SFTT News: Week Ending Mar 24, 2017

Found below are a few military news items that caught my attention this past week. I am hopeful that the titles and short commentary will encourage SFTT readers to click on the embedded links to read more on subjects that may be of interest to them.

If you have subjects of topical interest, please do not hesitate to reach out. Contact SFTT.

Does President Trump’s Military Budget Help “Grunts?”
Trump, who positions himself as the champion of the working class, has promised to pump billions more into the military. Yet the initial numbers suggest those who really benefit will be the ones who always benefit: the big defense contractors and their enablers at the Pentagon and Congress. The last people to see that flood of spending will be the ones most likely to fight and die: the grunts.   Read more . . .

All Laser Military by 2025?
Lasers have been a mainstay of sci-fi battles for decades. But making them practical for the battlefield has proven difficult. Now, private contractors and government agencies have developed weapons systems that are making science fiction a reality. This was made evident when Lockheed Martin and the US Army recently announced, a successful test of a 60-kilowatt (kW) laser. This one was twice as powerful as one they assessed in 2015.  Read more . . .

Changes in Tactics Required for “Megacity” Warfare?
Speaking at the Future of War Conference 2017 hosted by New America in Washington, D.C., Gen. Mark Milley said that the character of warfare will likely go through a fundamental shift over the next decade. The world’s population is steadily moving toward living in megacities. Currently, there are about a dozen of these huge urban areas with populations of more than 10 million. By mid-century, “we are going to have at least 50 or more,” Milley said.  Read more . . .

Nato Logo

Assessment of New NATO-Russia Balance
Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, the military balance between NATO and Russia, after years of inattention, has again become the focus of intense concern and even alarm in some Western quarters. From NATO’s vantage point, Russia poses a serious military threat to its eastern flank—and to Euro-Atlantic security more broadly—for three reasons.  Read more . . .

VA Recommends Hiring “Surge” to Deal with Disability Claims
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is warning the backlog for veterans appealing decisions involving disability benefits will grow if the Trump administration goes ahead with its harsh budget cuts. Waiting times could grow to as much as eight-and-a-half years. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on Veterans Affairs Disability Benefits released on Thursday found staff resources at the agency had not kept pace with increased pending appeals, and concluded that additional staff were needed.  Read more . . .

Criticism of VA Suicide Hotline
The VA suicide hotline is still sending nearly a third of calls to outside back-up centers despite pledges by Veterans Affairs officials to stop the practice last year after a scathing report found the centers had routed veterans to voicemail, an inspector general investigation found. The VA opened a new call center and hired more staff to answer phones, but as of November, 30% of calls — or 14,600 that month — rolled over to backup centers.  Read more . . .

Refugees with PTSD Handle Stress Differently
PTSD is a mental health disorder that makes a person re-experience a traumatic event. “What we discovered was that a gene associated with a person’s mental health became overactive in refugees with PTSD and wasn’t able to respond the right way when working with the body’s stress defense system,” said Bengt Arnetz, a professor of family medicine who led the study. The methyl CpG binding protein 2 gene, or MECP2, helps control the normal function of nerve cells and plays an important role in mental health and the body’s ability to handle stress. The findings are being presented at the American Psychosomatic Society’s annual meeting on March 18.  Read more . . .

Drop me an email at info@sftt.org if you believe that there are other subjects that are newsworthy.

Feel you should do more to help our brave men and women who wear the uniform or our Veterans? Consider donating to Stand For The Troops

2017 Veterans Affairs Budget: Breaking Down the Numbers

Politicians from both sides of the political spectrum tend to use budget data in much the same way a magician conjures a rabbit out of a top hat.  Sadly, the Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA”) budget – in the hands of a politician – often becomes an instrument of posturing for voters rather than a management tool to efficiently allocate limited funds and resources to our Veteran population.

In analyzing the 2017 VA Budget, it is useful to analyze a few broad parameters to help pinpoint the “macro” issues.  Certainly, the VA can operate more efficiently, but this assumes that the VA management is committed to insure that Veterans receive the best care possible.

Unfortunately, management efficiency within the VA is beyond the scope of this very preliminary analysis of the 2017 VA budget.

SFTT’s focus is on how well – in “macro” terms – the 2017 VA budget actually benefits Veterans.

Discretionary vs Mandated Spending at the VA

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, “The President’s 2017 Budget includes $182.3 billion for VA in 2017.  This includes $78.7 billion in discretionary resources and $103.6 billion in mandatory funding.  Our (sic the VA) discretionary budget request represents an increase of $3.6 billion, or 4.9 percent, over the 2016 enacted level.”

Department of Veterans Affairs

In effect, discretionary spending at the VA has been spared the axe of many other government programs.  As stated above, discretionary spending at the VA is projected to increase 4.9%.  This analysis will focus only on discretionary spending to determine whether the proposed increase actually benefits Veterans.

Discretionary spending represents only 43% of the total VA budget, while some 57% is allocated toward “mandatory programs” that support Veterans who meet predetermined criteria.   Needless to say, eligibility for Veterans to tap into those “mandatory” programs are largely determined by the VA. Many question the rationale and the process used by VA administrators to determine eligibility and the level of compensation.

Analyzing the Discretionary Spending Increases at the VA

All too often we confuse an “increased budget” with better service or improved end-user outcomes.  In the case of the VA the “end-user” is a Veteran who avails himself or herself of VA services.

To explain this apparent paradox, I cite the following example.  For instance, if the entire 4.9% budget increase is allocated to existing staff, then Veterans will receive NO better service or end-user outcomes UNLESS operating efficiencies occur within the VA.  In effect, you are relying on the VA’s NEW management to perform a better job than their predecessors rather than expecting the increased budget allocation to improve the lives of Veterans.

