These Aren’t the Defense Job Cuts You’re Looking For

May 13, 2014

As calls to shrink the size of the Department of Defense (DoD) become louder, defense commentators and some lawmakers look hungrily at the department’s civilian workforce.  Among this group, Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute recently called for Congress to take an axe to DOD civilians (repeating an argument she made exactly a year earlier, twice).   Other defense analysts have piled on, asserting that Defense Department civilians have proliferated disproportionately during the past decade while having been largely immune from the ongoing Pentagon scale-back in weapons procurement, military personnel accounts, and readiness activities.  Republican Congressman Ken Calvert (R-CA) took up the sword by introducing a bill that calls for a 15% cull of the Defense civilian workforce over the coming five years.

But the claims made by Ms. Eaglen, Congressman Calvert and others misrepresent reality.   Their assertions misunderstand the growth of defense civilian employees from 2001-2012.  They wrongly assert that the Pentagon has been failing to proportionally and responsibly downsize those civilian employees that they can.  Most importantly, they dodge the dead skunk in the road: the fact that more expansive cuts in Defense Department civilian personnel can occur only after Congress authorizes another round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) in the United States – something our legislators are generally loathe to do.

Arguments by the “cut defense-civilians” pundits rely upon trope – a trope that Defense Department civilian positions increased over the past decade mainly in reaction to the demands of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and must therefore be dramatically scaled back.   The trope contends that defense civilian employee numbers rose from 650,000 in 2000 to around 800,000 in 2012 and that, therefore, a return to 650,000 is the proper outcome of a paring of this defense manpower account.

This accounting is wrong on many levels.  First, the actual, full time defense civilian workforce grew by 115,000 positions between 2001 and 2012 to a level of 765,000 (not the 800,000 critics often claim).   This increase amounted to about 1/3 of the 350,000 civilian workforce positions eliminated during the post-Cold War drawdown from 1990-2001.

The critics mis-assess defense civilian workforce numbers as peaking at 800,000 because many wrongly focus their complaints upon the number of Full Time Equivalent (FTE) defense civilian work hours – a number only reported on publicly by the Pentagon since 2012. This tricky number has been estimated in successive annual Pentagon Comptroller personnel reports for Fiscal Year 2012 to be 790,000, 807,000 and 800,000. But FTEs are not a measure of full time defense workers.  They do not even measure just the sum of work hours performed by full time and part time defense workers.  FTE hours are actually a measure of comparable workloads performed by full time defense civilian, non-full time defense civilian and an indeterminate number of short-term contract civilian workers on long-term contractor service instruments.   Thus, FTEs are not a measure of equivalent compensation or personnel status.   A May 2013 GAO report deemed the Pentagon failure to establish a clear measure of FTEs across its enterprise to be a seriously accounting deficiency.  Thus, the critics’ use of FTEs to generate an 800,000 top end number for civilian defense employees that unhelpfully skews the conversation toward a trope of disproportionate bloat that does not exist.

So what about the real issue of full time civilian defense personnel?  Most of the decade-long 115,000 full time civilian personnel increase came in response to pulses that were largely independent of the cost of doing business in Afghanistan and Iraq.   Here are the major categories contributing to the expansion of the full time defense civilian workforce from its post-World War II low of 650,000 in 2001 to 765,000 in 2010:

(1)  Nearly 50,000 military-in-uniform positions in administration, management and bureaucratic routine were identified very early in the Bush 43 administration as not uniquely military in nature, and better performed by a civilian workforce – comprised of defense civilians and contractors.   This conversion of military billets to civilian jobs – on bases, in factories, in shipyards and static headquarters – began in the early 2000s and concluded by 2008.  Of this conversion, the Pentagon subsequently estimated that 30,000 of these became defense civilian jobs while some 20,000 went to civilian contractors. Much of this conversion was not understood by the public and lawmakers and was attributed to the wartime footing of the military services.

