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Given the increasing demands on U.S. forces from a global war on terror — including long, arduous tours in Iraq and Afghanistan — Department of Defense officials will ask an independent commission to assess whether current pay and benefits are right for attracting and retaining a quality force.

DOD plans to announce a seven-member commission of outside pay and personnel experts to study the sometimes-confusing mix of pay, allowances, bonuses, special pay and noncash benefits that has evolved out of the Cold War era of large standing forces.

The adequacy of Reserve and National Guard compensation also will be reviewed, given the greater reliance today on those components.

The commission could begin work as early as April and make recommendations to the secretary of defense by early 2005.

Defense officials say obvious weaknesses in existing pay have become apparent during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. An example is the lingering controversy over Congress’ decision in April to raise monthly Family Separation Allowance by $150 and Imminent Danger Pay by $75.

Lawmakers believed the hikes were the best way to boost pay quickly for deployed forces and mobilized reservists. The increases were made retroactive to October 2002 and were to expire by October 2003.

Defense officials opposed the increases as inefficient for rewarding combat forces. Though lacking a ready alternative, the Bush administration quietly urged Congress to allow the FSA and IDP increases to expire. Democrats criticized the administration for trying to roll back pay for troops at war.

By August, the political heat was so high DOD officials held a press conference to dismiss as “absurd” any notion that they would support a drop in pay for members in Iraq and Afghanistan. There just wasn’t a solid plan yet to better target the increases.

David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, noted that the raise in FSA, from $100 a month to $250 a month, went to tens of thousands of members not assigned to combat areas, including those on routine sea deployments and those receiving stateside training. The IDP raise went to servicemembers in scores of designated danger areas around the world.

Another problem with FSA, which is designed to ease extra expenses on a family such as home repairs or additional child care when a parent is absent, is it doesn’t benefit unmarried troops, even in Iraq, Chu said.

The department promised to give Congress a replacement pay plan, aimed more precisely at personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would involve higher Hardship Duty Pay, which can vary in amount between arduous assignments, and offset a rollback in FSA and IDP in combat areas.

As 2003 ended, however, Congress voted only to extend April’s FSA and IDP increases at least through December 2004.

Defense officials had considered proposing another yearlong extension so the pay commission could tackle the FSA/IDP issue. Instead they decided the department needed to act sooner. Defense officials began shaping a new proposal and softening their former opposition.

The department is expected soon to recommend keeping Imminent Danger Pay at $225 a month, making permanent last April’s $75 increase.

On FSA, the department likely will recommend only a partial rollback and will protect the pay of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The old FSA rate of $100 a month had not been adjusted since 1991 and deserved to be raised. But $150 probably was too high. So DOD officials are expected to recommend some lowering of the current $250 rate.

For troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as of Dec. 31, the department might recommend that current FSA recipients be grandfathered from a cut until they get back home.

If approved by the defense comptroller and White House’s Office of Management and Budget, the FSA/IDP proposal could reach Congress sometime next month.

— Comments are welcomed. Write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111,

Centreville, VA 20120-1111, e-mail: milupdate@aol.com or visit: www.militaryupdate.com

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