Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday that he had ordered a 20 percent cut in the number of top brass and senior civilians at the Pentagon by 2019, the latest attempt to shrink the military bureaucracy after years of heady growth.
Hagel's directive could force the Pentagon and military command staffs to shed an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 jobs. That's a tiny percentage of the Defense Department's 2.1 million active-duty troops and civilian employees, but analysts said it would be a symbolically important trimming of the upper branches of the bureaucracy, which has proved to be resistant to past pruning attempts.
"It's all relative for a bureaucracy that has hardly been touched by a human hand over the past decade," said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine general and member of the Defense Business Board, which advises the Pentagon on financial matters. "But a 20 percent cut is pretty dramatic."
Speaking to troops during a visit to the Jacksonville Naval Air Station in Florida, Hagel said the cutbacks would apply to the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff, as well as Pentagon headquarters staffs for the armed forces.
Hagel did not give further details. It was unclear if his order would also apply to defense contractors assigned to those offices or the military's combatant command staffs. But he said the personnel cutbacks would happen regardless of whether the White House and Congress are able to sidestep automatic budget reductions that are scheduled to take place in the coming years.
Those budget cuts, part of a process known as sequestration, have already forced the Pentagon to trim its spending by $37 billion this year. One result is that virtually all civilian workers in the Defense Department have been ordered to take 11 days of unpaid leave by Sept. 30.
"Everybody's got to do their part," Hagel said of cutting the size of the brass. At the same time, he acknowledged that the Pentagon's fiscal distress ran much deeper and that other measures would be necessary. "This isn't going to fix the problem," he added.
Military spending skyrocketed in the decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but has remained roughly flat the past two years as the White House and lawmakers have sought to trim federal budget deficits.
Previously announced plans to whittle the military bureaucracy have met with mixed results.
In 2010, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered a three-year freeze on staffing in his office, the Joint Staff and the military combatant commands. But a recent analysis by Defense News, a trade publication, found that the size of those staffs nevertheless has grown by about 15 percent.
Gates also ordered the elimination of the Norfolk, Va.-based Joint Forces Command, which employed about 6,000 people, including contractors. Ultimately, however, most of those jobs were simply transferred to other parts of the Defense Department, analysts said.