(2)  Citing an unacceptable decline in defense intelligence community capabilities during the post-Cold War drawdown, Congress authorized additional defense civilian intelligence leaders and employees beginning in 2000.  This expansion continued over the following five years, adding capability in underserved areas like counter-terrorism intelligence, South Asian intelligence, East Asian intelligence and cyberspace intelligence. Eventually, these authorizations added 8,000 civilian intelligence positions into the Defense Department.

(3)  To reverse a trend of outsourcing too much military medical infrastructure to civilian contracts, and later in response to growing home front wartime support needs, the Defense Department expanded its medical professional civilian staff by 7,000 positions during the 2000s.

(4)  Another 17,500 defense civilians were brought on to improve DoD’s ability to manage contractors.  This expansion followed investigative report after investigative report from 2006-2010 identifying a badly sized defense acquisition workforce as a major factor explaining why U.S. taxpayers were continuously overpaying for work by contractors during the surge of money and work flowing to civilian firms following 9/11.  While some of the troublesome high profile contracts were in Iraq and Afghanistan, many more were in weapons procurement and systems services performed by contractors doing routine Defense Department work.  GAO observed that prior to the hiring of these additional DoD acquisition civilians, DoD had been relying on the highly questionable practice of turning to contractors to oversee other contractors.

(5)  Finally, in 2009 and 2010, DoD undertook a process of “insourcing” for 17, 500 civilian positions that had been turned over to commercial contractors in the post-Cold War drawdown. These positions were demonstrated to have been inherently governmental – and thus inappropriately outsourced, or found to be costing more to do by contract than by the whole-life costs of a DoD civilian.  This phase of “insourcing” was completed just as national frustration with the costs of federal workers became a celebrated cause during the 2010 Congressional mid-term elections.

Thus, of the 115,000 full time defense civilian positions added over the past decade, a conservative estimate of 80,000 (70%) of this increase came from conversions and adjustments in military and civilian contractor job profiles that were not directly linked to wartime exigencies.   It stands to reason, therefore, that anything more than a 30% pare-back of these added full time civilian positions will require a foundational change in some aspect of America’s defense posture that went unaddressed during the 1990s-2000s.

It is equally misleading to contend that the Defense Department is failing to reduce its full time civilian workforce in proportion to the changes mandated by fiscal constraints since 2010.   From its peak at 765,000 in 2010 (just after the conclusion of a round of 17,500 insourcing actions), the Pentagon civilian workforce has been reduced by almost 10,000 to 755,400 in mid-2014, with more to come.   This reduction has been managed through several initiatives undertaken by individual military services and the Defense Department as a whole.  Among these:

  • On November 2, 2011, the US Air Force announced that it would eliminate 9,000 civilian positions in management and staff support areas over the coming five years.
  • On January 17, 2013, then-Deputy Secretary Ashton Carter directed an immediate civilian hiring freeze.  This freeze remains mostly in effect for all but the most critical hiring position. And, the limited hiring being done by DoD is heavily skewed toward hiring only those already serving as government civilian employees, thereby preventing new entries into the DoD civilian personnel system.
  • On July 17, 2013, Secretary of Defense Hagel announced a 20% cut in DoD and Joint Staff headquarters personnel, to be implemented in the 2015-19 timeframe.
  • On March 6, 2014, Defense Department Comptroller Robert Hale briefed that DoD will reduce its civilian work force by 5% over the period from 2015-2019.
  • On March 7, 2014, the US Army released a budget calling for the elimination of 4,400 civilian positions in 2015.
  • On April 16, 2014, the US Air Force announced that it planned to eliminate 2,700 positions in Fiscal Year 2015.

