The Pentagon and The Fog of…Math

Just how big is the defense secretary’s 20% cut?

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DoD Photo / Marine Sgt. Aaron Hostutler

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel details the cuts he is making to his staff.

You’d think Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was brandishing a nuclear ax, judging from headlines following his Wednesday announcement that he plans to chop 20% from his staff over the next five years.

But you’d be wrong.

It’s a sign that the U.S. defense establishment is still trying to cling to force structure—troops and weapons, by far the most costly share of its business— while boldly declaring it is willing to consider cutting Pentagon-run schools, shopping centers, bowling alleys and golf courses. And staff—the civilian folks who oversee the troops.

Can’t git there from here, as Yankees like to say.

There’s no way the U.S. military can come to grips with its budget vise without wholesale cuts in its forces. That’s because Congress looks increasingly disinclined to save the Pentagon—or any other agency of the U.S. government, for that matter—from deep cuts over the next several years mandated by sequestration. That means nearly $500 billion less to spend over the coming eight years, atop the $487 billion cut already levied, reducing planned Pentagon spending by about 10% over the coming decade.

The sounds you hear are denunciations from anyone involved in military matters, contending that the additional impending cuts will render the U.S. an also-ran on the global stage. But Hagel’s announcement reminds us that it’s tough to track Pentagon spending. What the Defense Department calls a “cut” is often simply a reduction in the planned rate of growth. You can see that in this chart of military spending dating back to 1948 from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

osd-csba bjt chart

CSBA

While the chart shows the Pentagon is amid an abrupt short-term drop in military spending, it also shows—in the green section—that it’s soon likely to begin growing again. That’s true even under the sequester-mandated budget cuts called for in the Budget Control Act of 2011, which are reflected in the chart above (although it’s a given that the wholesale cuts mandated by sequestration are not the smartest way to spend less money). And despite sequestration, U.S. military spending also is slated to remain well above the Cold War average.

So let’s get back to the headlines following Hagel’s announcement:

Hagel Details 20% Cut In Personnel Who Report To Him, reported Thursday’s New York Times.

Hagel announces $1 Billion in Pentagon staff cuts, Fox News said.

Defense Secretary Hagel cuts own staff on eve of Pearl Harbor anniversary, McClatchy Newspapers said, in a nifty journalistic non sequitur.

All this could leave the casual reader with an impression that big cuts are coming to the Pentagon’s usually well-defended E-ring, where the big shots hang their helmets. That’s no doubt the message the Pentagon boss wants to deliver. “If I can take these cuts,” he seems to be telling the more than 2 million people (1.4 million in uniform and 700,000 civilians) who work for him, “so can you.”

It’s a good message for him to deliver, and he deserves credit for stepping up to the (shrinking) plate.

But let’s keep things in perspective:

– A cut from 2,400 workers now to less than 2,200 in 2019—which is what a senior defense official said would be the impact of Hagel’s decision—isn’t a 20% cut in personnel, despite what news outlets reported. It’s closer to 10%. In fact, Hagel said he was only ordering “20% budget reductions.” He’s pledging to cut the cost of his workforce from about $5 billion to $4 billion annually, or from roughly $14 million to $11 million daily. That 20% spending cut also will apply to the roughly 2,500 contractors employed by the defense-secretary’s shop.

– Most of the staff reduction actually will come in the form of retirements and other “natural attrition,” Hagel said. “We think it’s a responsible, deliberate, significant cut in the staff,” added Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. “We want to do it in an orderly way that doesn’t disrupt the mission.”

– Finally, the cuts are cuts only if one measures from the currently robust Pentagon central staff that swelled after 9/11 to help direct the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

You can get a sense of bloat by some of the changes Hagel detailed. His plan “realigns the portfolios of the five assistant secretaries of defense for policy. The plan also eliminates four deputy assistant secretary of defense positions and their corresponding support structures through a consolidation and realignment of the policy staff overhaul structure,” Hagel said. “I’ve also approved plans for eliminating the five remaining deputy undersecretaries of defense who are not presidentially appointed or Senate-confirmed.”

As this chart from the Pentagon’s own Defense Business Board makes clear, the defense secretary’s staff had 1,974 authorized positions on September 11, 2001. It had grown by nearly 40%, to 2,708, by 2011.

osd chart

Defense Business Board

Retired Marine major general Arnold Punaro, who championed the 2010 chart as the head of the board at the time, called Hagel’s decision to cut “significant,” but added that “from an actual numbers standpoint, the reductions are modest at best. “

Hagel’s bottom line, assuming his cuts occur: whoever is defense secretary in 2019 will have a workforce costing 20% less than today’s. But it will be about 10% bigger than then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld had on 9/11.