Should Defense begin cutting from the top?

Walter Pincus
Reporter March 5, 2012

The first thing that former senior military and civilian Pentagon officials of the Cold War era mention, when discussing reductions to the defense budget, is cutting the inflated size of the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff.

The old-timers point to the number of undersecretaries, deputy undersecretaries, assistant secretaries and deputy assistant secretaries of defense, as well as the added employees they generate. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and his predecessor, Robert M. Gates, recognize they have a point.

Ten years ago, there were four undersecretaries of defense — one for acquisition, technology and logistics; one for policy; a third for personnel and readiness; and a fourth, the comptroller and chief financial officer. today there are five; one was added for intelligence.

The Pentagon’s Web site lists six deputy undersecretaries, 16 assistant secretaries and five deputy assistant secretaries. That can’t be the complete list because the undersecretary for policy alone has five assistant secretaries and three deputy assistant secretaries, while the new undersecretary for intelligence has four deputy undersecretaries.

Also, there are more undersecretaries and assistant secretaries in the offices of the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force. For example, the Army has an undersecretary and five assistant secretaries. Each Army assistant secretary has deputy assistant secretaries. The assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics, and technology alone, lists seven of them.

Funding of the Office of the Secretary of Defense includes not only the senior Defense Department officials who work for Panetta, but it also pays for a collection of subordinate agencies, boards and commissions sponsored by the Pentagon. There are other expenditures, such as a $154 million payment next year to the State Department for Defense’s share of joint security costs generated by embassies.

Reducing the senior management growth in the defense secretary’s office alone won’t do much for reducing spending, but it’s a start. The fiscal 2013 budget for the office projects a reduction of $186.6 million from this year, but it may turn out to be less, say $121 million, because of inflation. Nevertheless, the office’s fiscal 2013 budget will still be $2.1 billion for the 2,124 civilians and 405 officers and enlisted personnel who work primarily in the Pentagon. Ten years ago there were 1,489 civilians and 481 military personnel on that office payroll.

The Joint Staff has also ballooned.It has substantially increased the past two years, apparently with the absorption of functions from the controversial closing of the Joint Forces Command. The Joint Staff grew from an average of 1,007 officers and enlisted men in 2011 to 2,089 in 2012. Civilian employees on the Joint Staff also grew in the past year, from 364 in 2011 to 693 in 2012, according to Pentagon figures.

While the plan is to cut the Joint Staff military numbers by 683 next year, the number of civilian employees is projected to grow to 923 by the end of 2013. Some 465 of that military reduction represents a transfer of personnel to Transportation Command, part of the realignment of Joint Forces Command personnel, according to Pentagon documents, Another 137 of the military reduction represents a transfer of personnel to the Air Force as part of the realignment of work by the Joint Information Operations Warfare Center.

The Joint Staff had almost 1,100 contractors working full time in 2011 and 2012. Reducing 180 of them next year, who work under five joint staff programs, is expected to save $45.2 million, according to Pentagon materials. That averages out to almost $250,000 per person. The Pentagon notes the average salary of Joint Staff civilian employees is $145,500 and justifies that “premium” pay because they possess Top Secret/Special Compartmented Intelligence security clearances, which could get them higher salaries from private sector firms.

The fluctuations of Pentagon spending show up in the office of the secretary’s budget. Take funding of the undersecretary for defense policy’s operation: While next year’s personnel spending will remain fairly steady — with 416 on the payroll at $70 million — its 2012 operations budget of roughly $45 million was about half the $90 million of 2011. Next year’s budget seeks to fix what was apparently too much of a cut with a $17 million increase, including $6 million returned because of an “overstatement” of efficiencies to be gained from expected contract reductions.

Another $5 million increase is to support added work for the office caused by the drawdown of forces in Afghanistan while an additional $3.7 million is requested to bring up to $8 million the Pentagon’s program that publicizes information that disrupts terrorist activities. The Policy office is being asked to cut by $3.7 million its current $9.7 million Homeland Defense Support program, which creates strategic planning and policy in support of civil authorities and the U.S. Northern Command.

The biggest reduction next year in the secretary’s office funding is $116 million from this year’s $765 million Joint Staff Joint Exercise program. The cut is justified by reducing contractor support and consolidation of purchasing activities. A betting person would say Congress may not accept that one.

For a smaller proposed reduction — that would have little chance of surviving if it received congressional scrutiny — I would pick the $17 million Military Spouse Internship Program. Introduced in 2010, it has the Defense Department reimbursing other federal agencies for one year’s salary, benefits and training costs for roughly 120 eligible military spouses annually who are named to a permanent position. In cutting off funds for next year the Pentagon said the program will be “subsumed” into the existing Spouse Education and Career Opportunity Program, which provides free assistance in getting jobs with private companies.

It is March 6 and automatic sequester of another $500 billion in national security spending over the next 10 years is only 300 days away. On Jan. 1, if Congress does not find another $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions, across-the-board cuts are to take place.

Is anybody paying attention?

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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