Pentagon wants 15-year career to earn pension Experimental policy could bump out 62,000, save government $4 billion

February 23, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- Starting next September, the Defense Department will offer selected military personnel an opportunity to retire with only 15 years of service.

The unprecedented program could put as many as 62,000 men and women on the civilian job market in the next four years.

Those who take the offer would draw monthly checks for a lifetime, but for less than they would receive under the military's regular retirement program. The regular plan requires a minimum of 20 years of service to qualify for pension checks amounting to half of base pay.

The new program is likely to be received enthusiastically both by service officials and by personnel with 15 or more years of service who see career opportunities drying up as the military reduces its strength.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 62,000 would be eligible for early retirement from 1994 to 1998. If all accept it, the government would save $4 billion.

The military will shrink from 1.6 million active personnel in the so-called Base Force to 1.4 million under a plan by Defense Secretary Les Aspin. The budget office says the early retirees would not be needed by this smaller military.

For Air Force Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Clark, 35, the new plan will be a good deal. He was tapped by a reduction-in-force board last summer to lose his commission as a captain.

To avoid losing his 14 years of service credit toward retirement, he chose to stay in the Air Force as a staff sergeant. He will complete 15 years in May, which will make him eligible for retirement under the new program.

Navy Capt. Steve Clawson says the Navy, like the other services, has been offering inducements to get some people with more than six years of service to leave voluntarily. For a chief petty officer with 14 years of service, this could mean a lump sum payment of $47,000, or $7,000 a year for 28 years.

However, the Navy has not been successful in getting the more senior personnel in surplus jobs to leave.

These people, Captain Clawson says, are strongly tempted to remain in service to qualify for the military's 20-year retirement program, which brings much higher lifetime benefits in both money and access to the military's free medical care system.

The idea for a 15-year retirement program was first outlined last year by Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Mr. Nunn points out that the voluntary separation payments already voted by Congress would be used primarily by military members with less than 15 years' service, as Navy statistics have since confirmed.

"The military services understandably are very reluctant to [forcibly] separate people with 15 to 20 years of service because [they] are so close to the 20-year retirement point. However, the 225,000 people in this category represent 12 percent of the active-duty force," Mr. Nunn says.

"Unless some reductions are made in this group, the services will be left with . . . too many senior officers and noncommissioned officers," Mr. Nunn says.

Under the program, a staff sergeant who would normally retire at 20 years and receive half his base pay, or $10,600 a year, could retire at 15 years and receive about 37 percent of base pay, or $7,600 a year -- an average lifetime savings to the taxpayer of an estimated $50,000.

In the fiscal 1993 defense bill, Congress authorized a 15-year retirement program, but it was not implemented by the Bush administration. However, sources said, Mr. Aspin supports the concept and it will be implemented in fiscal 1994, beginning Sept. 1.

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