Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Army suicide stats and possible implications for future force structure* (UPDATED)

Vice Chief of Staff of the Army GEN Peter Chiarelli briefed the press this morning on last year's Army suicide statistics. The transcript isn't up yet, but according to media reports, he was expected to reveal a decrease in the total number of suicides across the force in the Active Component [ed--updated] from 2009 to 2010. Unfortunately these statistics were also expected to show a dramatic spike in the number of Guardsmen and Reservists taking their own lives.

UPDATE: The transcript of GEN Chiarelli's remarks, which include more precise statistics, is now online. The total number of suicides across all components of the Army was up around 25% from calendar year 2009. On the active/reserve issue, the Vice observed that "the reality is, we are able to more effectively influence those soldiers serving on active duty and help mitigate the stressors affecting them."

This isn't an entirely novel trend, and I've seen a number of plausible explanations for why it might be so: distance from military mental health facilities, dislocation from the support structure developed in one's (civilian) personal life, financial pressure, and so on. One of the interesting things about the way the Army reports these statistics is that members of the Guard and Reserve who commit suicide while mobilized for active duty -- that is, those who are activated for combat service or combat support -- are counted among the active duty numbers. So what these figures indicate is that there's been an uptick in the number of part-time soldiers to kill themselves essentially while living as civilians. These are people who are largely inaccessible to the government's mental health network, and whose emotional health may be impacted by the pressures of daily life outside of uniform in ways that are difficult to distinguish from the negative effects of military service. This is a troubling reality for the Army, the DoD, and the VA, because it complicates efforts to develop effective policy solutions to help these individuals.

Mental health issues are and ought to be extremely important of their own right, but I think this development can help to inform some conclusions about future force structure. The way we organize the military is, pretty evidently, a budget question as much as an operational one. In this time of budgetary austerity, a number of people who oppose cuts to the defense topline have argued both to preserve expensive weapon systems and to maintain the presently inflated personnel end-strength of U.S. ground forces. Even more craven are those who insinuate that inflated military personnel costs -- pay, benefits, health care, and the like; what they refer to disparagingly as "defense entitlements" -- have damagingly starved modernization accounts of the cash needed to effectively defend the nation. And the worst of these argue that program cuts will cost lives, while altogether ignoring the reality that underfunded personnel accounts can do the same: that's when services are denied the resources they use to provide mental-health care, among other "entitlements," to their people.

This is an oversimplification, but we can boil defense spending down to a pretty simple equation. Let's have E represent end-strength; that is, the total number of people in the military. Let P be per-capita personnel costs -- an abstracted figure that represents how much is spent per servicemember on pay, benefits, and the like. O is for operations and maintenance, or the cost of doing business in combat zones and training areas. And then M is for modernization: cash spent on new weapon systems. We'll use D to signify the defense topline -- the overall budget.
D = M + O + (E x P)
For those of you who failed algebra, I'll restate that in narrative form: defense spending equals the sum of modernization plus operations added to end-strength times personnel costs. Again, this is a simplification, and each of these variables abstracts a number of other spending decisions that are nested within it: we could make the P smaller by cutting pay and benefits, or make the O smaller by having less wars. For the sake of simplicity, let's assume the O is stable thanks to ongoing conflicts that will be resourced at a certain level free of influence from other spending concerns. Now we have this:
D = M + (E x P)
If D is to remain stable -- i.e., we can't add anything to the topline -- there are certain concrete, unavoidable consequences to playing with one of these variables. If you want to spend more money on F-22s, for example (increase M), then the other half of the equation has to go down. And for that to happen, you have to either make E smaller -- cut personnel numbers -- or make P smaller by cutting benefits and pay. If you want to have a huge land army (increase E), then you have to either dramatically slash the amount you spend on weapon systems procurement or make more moderate cuts to modernization AND some reduction in benefits and pay.

