With the possibility of major Defense Department cuts on the horizon, the sun is already setting on thousands of civilian Pentagon jobs.

In August, the Army said it would reduce its workforce by 8,700 people.

Then last week, the Air Force announced it was eliminating 9,000 civilian positions in management and support areas. One ray of sunshine in the Air Force announcement is the plan to add 5,900 slots to meet the service’s top priorities, in acquisition, nuclear enterprise, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

That ray is clouded, however, by the Air Force’s plan to slice an additional 4,500 undefined civilian positions. Doing the arithmetic, that results in a net loss of 7,600 Air Force gigs.

As these reductions are being made, alarms are ringing about the possibility of a much stronger hit if the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction cannot agree on how to bring down the national deficit. If this “supercommittee” fails to do its duty, the Pentagon’s budget automatically would be slashed beginning in 2013 unless Congress acts to prevent that.

There’s no telling at this point how that would affect the civilian workforce, but there’s no way it could be good.

“The department cannot respond at this time to the potential effect on the DoD’s civilian workforce if the congressional ‘supercommittee’ fails to reach an agreement,” said Army Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins. “The potential impact of sequestration is a reduction of over 20 percent to all Defense programs if military personnel accounts are exempted. This will inevitably lead to civilian personnel reductions.”

As a result of all this, “there is a lot of anxiety,” said Irene Gorczyca, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) local at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Mass. Some, but not all, workers whose positions are being eliminated will be able to get other Defense jobs, she said. But taking those jobs could require moving across the country. That’s a daunting undertaking in the best of times and particularly so during a very bad time for home sellers.

“We are in a very challenging fiscal environment and understand the impact these cuts will have on our civilians and their families,” Thomas R. Lamont, an Army assistant secretary, said when his agency’s cuts were announced.

In May, the Air Force implemented hiring controls and buyouts, but that wasn’t enough. “These hiring controls did not provide the results required to operate within our fiscal constraints,” according to an Air Force statement.

Unfortunately, the cuts announced last week aren’t enough, either.

“The initiatives announced November 2 represent the next step toward that goal, but there is more work to be done,” said Brig. Gen. Gina Grosso, the director of manpower, organization and resources. “The Air Force remains over fiscal year 2010 manpower levels and will continue to develop enterprise-wide solutions to achieve our goals with minimal impact to mission. The Air Force must still define an additional 4,500 civilian positions for reduction.”

But cutting the civilian workforce could hurt those in uniform.

“Whether it is performing maintenance on fighter jets or rebuilding damaged humvees, Defense civilians provide vital support to the mission of our troops every day,” said NFFE President William R. Dougan. “If we start scaling back our support for the troops, it won’t be politicians in Washington who feel the squeeze, it will be our soldiers abroad.”

The reductions are in keeping with a Pentagon policy to keep civilian staffing within fiscal 2010 levels. That prompted an Air Force review to determine whether it had the right folks in the right places.

“The strategic review revealed several imbalances,” Air Force Lt. Col. Cynthia Anderson said in a statement. “Some high priority areas needed to grow, while some management and overhead functions needed streamlining. These imbalances led to a variety of initiatives focused on realigning scarce manpower resources with the most critical missions.”

Many of the Air Force cuts will hit the management tier of its Materiel Command, the service’s largest employer of civilians. Restructuring of the command “will focus on standardizing processes, streamlining decision-making and aligning missions to allow the command to operate more effectively and efficiently,” said Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff.

Restructuring jargon is well and good, but nothing beats a well-trained and thoroughly tested bunch of live bodies. The Pentagon knows that.

Said Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley, “We can’t be successful without our talented and experienced civilian workforce.”

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