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Defense budget casualties light on civilian side

Overhead costs rise quickly

The Pentagon's civilian workforce, which expanded dramatically during President Obama's first three years, is not facing any significant reductions even as the Defense Department is slashing ground troops by more than 10 percent, retiring ships and combat planes, and putting off the purchases of some new weapons.

President Bush's last budget, for fiscal 2009, pegged Defense Department civilians at 739,000, according to the department's latest "Green Book" budget document on total spending.

This year, the number of civilians sits at 801,000, an increase of 62,000 personnel, or 8 percent; it is expected to decline by 1 percent next year.

Some defense analysts say this was not supposed to happen.

In the summer of 2010, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced a series of cost-saving initiatives that included keeping civilian employees to that year's number of 778,000. The services started issuing press releases on the number of civilian jobs they had erased.

Two years later, civilian employment has risen by 23,000 personnel.

At about the same time as the Gates downsizing push, the Defense Business Board, a Pentagon advisory panel to the defense secretary, issued a report calling for a 15 percent decrease in civilian employees.

"That has not happened," said Arnold Punaro, who led the task force.

Mr. Punaro, a retired Marine Corps Reserve major general who headed the Senate Armed Services Committee's Democratic staff, said the defense budget is suffering through rapid increases in personnel overhead costs at the expense of troops.

"While the fighting force is coming down, the overhead continues to grow," he said. "It was an adverse ratio to start with, and it's getting worse. You want to put your money in the tip of the spear, not in the rear with the gear."

Overhead and cost savings

"They are not reducing the overhead they way they need to. George Bush did not do it, and Obama hasn't done it either," Mr. Punaro said. "When you are downsizing the fighting side of the Army and Marine Corps, shouldn't we take a hard look at headquarters and overhead?"

The Pentagon offers reasons for the growing wartime civilian workforce under Mr. Obama.

"The department's civilian growth is largely tied to key strategic initiatives, including improved acquisition practices, increased medical support for our troops and their families, and greater protection of our [information technology] systems," said Army Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

"As a result, there were increases in the acquisition workforce, the medical support staff, and the cyber/IT staff. There were also military-to-civilian conversions to get the military back to their primary responsibilities, and as a cost-saving measure, the department insourced contractor positions to civilian positions," she said.

"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."

'Government always gets bigger'

When Mr. Gates announced an attempt to freeze civilian jobs in 2010, he stated that "our headquarters and support bureaucracies, military and civilian alike, have swelled to cumbersome and top-heavy proportions, grown over-reliant on contractors and grown accustomed to operating with little consideration to cost."

Steven Bucci does not see it that way, after having directed a homeland defense office of civilian employees, military personnel and private contractors in the Donald H. Rumsfeld Pentagon, when troops and bureaucratic manpower grew to fight the war on terrorism.

"I had 60 people working for me and 30 of them were contractors, and I've got to tell you, I needed every one of those bodies," said Mr. Bucci, a retired Army Green Beret colonel who now is an analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

"In the areas I worked in, we didn't have a lot of fat. I had one admin person who supported all 60 of us. I did not have a personal secretary and a bunch of other people to do budget and that sort of stuff. I did not see a lot of civilian fat in [the Pentagon]."

He recalls Mr. Rumsfeld asking why men and women in uniform were answering the phones and filing papers when civilians could do those jobs and free more troops to fight.

"If you hire a [civil service employee], once hired, if they don't work out, it is almost impossible to get rid of them," Mr. Bucci said Mr. Rumsfeld was told. "If the military person doesn't work out, you get a replacement."

Christopher Preble, an analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, advocates even deeper reductions in the active force. He has a simple explanation for why the number of civilian workers grows.

"Because government always gets bigger," he said. "I don't think there is any question the civilian workforce has grown far more than it should have. ... It has grown considerably more costly on a per-person basis in the same way it is more costly to maintain active-duty personnel.

"The U.S. military is far larger than it needs to be for the United States to be extremely secure and safe, far safer and secure than any other country on the planet and maybe in history."

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