Civilian Personnel: The Missing Piece in the Pentagon’s Budget Puzzle

While most news stories have accurately characterized the Obama administration’s proposed military spending cuts as “modest,” the Pentagon is planning significant reductions in the number of active-duty troops in the Army and Marine Corps. Both forces will be larger than they were in 2001, but the active-duty Army will fall from a post-9/11 high of 570,000 in 2010 to 490,000. The Marine Corps will go from 202,000 to 182,000.

The DoD should likewise reduce civilian personnel.

The reason the Pentagon’s plan places so much emphasis on personnel is stated clearly in the document (pdf):

Military personnel costs have doubled since 2001, or about 40% above inflation, while the number of full-time military personnel, including activated reserves, increased by only 8% during the same time period.

Ben Friedman and I have argued for an even smaller Army and Marine Corps, on the understanding that we should not permanently station U.S. troops in Europe and Asia. Such forward deployments are not essential to U.S. security and might ultimately undermine global security by encouraging other countries to defer spending for their own defense.

But the current proposal is clearly a step in the right direction, and it reflects the fact that Washington—and the American people—are not anxious to repeat the bitter experiences of the past decade. The costs of regime change followed by aggressive counterinsurgency are almost never outweighed by the benefits. We don’t have to build nations in order to destroy terrorists. The Army and Marine Corps grew to fight these types of wars, and they will now shrink back to nearly pre-war levels.

Other savings are possible, but not likely to be achieved in the near future. The president will ask Congress to authorize use of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process for changes in physical infrastructure. However, some members of Congress are already linking arms to prevent another round of base closings. Still, another BRAC (if it is ever convened) won’t generate significant savings in the next five years, and perhaps not in the next 10. Additionally, the proposal calls for Congress to empower “a commission with BRAC-like authority” to review the full range of costs associated with the military retirement system, with the added stipulation that any “reforms should only affect future recruits.” Thus, any potential savings will not materialize in the near term.

Yet, there is a way to realize more savings in personnel within the next five years. A smaller active-duty force that requires less physical infrastructure should require fewer civilians as well. The budget highlights released yesterday, however, made no mention of additional reductions in the DoD’s civilian workforce. The individual services might seek to reduce their civilian personnel in order to meet the department’s efficiency goals ($60 billion in savings over the next five years), but it does not appear that the Pentagon as a whole is currently planning such cuts.

It should. Consider these statistics from the DoD’s 2012 Green Book: In 2001, when the active-duty force totaled 1,451,000 (all four services, plus mobilized Guard and Reservists) there were 687,000 DoD civilians and their pay accounted for $58.6 billion (in today’s dollars). In 2011, there were a total of 1,510,000 persons on active duty (a 4 percent increase), but the civilian workforce had grown to 790,000 (a 15 percent increase) and the civilian payroll totaled $70.8 billion. If the Army and Marine Corps are cut as planned, and the Navy and Air Force remain at current levels, a commensurate (and I don’t know yet what that would be) reduction in the civilian workforce should generate additional savings.

Such savings might not amount to much in the grand scheme of things, but, at a minimum, I hope that the budget document released in a few weeks will reveal the department’s plans for a civilian workforce that will soon be far larger than necessary.