This Is Not a Horror Story

Why you shouldn't worry about the Pentagon cutting personnel.

There is a lot of garment rending and teeth gnashing going on with respect to the impact that a sequester in FY 2014 might have on the civil servants working in the Department of Defense. Two weeks ago, somebody leaked a Pentagon memo to Tony Capaccio at Bloomberg, which says the DOD might not use furloughs next year to deal with the budget cuts. Instead, the memo says, the Pentagon might put 6,272 jobs on the chopping block, using a Reduction in Force (RIF) to eliminate personnel altogether.

This makes for a good headline, but maybe the headline is more meaningful than the story. We are, as I have said many times, in a defense drawdown. During a drawdown, everything gets smaller. The uniformed military gets smaller, the Pentagon's civil service gets smaller, the number of carrier battle groups, brigades, and air wings all decline. It is what happens after a war.

In reality, 6,272 people in a total civil service workforce of roughly 800,000 don't constitute much -- about three quarters of a percent. During the drawdowns after the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the end of the Cold War, the civil service in the Pentagon shrank between 16 and 34 percent over 10 years. It is a normal event, not a horror story. But like the Pentagon's chilling readiness stories, and the initial warnings about furloughs, horror sells in a budget war.

As I have argued for months, the Pentagon ought to be planning for the drawdown, sequester or not, including by shrinking civilian employment. It is worth noting that, while the level of active-duty personnel stayed relatively flat -- 3-percent growth -- over the past decade (the Army and Marines grew, but the Navy and the Air Force shrank), the civilian workforce at the Pentagon actually grew roughly 17 percent.

Good public policy says that level of personnel need not stay the same, with recent wars ended or ending. Better public policy says the DOD should not be warning of RIFs, but instead be doing the same force planning on the civilian side that it is doing on the military side, assuming that personnel will continue to decline over the next decade. The civil service is part of the Pentagon's very large "back office" -- the 42 percent of the budget that goes to management and administrative infrastructure, but not the "point of the spear."

Shrinking the back office needs to start now, aggressively. And not in a ham-handed "we may have to RIF you" way, but through careful force planning. This means starting by asking, "What do we do that we don't need to do?" And then, "Who is doing it?" If the DOD does this right, it may not even have to RIF people to achieve the savings.

Doing it right, in part, means avoiding the rhetoric of "suffering readiness," which is a red herring. In reality, as the Congressional Budget Office has verified, much of the Pentagon's overhead (roughly 60 percent) is in infrastructure, not in "readiness." The back office workforce is in administration, with finance and accounting, personnel policy and administration, and base operations. It runs training and education establishments, service-wide agencies, and supply management. This is where the digging needs to be done, not in readiness.

After deciding which jobs are needed and which are unnecessary, the first management tool to use is attrition. According to Office of Personnel Management data dug out from Fedscope by my colleague John Cappel, about 11-12 percent of the Pentagon's civil service are "attrits" -- people who, in the normal course of each year, leave, retire, are terminated (the largest part), transfer, or, sadly, die. That's somewhere between 80-95,000 civil servants per year, well above the 6,272 the Pentagon is talking about RIFing. And according to the Washington Post, older civil servants are heading for the door in larger numbers these days. It may be a very propitious moment to accept attrition at the Pentagon for jobs deemed unnecessary.

Additional personnel management tools the administration can use or ask for include buy-outs for people who can be let go, and bonuses for those whom the Pentagon wants to retain. Moreover, it could deal with the roughly 700,000 contractors who work for the Pentagon, many of them side-by-side with civil servants doing essentially the same jobs. This "ghost" workforce, combined with the civil servant base, adds up to 1.5 million, in support of an active-duty uniformed force of 1.4 million -- an awkward and wasteful ratio of personnel. Really, the Pentagon ought to be using the force management approach across all of its back office personnel -- the military staff who are performing non-core administrative jobs, the civil service, and the contractors sitting with them, as Nicholas Schwellenbach of the Center for Effective Government has argued.

Needless to say, the unions have focused on contractors. American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox recently asked, "Why is the administration threatening to fire 6,300 civilian defense workers and leave its much larger and costlier contractor workforce almost untouched? Have they learned nothing from the furlough fiasco when fat cat contractors sat around and did nothing while the people who actually repair the weapons and train the troops were forced out on the street?"

Cox has a point: It is easier to manage this part of the workforce; contracts can simply be ended, without buy-outs. In reality, though, both workforces will need to shrink.

