Hagel must rein in DOD civilian workforce

Department of Defense/Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel addresses audience members during a welcoming and swearing in ceremony at the Pentagon, March 14, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • While the active duty military has been shrinking, the Pentagon workforce has only grown larger.

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  • Despite recent plans to cut the civilian workforce, the number of DoD civilians has grown.

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  • Feel-good speeches are not enough. The Pentagon needs a detailed plan to rein in the civilian workforce.

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The Obama administration has responded to military budget cuts thus far by prioritizing one defense workforce over another. The active duty military has been shrinking while the large Pentagon civilian workforce has only grown.

Since coming into office, the President has set into motion a plan to cut the active duty military by roughly 7 percent, mostly as a result of reductions to the US Army and Marine Corps. The Department of Defense (DoD) civilian workforce, meanwhile, has grown about 13 percent since Obama's first budget.

While there is talk of needing to now belatedly reduce the DoD federal civilian workforce by four or five percent over five years, these minor reductions are based on actions Congress is unlikely to approve -- like base closures.

Worse, in recent years when the Pentagon said it would cut civilians, the number of people actually grew instead.

Quickly running out of troops to cut from the payroll in a short amount of time, the administration is now talking of the need to eliminate 40,000 civilian positions. This sounds like a necessary and overdue step to rightsize this workforce.

Except just over a year ago, the President's 2013 budget request proposed a very modest one percent reduction in Pentagon civilian workforce levels from 764,000 in 2012 to 756,000 this year. Even this meager decrease in defense civilians was not achieved, however.

Instead, the Pentagon's civilian workforce actually swelled by nearly two percent over the course of the year to over 777,000 people. Now, Pentagon officials are again proposing another minor decline of roughly two percent from this workforce. But even if this request became reality -- a dubious proposition, as Pentagon leaders fully know -- that would still leave behind a DoD civilian workforce bigger this year than last year.

For all of the heightened chatter from leaders about needing to address the Pentagon's so-called "Fourth Estate," there is only backsliding and bloat in these areas of spending. This is the kind of budgetary sleight of hand that the Pentagon simply cannot be allowed to continue.

The imperative for reductions in the DoD civilian workforce is real after a decade of unchecked growth and a contracting military's needs decline. The new Secretary of Defense must move beyond feel-good speeches and make a detailed plan which he personally oversees to rein in this largesse. 

Mackenzie Eaglen is a Resident Fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.

 

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