Pentagon should cut civilian, not military, personnel

It isn’t often that Pentagon leaders find themselves without the support of their primary constituency, but that’s just what Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is facing today with his proposed severe reduction in the number of uniformed personnel. Civilian employees, however, appear to be largely sheltered in plans Hagel has submitted for a trimmed down department. Cutting the tail instead of pulling the teeth of the department undermines our ability to ensure the security of the United States and provide meaningfully for enlisted service members and their families.

Hagel has proposed reducing the strength of the Army, for example, from its present level of about 520,000 to “around 450,000” in order to meet budgetary goals. He has also proposed a number of other cuts in manpower, programs, equipment and benefits to enlisted personnel.

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The process by which Hagel’s proposal emerged is backwards. The administration is not supposed to take existing budgets and then change the force structure to suit its own spending priorities. Congress, rather, should be leading the conversation with the Pentagon on their mission. While political and economic realities mean that Secretary Hagel won’t receive all of the funding he’d like, a political give and take ensures that the country gets the best defense it can afford. It should be an ongoing, almost continuous process involving Congressional committees and hearings, and frequent interactions between military planners, bureaucrats and politicians. A peremptory decision by a political appointee upsets this long-established structure and weakens our national security.

There is no shortage of ideas for finding savings in the defense budget. Waste, fraud and abuse exist in ample quantity and savings could surely be made in numerous ways. But without the benefit of a full defense review covering force levels to support national needs, Hagel has left civilian support for the Pentagon largely untouched.

Tellingly, the American Federation of Government Employees, the nation’s largest federal employee union, opposes recently introduced legislation in the House that would upset Hagel’s proposal by cutting the civilian defense workforce by 15 percent over six years and using the savings from the cuts to support uniformed personnel.

Currently, the Department of Defense is the biggest civilian employer in the federal government with nearly 800,000 full-time employees. This represents almost half of the entire federal system and is nearly four times the size of the workforce at the Department of Homeland Security. Enormous civilian employment is difficult to reconcile with the department’s stated mission to provide “the military forces needed to deter war and protect the security of our country.”

Congress should exercise its oversight to have Secretary Hagel account for how many of those civilian jobs are essential; how many could be done by uniformed personnel; how much does a civilian cost compared to military personnel in the same role after taking into account overtime (paid to civilians but not to service members), pensions, and benefits?

Military personnel are taught the importance of logistics, and one of the key points arising from studying logistics is to determine the “tooth to tail” ratio. This is usually applied to purely military capabilities, to assess the size of the logistic tail compared to the numbers of fighting troops, but in this case, the ratio is an obvious one. How many civilian personnel does it really take to achieve the department’s mission?

A number of non-partisan think tanks have assessed the situation and suggested cutting this civilian ‘tail’ by up to 27 percent, which would still have the department employing a significantly larger civilian workforce than any single branch of the military. Such a reduction seems certain to achieve all the savings Secretary Hagel is aiming for without diminishing our fighting capabilities.

The 15 percent cut being discussed on Capitol Hill would save an estimated $82.5 billion over the first five years – enough for the maintenance of existing uniformed personnel levels and equipment programs, and likely the maintenance of current benefits. As the use of food stamps at military commissaries has tripled since 2008, the cost savings under the recommended 27 percent cut could potentially lead to urgently needed salary increases for uniformed personnel.

Secretary Hagel and – through his silence to date, Chairman of the Joint Chief’s General Martin Dempsey – can certainly be more creative in how uniformed personnel might serve the department in new and more efficient ways than the existing legion of civilians on the payroll. Rather than waiting for Congress to move its bill through the legislative process, the Pentagon ought to reverse course and recall its priorities first and foremost to the national defense and those who wear the uniform.

Wilson is a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.