The Pentagon will decide in the next two or three weeks whether it will require its nearly 800,000 civilian workers to take unpaid leave this year, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress on Tuesday.
The furloughs — estimated to be up to 14 days — would help the Defense Department meet budget cuts required by the automatic spending reduction process that began March 1.
Testifying before the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, Mr. Hagel said that exceptions will be made for “priority jobs — safety, security, expertise and so on” if the furloughs occur.
“That said, what we have tried to do in approaching this is be fair and try to come at this in a way that’s across the board, with the exceptions that noted and others,” he said. “ If we have to do this … then that’s the approach that we will continue to take.”
Even without the automatic spending cuts, defense officials said the number of civilians and senior military officers would shrink in the next few years.
Defense Under Secretary Robert F. Hale, the Pentagon’s comptroller, said the civilian workforce is expected to decrease by as much as 6 percent through fiscal 2018, in proportion to shrinking active-duty ranks.
However, those anticipated reductions depend on whether Congress authorizes a new round of underused facilities, a process known as Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), he told the panel.
“We will need a BRAC round to achieve those cuts,” Mr. Hale said.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the subcommittee that the Pentagon is reconsidering a reduction in the number of its generals and flag officers as the active duty ranks decrease by 100,000 in the next few years.
Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ efficiency review in 2011 determined that about 144 generals and flag officer positions would be lost by attrition over the next five years, Gen. Dempsey said.
“We are looking again, because as the force comes down, the ratio changes,” he said. “We’re also looking not just at individual positions and numbers of generals and flags but at headquarters. We are a bit ‘overstructured.’
“We didn’t get there out of any malfeasance. We got there because they were requirements, and as this budget now comes upon us, and [Mr. Hagel’s] strategic management review, we’ll take a look at where we think we can do less with less but not less well,” the four-star general said.
Meanwhile, the defense officials said the Pentagon recently saved funding for two National Guard crisis units — one of which responded to Monday’s bombings at the Boston Marathon — that had been scheduled to be dismantled.
“They are important, and we have put the funding in both those,” Mr. Hagel testified. “And I think the Congress was informed of that the last few days, and we put the money back in.”
As recently as March 29, the 24th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team at Fort Hamilton, N.Y., and the 48th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team at Clearwater, Fla., had been slated to be shuttered by June 27.