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“Insource” refers to converting a contractor post to a government job — a switch that Mr. Punaro says adds costs over time.

“My argument is, if you need increases somewhere, you do it within a freeze level or do it by attrition,” he said. “In other words, you don’t grow the overall size of the workforce, because that is just growing the overhead. Some of these could be justified in terms of where you are putting the people, but why can’t you do it within the existing ceiling.”

A sizable force

Robert Hale, the Pentagon’s chief financial officer, told Congress in February that the number of civilian workers will fall by about 1 percent next year, to 791,000.

During the next five years, he said, he foresees only a “modest decline. I think it’s an issue we’ll have to look at again.”

This indicates that the Defense Department’s civilian workforce will not approach its Sept. 11, 2001, payroll of 687,000 employees even though the Pentagon has largely removed itself from Iraq and is winding down operations in Afghanistan.

The active military is being cut back to nearly its 2001 roster of about 1.4 million. The troop downsizing is a big part of the Obama administration’s plan to make $487 billion in defense cuts over 10 years.

Looked at another way, the Pentagon’s 801,000 civilians exceed the combined size of the active-duty Navy and Air Force.

The civilian workforce is even larger when the department’s 766,000 private contractors — many added during the George W. Bush years — are counted. Together, this civilian force exceeds the uniformed active force by more than 150,000.

The Office of Secretary of the Defense lists 2,700 military and civilian workers. But when contractors and reservists on active duty are counted, the number swells to more than 5,000.

The federal workforce’s size has become a political issue.

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has introduced legislation that would impose a 10 percent workforce reduction. He said this would fend off further automatic defense cuts, called sequestration, for 2013.

The issue came to a head as Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta appeared, with Mr. Hale, before the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense.

“Frankly, I don’t think you should de-trigger sequester on the backs of our civilian workforce,” Mr. Panetta testified. “I mean, I realize that savings could be achieved there, but the civilian workforce does perform a very important role for us in terms of support.”

A senior flag officer at the Pentagon told The Washington Times that because of federal rules, “the problem with reducing civilians is you can’t fire anyone. The only way to do it is not to replace them.”

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