Why Targeting Defense Department Civilians Is a Problem

Many activists and analysts searching for reduced spending at the Pentagon commonly point to the post-9/11 growth of the department’s federal civilian workforce as a place to find significant savings. No doubt some savings could be found here, especially now that the war in Iraq is over and the one in Afghanistan draws to a close. But on closer examination, the savings from slashing the civilian workforce may not be as high as one might think. In some places, the department may want to further expand the ranks of its civilians to actually save more money.

DoD Civilians Are Being Targeted

Increasingly, it looks like some of these employees might be let go. Unless a deal is struck to repeal or replace sequestration, a process of automatic spending cuts, the Department of Defense (DoD) might have to fire at least 6,272 federal civilian employees in coming months, according to a Bloomberg News report from last week. This would represent slightly less than a one percent reduction in the civilians at the DoD, but it may not stop there. The DoD “currently projects a reduction in its civilian workforce by 2 percent from fiscal year 2012 through fiscal year 2017,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated in a May report. Many others who want to cut the DoD’s budget would go even further.

Modest Growth in 2000s, After Deep Cuts in the 1990s

Overall, growth in the civilian workforce has been modest. Before the expansion in the 2000s, DoD civilians were cut by 350,000 in the late 1990s. Between 2001 and 2012, the growth of the DoD’s civilian workforce by about 115,000 made up for about one-third of the reduction from the 1990s, even though the U.S. engaged in two major wars and numerous other operations (in 2012, there were some 765,000 DoD civilians) compared to the smaller conflicts of the '90s. The uniformed military stayed about the same size. What really expanded the most was the service contractor workforce at the DoD. The department’s spending on these contactors – the work of which could be done more cheaply by civilians – doubled.

The more modest growth of civilian personnel was largely due to a handful of major factors.

Conversion of Work from Military to Civilians 

Perhaps the biggest single factor is conversion of some 50,000 military positions to federal civilians (and contractors). “In late 2003, DOD reported that studies had found thousands of military personnel were being used to accomplish work tasks that were not military essential. DOD found that civilians or contractors could perform these tasks in a more efficient and cost-effective manner than military personnel,” according to the GAO.  By converting these positions, it freed up military personnel for actual military needs as the U.S. fought in major conflicts.

The Bowles-Simpson Fiscal Commission proposed going substantially further. The Commission proposed eliminating "88,000 military personnel who are performing clearly commercial types of activities and replaces them with 62,000 civilians, at considerable per-employee savings" for an estimated savings of $5.4 billion in Fiscal Year 2015 alone (note: "One-third of the military positions can be eliminated during the conversion because civilians are not required to carry out military specific duties on top of their commercial duties"). 

But there is resistance to doing more of this, even when it has been well-demonstrated that work being performed by military personnel is not military-essential and would cost less if handled by civilians, according to a senior DoD official who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. There is a feeling that when positions are performed by members of the military, they are better bureaucratically and politically protected than jobs performed by civilians. But as this culture spreads through the DoD, it leads to higher costs without better military effectiveness because this work is not military essential anyways, and the higher overall personnel costs lead to reduced funding for military training; maintenance of ships, planes, and tanks; and for technological research and development, the official said.

Rebuilding the DoD's Acquisition Workforce

Around 17,500 civilians were brought on to improve the DoD’s ability to manage its contractors. These hires include engineers and technical experts to help test and assess weapons and other systems produced by contractors, auditors to follow the money, and overseers that could withhold payments from contractors that poorly performed.

Over the last decade, investigative report after investigative report pointed to an inadequately sized acquisition workforce as a major factor in why the U.S. taxpayer kept getting fleeced by contractors after the spigot of defense spending opened up after 9/11. What set the stage for this? “The acquisition workforce had experienced significant erosion in some areas of expertise due to a nearly 50 percent cut in its workforce during the 1990s,” according to the GAO. The acquisition workforce was so stretched that the DoD was often turning to contractors to oversee other contractors. In response, the DoD expanded their ranks, but not until it had learned numerous costly lessons.

War-Related Injuries Increased Need for DoD Health Care Employees

Yet another area of growth in civilian employees is the hiring of 7,000 medical professionals to help take care of uniformed personnel who suffered war-related injuries. This is an area where perhaps more civilian hires could potentially save money.

For example, an Army military nurse costs, with all costs included such as housing allowances, an average of about $233,000 a year, whereas an Army civilian nurse fully costs about $143,000, according to an Institute for Defense Analyses study from this summer. And, while it takes about twelve military nurses to fill ten full-time billets, it only takes 10 civilian nurses to fill ten positions. Also, unlike military nurses, the DoD does not have to promote civilians regularly. This is one reason why almost one in three O-6’s (colonels/captains) is now a medical officer, which seems excessive. 

Perhaps some of the work at U.S.-based military hospitals could be converted into civilian positions.

Thousands of Jobs Were Insourced After Privatization Was Found to Be More Costly in Many Cases

Source: Defense Department 

The DoD also insourced about 17,000 positions that had been contracted out after the DoD determined that the work was either “inherently governmental” – work that should only be done by government employees – or would be cheaper done in-house or both. Some believe more positions still could be insourced that could save money. Unfortunately, the DoD’s insourcing initiative largely ended before Defense Secretary Robert Gates left office.

“Why is the administration threatening to fire 6,300 civilian defense workers and leave its much larger and costlier contractor workforce almost untouched?” American Federal of Government Employees (AFGE) National President J. David Cox said in a statement to Government Executive.

The senior DoD official who spoke to me agreed with AFGE. “The [DoD’s] leadership is taking the political low road because they do not want to take on the contractors and the political headwinds,” the official said. “They don’t want to take on the task of explaining to Congress and public” how the DoD could be cheaper and more effective by not deeply slashing its civilian workforce.

The Need for Rational "Total Force Management"

In sum, there may be some civilian positions that might not be necessary; however, an overly myopic focus on cutting DoD civilians could actually lead a more expensive, less effective total force at the DoD if more expensive uniformed personnel or contractors take their place.

back to Blog