defense policy event sponsored by the Ronald Reagan Institute. “We are going to have to pay them well and take care of them to make sure we continue to have an all-volunteer military.”

“The notion that we can cut personnel costs to get our way out of our budget problems, I think, is very overstated.”

The comments from Smith, the top Democrat on military issues in the House, come just days after President Joe Biden unveiled his initial budget plans for fiscal 2022, including $715 billion in funding for the Defense Department.

That figure represents a 1.6 percent increase in spending from fiscal 2021 but would amount to a decrease of about 0.4 percent when inflation is factored in. Republicans on Capitol Hill immediately attacked the plan as insufficient for military needs, given ongoing operations overseas and increasing security threats worldwide.

At the same time, some progressive Democrats decried the plan as too large, noting that the Pentagon has seen significant funding increases in recent years while other domestic agencies faced cuts. Congress will spend the next few months debating the proper level of total defense funding and setting personnel spending priorities for the military.

In the budget proposal, White House officials said that trimming down the fiscal 2022 defense budget even further could endanger military pay and personnel support programs.

Smith echoed those thoughts on Tuesday, noting that in past years defense leaders have suggested smaller pay raises and benefits cuts to help free up money for other readiness and modernization priorities.

He did not specifically mention plans for the fiscal 2022 pay raise. Under the federal formula used to calculate annual pay raises for service members, troops should expect to see a paycheck boost of about 2.7 percent starting next January, unless the president or Congress pushes for a lower figure.

Each 1 percent of pay raises adds about $6 billion in new defense spending over five years. But instead of finding savings through cuts there, Smith said, officials need to look at ways to maximize recruiting and get more high-demand specialists in the ranks without wasting money.

“I think looking at how we change that recruiting effort is important,” he said. “You may not be able to pass the physical fitness test, but if you’re a computer genius, do we really want to reject you from serving in the military? We need to rethink what we need in terms of personnel to get there.”

The armed services committee chairman also said that White House officials need to rebalance military missions, scaling back some operations in favor of enhanced diplomacy and outreach efforts.

“We need to re-examine the national defense policy,” he said. “I believe that we can protect ourselves … but we can also meet our national security needs with a much more focused idea of what those national security needs are.”

He said that reassessment includes the ongoing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

“What we want in Afghanistan is a peaceful, stable government that respects human rights law,” he said. “Our military is not going to be able to achieve that. We’ve been going for 20 years and yet we continue to stick around. Meanwhile, it is an enormous expense.”

Biden has promised to end the U.S. military mission there, but also said meeting the May 1 deadline to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan (a marker set by the previous administration) is unlikely.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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