The first step is to get past denial, and past the sequester. Assume, realistically, that a defense drawdown is the issue at hand. For personnel -- both civilian and military -- it is time for the planning to begin.


National Security

Intervention on the Cheap

Lawmakers trying to tie Syria to sequestration don't seem to realize we've already paid for this war.

Syria may be the issue of the week, but the budgetary opportunists are not missing the chance to tie defense budgets to the vote on a missile strike. No sooner had President Obama announced that he would seek congressional approval for launching missiles on Damascus, than the defenders of defense stepped out to say: The Pentagon can't do this; it has no money; do something about the sequester.

This is Washington; nobody misses an opportunity to hang their pet rock on a passing vote. But the thing is, budgetary sequestration is irrelevant to what the president says he intends to do. We already bought the five destroyers now off the Syrian coast. We bought the Tomahawks the president plans to fire off, if he gets the vote he wants, years ago. There are several dozen on each of those ships. And we are paying the sailors who will fire them off. In fact, the president has now twice exempted military pay from the sequester (smart political move).

General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said the military is ready to do whatever the president asks. There is no suggestion here, of any kind, that the sequester has degraded the capability of the military to execute this option, whether one thinks it is wise, necessary, potentially effective, or none of these things.

The administration has pretty sharply circumscribed what it intends to do. In my view, the action that is being planned -- a limited strike on selected targets in Syria -- is not intended to weaken Bashar al-Assad's military in any significant way; it is not intended to alter the internal balance in a civil war; it is not intended to produce regime change in Damascus.

One could reasonably ask: Why do it at all, then? My suspicion is that it is not about the civil war in any profound sense. The president and the secretary of state have made it clear: It is about the development and use of weapons of mass destruction. And, as Secretary Kerry made more clear on the Sunday talk shows, it is about Iran. "Watch what we do, Tehran, and take note," he seemed to be saying.

Obama has been saying for years that nonproliferation rules are important to him -- even creating norms about their use that are of dubious validity under current treaties and international law, as is the case with chemical weapons. It is the credibility of that commitment which is at stake, not his support for the Syrian rebels.

This is why I expect any strike to be limited in impact and duration. One can argue about whether Iran will be deterred from its nuclear program by a strike on Damascus over a weapon that some think shouldn't even be in the same class as nuclear weapons. But this seems to be the president's purpose: It is a limited, demonstrative strike, not something intended to change the balance of forces in Syria.

Perhaps the best proxy for the costs of a few days of Tomahawk flights is not Kosovo, which was a classic air interdiction campaign, or Iraq, an invasion, or Afghanistan, regime change. Libya comes closer and it cost a billion dollars, but there the United States was flying intelligence flights and sharing the data, transporting forces, refueling other aircraft, for days. This strike does not sound nearly so extensive. The most comparable strike would be the brief Clinton campaign in 1998, when the United States sent missiles into Afghanistan in a failed effort to "get" Osama bin Laden, and into Sudan to wipe out an alleged bioweapons facility (which turned out not to be one).

One can ask how effective this message is likely to be or whether it will occasion much of a response from Assad, who seems determined to hold on to power by any means available. But one cannot claim that it wreaks havoc on the Pentagon budget or that the Pentagon is not ready because of sequestration.

The back of my envelope says the incremental costs might come to $100-200 million for the operating days, any hazardous duty pays, oil consumption, and the like. Even that seems generous. And if we want to replace the Tomahawks down the line, they come to about $1.5 million each, so the (voluntary) replacement costs could be another $200-300 million.

That's cheap war. Keep firing and the cost goes up. Take out his air defenses, radar, and communications grid, the costs go up. Fly a no-fly zone to protect the rebels -- now we are talking real money. But a few days of lobbing missiles to send a nonproliferation warning? Not expensive.

Congress needs to deliberate whether it is effective war, given the limited mission. But the sequester has no part in it. Or, put another way: Linking the sequester and Syria is a political, not a budgetary issue. The Pentagon can easily reprogram what it needs for the strike. But this is a political "seize the moment" issue for politicians who have been seeking some way to spare defense from sequestration ever since they started feeling guilty about voting for the sequester in the first place.

Opportunism in Washington knows no limits and no shame. So it wouldn't surprise me to see the "defending defense" crowd seize this passing vessel as another way to make their case. The president would do well to resist this bargain, that is, if he wants to protect his broader strategy for getting a budget deal downstream.

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