If automatic across-the-board budget cuts go forward, the Defense Department could lose as much as 20 percent of its 790,000-strong work force. (AIR FORCE)
A reduction in force. More base closings and consolidations. Big cuts to defense intelligence agencies.
All those options affecting the Defense Department's vast civilian workforce would be on the table if automatic across-the-board budget cuts go forward, experts predicted last week.
That workforce, the largest of any federal agency, totals about 790,000, according to the most recent DoD figures. During the next decade, its size could tumble 20 percent to about 630,000, the smallest since the Defense Department's creation in 1947, under a scenario outlined last month by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in a letter to Congress. The Army, Navy and Air Force employ almost 80 percent of the existing civilian workforce; DoD organizations and the National Guard account for the rest.
But one expert predicted that the job cuts could play out far more quickly if the automatic spending reductions proceed as scheduled. Under the Budget Control Act approved in August, the Defense Department's fiscal 2013 base budget will fall almost 15 percent from last year's level, said Cindy Williams, a securities studies researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's security studies program and former Pentagon programs official. Factor in funding that DoD could seek for early-out incentives to encourage employees to leave on their own, Williams said, and that could translate into a 20 percent workforce reduction by October 2013, including job cuts already underway.
Even with early-out incentives, Williams expected that a "sizable" reduction in force (RIF) also would be needed.
"This is going to be a mess," she said.
Williams previously served as assistant director for national security at the Congressional Budget Office and as a division director in the Pentagon's directorate of program analysis and evaluation.
In an email last week, a Pentagon spokeswoman said it is too early to discuss the possible effects of "sequestration," as the across-the-board cuts are officially labeled. Because the Office of Management and Budget has put out no instructions on planning for sequestration, "no planning has been directed," the spokeswoman, Army Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins, said.
Gordon Adams, a senior OMB official during the Clinton administration, thinks DoD would have enough management flexibility to avoid a RIF. But he anticipates that the Pentagon will ask lawmakers for permission to pursue another round of base realignments and closures (BRAC) in its 2013 budget request due out in February.
"I think it's inevitable that we will see a defense build-down," accompanied by a corresponding drop in ranks of civilian employees, said Adams, now a professor of international relations at American University.
The Defense Department has been through this before, he added: After the Cold War, some 300,000 civilian jobs were eliminated from 1989 to 1997, mainly through attrition and the use of early-out incentives.
"It wouldn't be entirely catastrophic," Adams said.
At this point, the Defense Department is not recommending a fresh BRAC round, another spokeswoman said. Representatives for the Defense Logistics Agency and the Defense Information Systems Agency — both of which employ thousands of DoD civilians — declined comment on the possible effects of sequestration.
‘Significant impact' on intel
One likely target of civilian workforce cuts would be the intelligence community, which has seen rapid growth since the 2001 terrorist attacks. The Defense Department accounts for the bulk of intelligence spending; in an October speech, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said overall intelligence funding is headed for a double-digit decline over the next decade.
Put sequestration on top of that and the resulting cuts are likely to gouge the intelligence community, said Ellen McCarthy, president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a nonprofit group that advocates for best practices in the intelligence community (IC) and tries to improve cooperation with the private sector.
"The intelligence budget is inextricably linked to the DoD budget," McCarthy said in an interview. "So many of the agencies in the IC also fall under the DoD, there's going to be a pretty significant impact. NSA [National Security Agency], NGA [National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency], NRO [National Reconnaissance Office], the service intelligence organizations — they will all feel it."
Sequestration likely would force intelligence agencies to cut thousands of analysts, collectors, cybersecurity workers and other employees. While Clapper and Panetta will try to avoid serious staffing cuts, they may be unavoidable, McCarthy said.
"Clapper made it very clear that he really wants to protect personnel and [research and development] ... and not repeat the '90s," McCarthy said. "But the [budget cut] numbers are huge. They've got to take them somewhere. It makes it very difficult to avoid" steep workforce cuts."
The IC lost a generation after the Cold War ended, when it drastically scaled back on hiring analysts. By the 2000s, agencies found they had a dearth of midcareer analysts, and intelligence officials spent most of the last decade trying to plug that gap.
"It's hard to see how that won't happen" again this time, McCarthy said.
During the last decade, the ranks of Defense Department employees have also climbed by more than 100,000. But Bernard Rostker, a senior fellow at the Rand Corp. think tank, attributed that growth mainly to the conversion of jobs previously handled by military personnel to civilian positions. If cutbacks are needed, contract employees "should be on the bubble way before the permanent workforce," said Rostker, who specializes in military personnel issues.
"Contractors do not operate for the good of the government," he said. "They operate for the good of themselves."
After a decade of heady growth, some slowdown in defense spending was inevitable. But the issue abruptly became more pressing last month after the 12-member congressional "supercommittee" failed to come up with a blueprint for reducing expected federal budget deficits by at least $1.2 trillion over the next decade. As a result, the Budget Control Act calls for sequestration to begin in January 2013, with $600 billion in savings supposed to come from defense programs by 2021.
That prospect has some lawmakers clamoring for an exemption for DoD, but President Obama has pledged to veto any attempt to rewrite the law. Despite the supercommittee's failure, the White House insists that Congress has plenty of time to avert sequestration by coming up with its own deficit reduction plan.
Last week, for example, agencies received the "passbacks" that constitute OMB's response to their 2013 budget requests. Asked whether any guidance was provided on preparing for sequestration, OMB spokeswoman Meg Reilly only reiterated that the administration does not want to see it happen.
"Thus, it will not drive the budget process currently underway."
Even without the specter of automatic cuts, the military services have begun to trim civilian jobs.
Last month, the Air Force announced it would shed 13,500 positions by October. At least 2,100 of those jobs would come from a reorganization of the Air Force Materiel Command; cuts are also likely in civil engineering, public affairs and other areas.
The Army also is marching ahead with plans to eliminate almost 8,500 civilian positions by next fall as part of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates' efficiency initiatives. More than half of those cuts are coming from the Installation Management Command and Army Materiel Command (AMC). Employees fear that more may be in store.
"There is major concern," said Ray Van Schoubroek, a consultant for American Federation of Government Employees Local 1945, which represents some 4,000 workers at Anniston Army Depot, an AMC installation in northeast Alabama responsible for maintaining the Stryker and other Army vehicles. While the installation's workload is stable this year, it's set to fall by about one-third in 2013, Van Schoubroek said.
He held out hope, however, that Congress will intervene.
"I just don't see them crippling the military."
email@example.com?subject=Reader Question">STEPHEN LOSEY contributed to this report.