The Defense Department is looking for new recruits -- for its civilian ranks.

Although much attention has been paid to the problems of a military stretched too thin by conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon faces a separate set of challenges in sustaining its civil service -- the nearly 700,000 federal employees who support the nation's war fighters.

Projections indicate that the Defense Department will lose a substantial number of civil service employees in the next five years, when 57 percent of Defense civilians will become eligible for early or regular retirement.

Various parts of the department are preparing for the retirement wave, but some uncertainty exists about whether the Pentagon can create a personnel strategy that will lead to the more skilled, more technical workforce that Defense will need in the future, according to a recent report by congressional analysts.

The Army, the Air Force and the Defense Logistics Agency, for example, are planning to step up their hiring through intern programs. The Army also is offering bonuses for engineers, scientists and computer experts, while the Air Force is investing in civilian leadership training as a way to have people ready when experienced hands leave. The Navy and Marine Corps have worked up several recruitment and retention plans, including one to bring back retired military personnel.

One of the biggest challenges facing the Defense Department is a lack of information about the skill levels of employees, who work in nearly 700 occupations. The Pentagon does not need to collect workforce data on all jobs, but should analyze its most critical positions if it hopes to "have the right mix of skills and talents for the future," the report said.

It was issued by the Government Accountability Office (which, until last week, was the General Accounting Office) at the request of Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz (D-Tex.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee. The report focused on the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the headquarters of the military services and the Defense Logistics Agency, which supplies goods and services to combat troops.

The Defense Department has been faced with an aging civil service since the end of the Cold War, when bases were closed or realigned and hiring dropped off as part of an overall downsizing. Between 1989 and 2002, Defense's civilian workforce shrank by about 38 percent, the GAO report said, creating an older and more experienced cadre -- and one with a high percentage of workers nearing retirement.

Now, because of the global war on terrorism, an increasing number of Defense civil service employees are supporting combat functions. The number will continue to grow because the Pentagon plans to shift more than 20,000 jobs performed by the military to civilian workers in fiscal 2004 and 2005. More military-to-civilian conversions are being planned for coming years to free up military personnel for fighting.

Senior Defense officials told the GAO that they are taking steps to collect data on workforce skills so that they can create hiring strategies. To help reshape their workforce, Defense agencies may offer $25,000 buyouts to encourage resignations and retirements. The buyouts can be offered to as many as 25,000 employees across Defense each year.

Defense officials also see the proposed National Security Personnel System, which will replace the General Schedule, as a way to improve recruitment of high-quality applicants, classify jobs to accommodate changing missions and new technologies and offer competitive pay linked to local labor markets.

At a meeting with about 250 Pentagon employees last week, Navy Secretary Gordon England, who heads up the team creating the NSPS, said he hopes to have proposed regulations for the new civil service system published by year's end. The NSPS will be rolled out in phases -- starting next summer and running through late 2008.

The NSPS may help reduce the department's reliance on contract workers and "should enhance employment for our federal workers," England told the employees.

"What we need to do is provide the environment for people to excel. That's what this is all about," England said.

He added: "It is crucial to the long-term well-being of the country we be successful in doing this. Otherwise, I'll tell you, we're going to fall behind, and we cannot afford to fall behind."

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com.