Beginning in the 1970s, the United States dramatically improved what was already the top military in the world. Today the U.S. military remains among the best in history, perhaps the very best. But sustaining this quality is becoming increasingly difficult. Big problems are looming due to a wicked combination of economic and demographic trends.
The most obvious and pressing problem is the military's mounting personnel costs. The Pentagon's personnel tab, which includes not only pay, but also health care and retirement benefits, has doubled over the past decade and now consumes about a third of the base defense budget.
There are now more military retirees drawing pensions and benefits, at a cost of $50 billion a year, than there are active service members. Military retirees begin receiving payments upon leaving the service, at an average age of 47 for officers and 43 for enlisted soldiers. For the most senior officers, retirement pay can exceed $250,000 per year. And the costs continue to grow. The Defense Business Board estimated that payments to retirees will balloon to $59.3 billion per year by 2020.