Pentagon slowly moves in the right direction

DoD/Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, briefs the press, in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 10, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • Pentagon staff reductions are a good but insufficient step to control costs

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  • Pentagon leaders--and Congress--must stay serious about back office reductions

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  • The Pentagon must reverse years of backwards priorities

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Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made headlines Wednesday when he unveiled a plan to shrink his office by about 200 employees and reduce its budget by about 20 percent over the next five years.

The plan was billed as the first step in a larger effort to reduce the Department of Defense’s headquarters budgets by 20 percent. As the Secretary is leading by example in cutting costs and personnel, the announcement is an important step in the right direction. However, despite this good news, the Pentagon still has a long way to go in restructuring its costs away from bureaucratic bloat and towards hard combat power.

For one, the Pentagon must reverse years of backwards priorities. Since entering office, the Obama administration has set in motion a plan to shrink the active duty military (mostly in the Army and Marine Corps) by about 7 percent, while at the same time growing the Pentagon’s civilian workforce by about 13 percent.

In fact, between the Obama administration’s first year in office and 2012, the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s (OSD) civilian and military workforce exploded by 20 percent.  Cuts being applied to OSD today are hitting this recently expanded workforce.

Furthermore, since the secretary announced that the reductions will occur mostly through attrition, there is no way to guarantee that the right jobs will be cut. Until DoD makes the hard choices to eliminate positions based on need—rather than attrition—workforce reductions will not be conducted in a strategic manner.

As sequestration continues, announcements like this will only become more commonplace throughout the Pentagon. Yet, as the Pentagon’s internal review concluded over the summer, even if the it meets 100 percent of its efficiencies targets—an extremely dubious proposition, to say the least—it will still come up $30-$35 billion dollars short per year in meeting sequestration-mandated cuts over the near term.

Secretary Hagel is to be commended in taking the lead to rein in the DoD workforce starting with his own office, yet the Pentagon needs to be extremely clear: these kinds of reductions, while a positive step, are well below the levels that would be needed to meet sequestration-imposed caps.

Pentagon leaders must stay serious about back office reductions, and Congress needs to get on board more fully. Only through a close partnership with Capitol Hill can the Pentagon realize true efficiencies while seeking to maximize combat effectiveness.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.

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