Our Military Is Ready to Write – Not Ready to Fight

This column previously appeared in CNS News: “Let’s get right to the point: Congress should tailor the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to ensure that any further force reductions target the civilian ranks and headquarters staff positions across the Department of Defense.  This should be done prior to considering any more cuts to active duty numbers.

Years of significant drawdowns in manning have created a crisis in readiness.  The U.S. Armed Forces simply do not have enough trained warfighters to respond to the twenty-first century battlefield.  Why?  Because, ironically enough, the move towards fielding a lighter and more agile force has been inefficient and clumsy.

While the government was trimming the active duty force by four percent from 2001 to 2014, it grew the civilian workforce by 15 percent.  Indeed, civilians were the only employee group in the Department of the Navy to grow from 2001 through 2010.  The Joint Staff grew by 230 percent in two short years, from 2010 to 2012.  The civilian staff for the Office of the Secretary of Defense grew to more than 2,000 people, or nearly 18 percent, from roughly 2008 to 2013.  These types of expenditures might partly explain why America’s defense spending, as Senator John McCain pointed out during a November 2015 senate hearing, “in constant dollars, is nearly the same as it was 30 years ago.”  Yet it consists of “35 percent fewer combat brigades, 53 percent fewer ships, and 63 percent fewer combat air squadrons.”

The Pentagon did commit to a 20 percent cut of its headquarters budget in 2014 NDAA.  But a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) the following year showed that officials had not only failed to provide congress a plan on making those cuts, but were also applying old regulations that exempted those people performing “headquarters-related functions.”

The Pentagon agreed again to cuts in its headquarters staff budget in the 2016 NDAA.  But the president’s 1.3 percent pay increase across government that went into effect January 1, 2016 might very well offset the estimated $453 million in savings.  In fact, the DoD might actually spend $600 million more on civilians than it did in 2015, according to reports by Federal News Radio.

The “staff” culture is the dirty little secret in military circles.  It gives the appearance of relevance and that illusion of relevance improves promotion possibilities.  I remember personally watching a colonel I worked for in Iraq repeatedly invent staff positions so he could surround himself with a gaggle of people.  Everyone feared being sucked into the vortex of his ego.  When he tried to forcibly acquire some of my fellow, highly-trained special agents for menial staff duties of which they were not slated, I fired off some kindhearted warning letters to our leadership.  He backed off, and soon after, my command stopped filling those “taskings” altogether.

Meanwhile, Pentagon leadership has said that unanticipated “global flare ups,” as well as the president’s decision to extend U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, did not factor into recent cuts to active duty forces.  This conclusion is thick with irony.  Such a statement makes the simultaneous growth in headquarters staff and civilians look all the more careless.  But more importantly, it ignores that readiness levels are forward-looking and anticipatory in nature.  Their standards correspond to the government’s desired level of operational capability and are preserved explicitly so defense forces can reasonably react to the known and unknown.

Leadership is not entirely at fault, though.  They often have to find ways to implement the ambiguous strategies of our elected officials.  Indeed, the Obama administration just recently touted as important tools against ISIS the same weapon systems it last year called “unneeded force structure.”  This slow acceptance of the necessary exemplifies how the president, for instance, wants military capabilities that he simultaneously refuses to fund.

The government can still achieve an agile and economically efficient force with the upcoming NDAA.  First, since workforce reductions requirements remain unenforced from 2014 and lack of feedback undermines future projections, congress could mandate that the Office of the Inspector General dedicate resources to audit the Pentagon on these overdue cuts.  Second, congress could add language that requires all future cuts begin with reductions to headquarters staff and civilians before proportional cuts can be made elsewhere.  Third, congress could borrow language from the Rebalance for an Effective Defense Uniform and Civilian Employees (REDUCE) Act, or H.R. 340, which has some worthwhile recommendations:

  • A 15 percent cut to the civilian workforce by 2022.
  • The Senior Executive Service be reduced to 1,000 appointees by 2022 and maintain that number through 2026.
  • The bill could save $82.5 billion over five years.
  • By comparison, the Army’s ongoing reduction of 40,000 troops (17,000 of which are civilian employees) saves approximately $7 billion over four years.

Civilians and staff personnel have played an important part in America’s warfighting capabilities, but their levels of growth are simply untenable.  The FY 2017 NDAA must ensure any future cuts are smart, proportional and transparent.”


We here at the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) are addressing this policy issue, but we need your help.  Sign our petition and tell congress to “Provide for the Common Defense, Now!”

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