The same logic could be applied to price increases for drugs, third-party consulting services and other discretionary contractual obligations.

The budget is cleverly designed to avoid breaking out staff salary expenses.  Instead it focuses on programs such as “Benefits Claims Processing,” “Medical Care, and “Information Technology.”  Therefore,  it is rather difficult (if not impossible) to breakout budgeted expenses to obtain a better understanding to the cost-benefit relationships.

What is clear, is that the Department of Veterans Affairs hires well over 350,000 full-time employees and staffing has increased by roughly 10% over the past two years.  The good news is that over 32% of VA staffing are Veterans:

Veterans Affairs Budget

Without getting into the details of the budget, it is difficult to know whether taxpayer dollars are being spent efficiently within the VA.  With an average annual salary of approximately $50,000 (estimated national average), total VA staff expenses should exceed $18 billion.  To this, one needs to tack on an additional 30% (estimated) in staff-related expenses (social security, severance pay, pension plan, unemployment insurance, etc).

Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that roughly one-third of the “discretionary” budget is allocated toward staff.  It would be most interesting to know, how much money is allocated to third-party contractors, consultants and part-time employees.

Fitch reports that on average, “staff expenses” represent 54% of total operating expenses of privately run hospitals.  As such, the “scratch-pad” analysis above suggests that the VA is woefully understaffed (i.e. 1/3 of discretionary expenses) or that staff expenses and outside contractor expenses are much higher as a percentage of total discretionary spending.

The issue is not to question whether these staffing and compensation levels are appropriate, but to determine whether the end-user (i.e. the Veteran) is receiving the full benefit of this budgetary increase.

I suspect not, but it is next to impossible to determine how funds are allocated and whether they are done so efficiently.

While the new administration appears to be sending the “right” message to the VA, the current budget seems rather superficial and I detect little that represents a major change in direction of a huge government entity that seems more interested in defending its turf than representing the interests of all Veterans.

SFTT Military News: Week Ending Mar 17, 2016

Found below are a few military news items that caught my attention this past week. I am hopeful that the titles and short commentary will encourage SFTT readers to click on the embedded links to read more on subjects that may be of interest to them.

If you have subjects of topical interest, please do not hesitate to reach out. Contact SFTT.

Kim - North Korean

Military Action in North Korea on the Table?
The US has said its policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea is over and suggested it might decide to take preemptive military action. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the option was “on the table” if the threat from the North’s weapons programme reached a level requiring it. During a visit to South Korea, he also said the US was exploring a range of new diplomatic and economic measures. And he defended the deployment of a US missile system in South Korea. The move has angered China, but South Korea and the US say the system is needed as a defence against North Korean aggression.  Read more  . . .

Energy Efficiency Now a Military Priority
The US military sees climate change as a national security threat. So, it’s finding ways to adapt to global warming, to make the armed forces stronger and more flexible.  The US military burns over 1.25 billion gallons of fuel a year, and the Department of Defense is the country’s single largest consumer of fossil fuels, according to Goudreau. “When you talk climate issues, you can talk mitigation or adaptation. Every single gallon of fuel that we burn is carbon going into the atmosphere,” he says.   Read more . . .

Big Increase Proposed in Military Spending
As US president Donald Trump was proposing a $54 billion defense spending hike on March 16, something rather different was happening in Russia. With its economy sputtering, there are reports that it could slash its military budget by 25%. The actual figure is actually more likely to be around 5%, explains Mark Galeotti, a Russian security expert at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. And it comes after several years of rapid growth in Russia’s defense spending. But that still reveals a stark discrepancy. Trump wants to bolster America’s military with an amount not far short of Russia’s entire 2016 defense budget of $65.8 billion (3.8 trillion rubles).  Read more . . .

1,000 Ground Troops to Syria?
The U.S. military has drawn up early plans that would deploy up to 1,000 more troops into northern Syria in the coming weeks, expanding the American presence in the country ahead of the offensive on the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, according to U.S. defense officials familiar with the matter. The deployment, if approved by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and President Trump, would potentially double the number of U.S. forces in Syria and increase the potential for direct U.S. combat involvement in a conflict that has been characterized by confusion and competing priorities among disparate forces.   Read more . . .

Dr. David Shulkin, VA Secretary

VA Budget to Grow by 6%
The Department of Veterans Affairs, the second-largest federal agency with 313,000 civilian employees and a far-flung hospital system, is one of the few corners of the government that would see its budget grow in the next fiscal year — by 6 percent. During his campaign, President Trump promised dramatic reforms at an agency he said was filled with a culture of “fraud, coverups and wrongdoing” after a 2014 scandal over coverups of patient wait times for medical care. His first spending plan would boost VA’s budget by $4.4 billion, to $78.9 billion, with much of the new money dedicated “to improve patient access and timeliness of medical care” for the more than 9 million veterans who use the system.  Read more . . .

South Carolina Discussion on Veterans with PTSD Stereotypes
There are many stereotypes surrounding veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Many of them are negative and paint those living with PTSD as violent. However, the Student Veteran Association at the University of South Carolina is aiming to change that perception. “PTSD, it is the normal reaction of human beings who experience extraordinary events,” says Dr. Nancy Brown with the College of Social Work at USC. On Wednesday night, six panelist, with different military backgrounds, all living with PTSD in their own way are hoping to educate and knock down perceptions.  Read more . . .

Drop me an email at info@sftt.org if you believe that there are other subjects that are newsworthy.

Feel you should do more to help our brave men and women who wear the uniform or our Veterans? Consider donating to Stand For The Troops

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