Department-wide, the DoD full time civilian workforce will drop from 755,400 in 2014 to 749,100 in 2015 (a 1% decline) and continue on that trajectory throughout the decade.   At this pace, the DoD civilian full time account will taper to about 726,000 by the beginning of 2020 – a reduction in 39,000 from its peak in 2010.  Put another way, this kind of responsible DoD-managed drawdown of its civilian personnel will eliminate 34% of the full time positions added from 2001-2010. This is 4,000 more than the 35,000 unaccounted for in the growth of full time DoD civilians performing jobs in intelligence, medical, contractor oversight and logistics that were independently identified and mandated for growth prior to 9/11/2001 and by management and accountability challenges inappropriately performed by uniformed military or civilian contractors.

So, where do the advocates of a far greater defense civilian workforce drawdown find more juice from this shriveled lemon?

The path to reduced defense civilian overhead is clear, even if the direct linkage is omitted by far too often by pundits when they write of the need for dramatic defense civilian workforce reduction.  A vast majority of full time DoD civilians are tethered to administrative, logistics and bureaucratic functions at the more than 440 military bases and activities across the United States.   Pentagon leaders have made this clear over and over again:

  • On February 5, 2013, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy testified that “The inability to shed or realign [DoD] facilities hangs like an albatross around the Department’s neck, consuming billions of dollars that could otherwise go to readiness and modernization. Congress should grant DoD’s request for another BRAC this year.”
  • In March 2013, DoD Comptroller Robert Hale testified that military service contractors generally cost two to three times what in-house performance costs, particularly for long-term functions; thus, outsourcing of positions at bases and installations is not a substitute for consolidating or eliminating bases in an effort to pare defense civilian personnel costs.
  • On February 26, 2014, then-Acting Deputy Secretary Christine Fox said,”…. much of the DoD civilian workforce is employed outside Washington at installations, depots and shipyards …  Until we get to a BRAC, our ability to significantly do more on our civilian workforce…will remain constrained.”
  • On March 4, 2014, Secretary of Defense Hagel submitted an FY15 DoD budget requesting another round of BRAC for 2017, noting that this authority had been denied by Congress in the prior two budgets but that it was essential for DoD efficiencies.

But a BRAC is where the US Congress dares not go.  BRAC requests were denied by Congress in the Fiscal Year 2013 and Fiscal Year 2014 Defense bill submissions.   Congressional committee leaders pronounced the Fiscal Year 2015 Defense BRAC request dead on arrival.  Worse yet, language in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act specifically prohibits another round of BRAC until the Defense Department submits an onerous set of reviews justifying all overseas military infrastructure and its strategic choices related to these.

This more detailed analysis of the full time defense civilian workforce shows that op-eds and press releases calling for a dramatic slashing of this DoD personnel account are misleading.   The realities are that, despite growth in the medical, military intelligence, acquisition management and insourcing categories during the decade of two major wars and a couple of other incursions (Libya & Yemen for example), and despite growth in the early 2000s mandated by the transfer of inherently government function jobs from uniformed military to DoD civilians, the full time civilian DoD workforce never got close to 800,000.  Even now, it is being adapted responsibly to an ongoing military-wide drawdown from a 2010 peak of 765,000 to a 2014 number of 755,400. The work force also is on path to go down another 1% per year to a stasis of 726,000 by the end of the decade.

A more dramatic drawdown is not feasible without another round (or several rounds) of BRAC to strip the administrative infrastructure that tethers a very large number of permanent DoD civilian positions.  Sadly, that seems an unlikely outcome in a Congress that vigorously protects the local civilian jobs paid for by the DoD in the states of all 100 Senators and in at least 400 of the 535 congressional districts.  Defense analysts and activist lawmakers will do the public a service by more accurately accounting for mathematical truths and the political realities that explicitly link the requirement for BRAC to defense civilian worker numbers.   These realities make any more dramatic reductions in the real defense civilian workforce a facile cry that remains devilishly challenging to enact.

Thomas F. Lynch III is a Distinguished Research Fellow for South Asia and the Near East at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.  The opinions expressed here are from his own research and do not represent the official position of the United States Government, the Department of Defense or the National Defense University.

Photo credit: sari dennise