Thomas Donlan devotes his latest Barron’s editorial commentary to sobering news linked to federal defense spending.

A poignant Washington joke has it that the federal government is really an insurance company that also operates the world’s strongest military, just in case anyone tries to mess with the benefits from Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the other programs that so many citizens depend on.

Now the joke has spawned a real problem: The insurance company won’t be able to afford its military much longer. Ever since 1973, when the draft was ended in favor of an all-volunteer force, the cost of paying people to serve has been rising faster than the cost of everything else that the military does.

This was the worrisome message from “Rebalancing Military Compensation,” a 2012 survey of more than 2,600 current and former service members conducted for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C. …

… As anyone familiar with the capital city would expect, it has taken a couple of years for the federal establishment to open an eye and see Harrison’s problematic vision.

Pay and benefits totaling $178 billion eat more than a third of the Defense Department’s annual budget, but that’s not even half the full story. Beyond the Pentagon budget lie such major expenditures as veterans’ benefits ($161 billion), Treasury payments to offset the underfunding of the military retirement fund and health-care fund ($80 billion), and the value of various tax breaks for active military personnel and retirees ($22 billion). By this reckoning, the nation spends about $800 billion on its military force, more than half of it going to the people who serve, those who formerly served, and their families.

Now a Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, appointed by congressional leaders of both parties, has published its final report on the problem. Unfortunately, the commission did more agonizing than solving. It refused to touch pay for active-duty service members, and it refused to mess with the health-care program for retirees and dependents who are more than 65 years old. …

… We should also see that the U.S. military is not the only thing that’s unsustainable. Analysts, editorialists, and even some risk-taking politicians have been saying for decades that civilian entitlement programs are unsustainable, and that they will consume the entire nonmilitary budget before 2039.

Of course, we can give the government more money, or we can shrink the military and shrink the entitlement programs. We might hear some talk about that this year, since it’s not a federal election year. But candidates who run for office vowing to raise taxes or cut spending aren’t likely to survive a year of campaigning.

One of these years, the federal establishment may open the other eye and see the problem clearly.