Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Costs Debated

A follow-up study by the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military reinforces its earlier conclusion that the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy has cost the U.S. far in excess of the government’s official estimate.

Senator Ted Kennedy challenged the Government Accountability Office to justify the far lower cost it has assigned to the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy than found by a major academic research center, and that center’s director, Aaron Belkin, dispute the GAO’s response.

In 2005, the Government Accountability Office, the official investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, released a report that estimated the military’s policy of discharging open gay and lesbian service members had cost more than $190 million in the previous 10 years.

But a later analysis by a blue ribbon panel formed under the auspices of the Center, which is part of the University of California at Santa Barbara, determined that the GAO had underestimated several significant costs associated with the policy. The panel’s conclusion was that the cost of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was actually more than twice the GAO estimate.

Prompted by the discrepancy, Senator Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, sent a letter to the GAO requesting clarification. In July, the GAO responded, concluding that the divergence between the two estimates was caused by the Center’s reliance on two items—the cost to train individuals later discharged under the military policy and the additional investment made to provide some of those soldiers with specialized skills such as intelligence analysis, language competency, and communications operations. The GAO said the Center overestimated the investment required for a single recruit because it included spending in infrastructure and overhead associated with training that is sunk cost distributed over the entire force not necessarily lost when an individual soldier departs the service.

“Including total infrastructure costs was not appropriate for our 2005 estimate since individuals separated for homosexual conduct represent such a small portion of the active force,” the July GAO letter said.

The GAO then specifically explained why an earlier estimate it made regarding training costs for the military in general had included infrastructure and overhead costs.

“Our 1998 estimate was intended to demonstrate the magnitude of the cost of training all recruits (hundreds of thousands each year) and the potential loss when attrition rates are high,” the GAO letter said.

As well, the GAO said, its numbers were an accurate response to the mandate it was given and that its report did not claim to analyze the actual cost of each discharged service member based on their particular training and length of training. Instead, the agency said, it relied on per-person costs provided by the military.

The figure presented by the Center’s blue ribbon commission was also higher, according to the GAO, because it included an inflation estimate not attempted in the government study.

In a letter issued last month, the Center’s director, Aaron Belkin, who chaired the blue ribbon commission, wrote that the GAO’s defense of its own study had several serious flaws.

First, Belkin’s group looked back to the 1998 GAO report that found that the average cost of training an enlistee—which the agency conceded factored in all infrastructure and overhead expenses—totaled $28,800. For its 2005 study of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell costs, the GAO relied on the smaller figures of $6,400 for the Army, $7,400 for the Air Force, and $18,800 for the Navy.

The GAO’s letter had defended those dramatically different figures on the basis of the fact that the first study looked at the overall impact of higher attrition rates generally—which involve far higher numbers of individuals leaving the service than is the case with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. As a result, the government agency felt justified in assigning the all-in cost to that personnel loss. For the smaller number of gay discharges, it argues, the incremental impact on overhead costs is negligible.

But Belkin responds that the disparate analysis not only compares apples and oranges, but also vastly overstates the cost of fixed overhead.

“GAO’s July 13 response misleads,” Belkin wrote, “by suggesting that infrastructure costs account for a substantial proportion of the $28,200… GAO provides no data to support this assertion, and other data published by GAO indicate that the figure is based primarily on direct costs, not infrastructure costs.”

Belkin also contended that had the GAO examined individual service data, rather than assuming that persons discharged under certain categories had completed only basic training, it would have found in most cases that the far lower costs it assigned to each soldier’s training were erroneous. This, he said, calls into question other estimates made by the GAO.

“What we don’t understand is how they could still defend their study even after we corrected their numbers in a transparent fashion,” said Nathaniel Frank, a senior research fellow at the Center.

In particular, Frank pointed to the individualized costs revealed when the Center’s blue ribbon commission analyzed how and for what a soldier had trained. The GAO in its 2005 report said privacy concerns prevented them from carrying out such an analysis.

“And when they didn’t have data, they minimized its impact,” Frank said.

Derek Stewart, GAO director for military and DOD civilian personnel issues, said in an interview that his agency’s report was accurate based on what it was asked to do and the methodology employed.

“Without getting into a tête-à-tête with the commission, the figure of $28,800 is based on what it costs to train every member of the armed forces, from infantrymen to doctors,” Stewart said. “Most of those discharged under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell were in the service a very short time and a small number, so we limited the costs to the actual jobs being performed by those dismissed.”

He reiterated the argument that because the number of those discharged under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was small compared with the overall force, including infrastructure costs did not make sense.

Stewart also said including costs of paying for a service member’s transportation home after being discharged under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell did not make sense because every service member is entitled to that no matter their reason for leaving the armed forces.

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