DoD Civilians: Cutting the Workforce But Not the Workload


As sequestration has squeezed the defense budget, the Pentagon has been forced to reduce active duty end strength. On July 9, the U.S. Army announced which units would comprise a previously announced reduction of 40,000 soldiers. The U.S. Marine Corps is similarly in the process of drawing down from wartime high of 202,000 to 184,000 (176,000 if sequestration persists). But reductions to the military have not been matched by corresponding cuts to the Pentagon’s massive civil servant and contractor workforce, estimated at 790,000 and 710,000 respectively. The aforementioned reduction to Army war fighting forces is accompanied by a reduction of only 17,000 from the ranks of its full-time civilians.

Taken together, civilians outnumber the active duty military personnel they support.

As war fighting forces have gone down, calls for commensurate reductions to the civilian workforce have grown. In trying to save the department money and improve efficiency, many have focused myopically on simply cutting X number of civilian and military personnel, using this basis as their starting point. That is precisely the backwards approach to solving this problem, putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Instead, Congress and the Department of Defense need to come at the problem from the opposite direction by first analyzing requirements so that it can make targeted reductions across the military services and defense-wide organizations.

On their face, calls for reducing the bureaucracy make sense. The Department of Defense is disproportionately cutting active duty end strength. Recommendations that include reining in service contracts and delayering headquarters in the services and throughout the defense agencies are prudent. But it’s not clear that the defense policy community writ large, many of who would be considered hawks, have grappled with the implication of major reductions to the Pentagon’s civilian and contractor workforce — namely, that some requirements will inevitably no longer be met. As former Deputy Secretary of Defense Christine Fox wrote, “much of the bureaucracy is there for a reason: It performs tasks that need to be done.”

Cutting civilians has a similar impact to cutting uniformed personnel in that both reduce the capacity in some measurable way. Take the Army for example. Cutting one brigade combat team reduces the Army’s capacity to conduct ground combat operations. Cutting 3,000 civilians from a single staff would reduce the Army’s capacity to perform certain administrative or logistical tasks. The U.S. Army employs 260,000 civilians. Some number of them could be let go by delayering, but at a certain point we risk hollowing out the administrative and logistical side of the military by blindly reducing the civilian workforce across the board.

Overlooked in this quest is the fact that many of the logistical and administrative tasks now done by civilians were once performed by military personnel to save money. In this respect, the Department of Defense has responded to market forces the same way a private corporation would — as the cost per service member has risen, it has sought cost reductions by shrinking active duty end strength in favor of civilians and contractors. Economics has driven the allocation of manpower across military, civilian, and contractor workforces while the distinctions between them have blurred.

It’s often assumed that most defense civilians man desks in the Pentagon pushing paper. They don’t. The vast majority doesn’t even work in Washington, nor in the fourth estate Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus recently decried. Defense-wide organizations such as the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, defense agencies, and combatant commands employ an estimated 136,000 civilians combined. The Navy alone employs 192,000. Combined, the military services have approximately 656,000 civilian employees. Any meaningful reductions to the full-time civilians and contractors must come from the services.

Many of these civilians work at maintenance depots in places like Warner Robins, Georgia and shipyards in Newport News, Virginia. The former employs approximately 15,000 civilians who perform necessary lifecycle maintenance on F-15, C-17, and C-130 aircraft. The latter employs 23,000 contractors who build the Ford-class carrier and Virginia-class fast-attack submarine. Unless and until we develop technologies that permit maintenance and shipbuilding to be done with significantly less people, laying off some portion of those workforces will have significant impacts. Closing bases, in particular consolidating the depots, would create efficiencies, but that would require Congress to proceed with another round of base closures, which currently seems unlikely.

Thus far, the Department of Defense and Congress have avoided the hard questions, taking a far easier approach to reducing the bureaucracy.

Belatedly recognizing his department had an overhead problem in the face of sequestration, then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced in July 2013 a plan to cut 20 percent across the top of headquarters staffs. Requirements and workloads of each staff were not a factor. Nor did this initiative account for recent staff growth. According to a GAO report, the Army service commands accounted for 85 percent of the growth in authorized staff positions between 2008 and 2012.

Congress has not helped either, and its guidance is critical and in many cases necessary. Only Congress can force change on the department through the authorization and appropriations processes. Congress must look to make specific reductions across the bureaucracy. Unfortunately, Congress has not allowed another badly needed base closure round to proceed. It could even double down on the department’s wrongheaded plan. This year’s Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act contains a provision backed by committee chairman Sen. John McCain that requires a 7.5 percent across-the-board reduction every year for five years.

Ironically, the Pentagon and Congress have rightfully decried the indiscriminate, across-the-board nature of sequestration while using the exact same mindless mechanism to begin reducing the civilian and shadow workforce. Like sequestration, a one-size-fits-all approach to reducing civilian personnel absolves everyone from making truly difficult decisions. The political benefits of such an approach are obvious; the strategic ones, however, are considerably harder to divine.


W. Jonathan Rue is a defense policy and budget analyst, a Marine veteran and a member of the Truman National Security Project. The views expressed here are his own.


Photo credit: Ash Carter