WASHINGTON — A Pentagon security review shows conditions improving in 18 countries once considered so dangerous that U.S. military who served there found something extra in their paychecks each month.
Now the Defense Department wants to take those countries and five waterways off the danger pay roster, saving about $120 million each year while taking a bite out of an estimated 56,000 troops' salaries, The Associated Press has learned.
Senior defense and military leaders are expected to meet later this week to review the matter and are poised to approve a new plan. Pentagon press secretary George Little declined to discuss details but said no final decisions have been made.
Senior military leaders came up with the proposed list of locations in their regions, including several countries in the heart of the tumultuous Middle East, such as Jordan, where hundreds of troops have recently deployed because of the bloody Syrian civil war on its border, and Bahrain.
Officials have argued that if service members are allowed to bring their families with them for assignments then it is difficult to argue that they should receive danger pay.
Defense officials said the proposal would strip the stipend – which can be up to $225 per month – from tens of thousands, including thousands stationed in Kuwait, which was a key hub during the Iraq war. It also would affect thousands of sailors who routinely travel through the Persian Gulf region on ships or airmen who fly over the Gulf.
The $225 monthly cut in pay would come regardless of the service member's base salary, which can range from a low of roughly $18,000 a year for a brand new recruit to a high of nearly $235,000 a year for a four-star general with more than 40 years in the military. Troops also can receive a variety of other allowances for housing, clothing or job specialties.
Defense officials described the proposal on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about it.
Under the plans being discussed, troops would still receive the extra money if they serve in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. The U.S. does not have any military members now serving in Iran.
Some of the countries that could likely be dropped from the list include Bahrain, where the Navy's 5th Fleet is located, as well as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Liberia, Haiti and several former Soviet republics.
The list has routinely evolved over many years, with countries added as they became more dangerous hotspots. And military leaders do periodic reviews of the list.
While the changes are based solely on the security review, the cuts also come as the Pentagon is under growing pressure to slash its budget, and as more than 650,000 civilians began taking the first of their 11 required days off without pay through the end of this fiscal year on Sept. 30.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said earlier this week that the fiscal pressures and congressional gridlock have led to far more abrupt and steeper cuts than expected. He noted that if Congress does not find a way to avoid the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, the department will have to find $52 billion in additional savings next year.
So far, the danger pay decision does not affect the tax-free status of service members' pay when serving in those countries or on ships in the Gulf region.
Under existing Defense Department rules, military troops serving in as many as two dozen different nations as well as the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Gulf of Oman, Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden have been able to receive the imminent danger pay. Until early 2012, they received the full monthly amount – $225 at the time – for any complete or partial month they served in any of the qualifying areas.
Beginning Feb. 1, 2012, troops received pro-rated payments of $7.50 for each day they were on official duty in one of the areas.
The total cost has been about $500 million per year.
Officials also said the proposed changes do not affect hostile fire pay. Service members who are exposed to a hostile fire or hostile mine explosion event are eligible to receive a full monthly payment of $225. But they can't receive both danger pay and hostile fire pay for the same month.