By now you're wondering what this has got to do with suicide data, I'm sure. We're getting there, but let me first get to the "future force structure" part. As may seem obvious to you, if you have two armies of exactly the same size and Army A's end-strength is composed of 80% active-duty personnel and 20% guard and reserve personnel, while Army B has the exactly reversed composition, Army B will be cheaper. Reservists and Guardsmen receive fewer benefits, are paid for much less of the year, and don't spend nearly as much time as the Active Component undergoing expensive training rotations. Recognizing this fact, some commentators have concluded that the best force structure for America in a resource-constrained environment would be one that had a small, expensive core of professional soldiers with a much larger strategic reserve of cheaper citizen-soldiers, available for activation in times of national crisis. This surely sounds sensible on the surface, as it would allow for savings across the board. Even if one rejects this dramatic rethinking of the composition of our forces, there are other, less ambitious affordability plans that encourage “greater Reserve and Guard integration” – that is, building more essential capability into the organizations and personnel that cost less to maintain.

But the suicide data released today should remind us of the negative consequences of this approach. Reservists are not so easily managed by the government as soldiers on active duty, for the simple and obvious reason that military leadership does not have 24/7 access to reserve and guard personnel. This means not only that officers and NCOs aren't around to make sure Specialist Jones stays physically fit or keeps his hair short, but that they can't monitor his emotional health. In the case of demobilization after active service in combat zones, reservist vets will often be far from mental health counselors and other mechanisms for the services to monitor social re-integration and the impact of postwar stress. Add to that the fact that reservists now face the many challenges of "regular life" in the civilian world, piled atop the trauma and stress experienced in uniform, and it's perhaps unsurprising that part-time troops are more troubled. To take a purely practical view of this, that means the Guard and Reserves will often have a lower rate of what the Army calls Comprehensive Soldier Fitness... and by extension, combat readiness.

This has been a circuitous way of saying that while a reserves-centric force would be much, much cheaper, it comes with its own problems. (This is particularly true if you plan to continue mobilizing those Guard and Reserve units at an extremely high rate, as has been done over the last eight to ten years.) Among the most significant of these is this near-epidemic of mental health issues, which pose a threat not just to combat readiness and operational effectiveness, but to the government's very moral authority – born of the pledge to care for those who serve. Ask the families of private security contractors killed and wounded in support of U.S. combat missions about the pernicious effects of a drive to reduce personnel “overhead” by outsourcing security functions; reservists represent similar “overhead” savings, but is it a good idea to consider a similar “outsourcing” of the bulk of military operations to reservists and Guardsmen?

Of course, there are other solutions. You can shrink overall end-strength without shifting more responsibility to the reserves, but that means a re-imagining of the roles and missions of the military. I suppose you could keep sending 100K+ troops to foreign lands for one-year tours, maintaining that presence for years on end, even with a smaller force… but you’d better have some damned good incentive structure to keep people from jumping out when their enlistment is up. That doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that’s possible when you feel compelled to choose a few dozen more air-superiority fighters over a better enlisted compensation package, for example. Recruiting and retention may not be much trouble with ~9% unemployment, but you can’t (and wouldn’t want to) bank on that one indefinitely, either.

Military personnel costs are the third rail of defense budgeting. If you don’t have the gall and the balls to argue that soldiers and Marines are gonna die without the EFV/FCS/F-22, or if you’re unwilling to accept a choice between systems’ survivability and troops’ quality of life, then you have to figure out a way to operate with a smaller force. Focusing on the reserves might not be the right answer.

*DISCLAIMER: I meant for this post to be just a couple of sentences about the lessons we should be learning about future force structure from the Army’s suicide data. There wasn’t a whole lot of planning or thought behind it, and it’s not built on a complex understanding either of personnel issues writ large or the way the Guard and Reserves organize, train, recruit, retain, or compensate their force. I am not an expert on either of these subjects; in fact, I probably don’t know much more about them than the average guy reading the newspaper. But this exercise took me off in an unexpected direction, and rather than edit down to something tight and persuasive, I thought I’d just leave this virtual stream-of-consciousness essay up as a discussion-starter. If you know more about this than me, tell me. If you think I’m an idiot, tell me. If you think my conclusions are ludicrous, and that suicide data should be considered for the troubling message it conveys about the psychological and emotional health of our force, and not for budget implications, then I’ll mostly agree with you but quietly hope that you understand the purpose of what I’m trying to do here.

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