By JOHN T. BENNETT
WASHINGTON — US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s intention to slash Pentagon and combatant command personnel is being warmly embraced on Capitol Hill, but experts say the historic difficulty in cutting the civilian workforce may doom the effort.
Lawmakers from both parties last week beamed when asked about Hagel’s announcement that he will reduce the workforces of his office, the Joint Staff and each combatant command by 20 percent before this decade ends.
Pentagon officials contend staff cuts of that size are needed to trim annual spending and devote up to $2 billion in savings to higher priorities. They intend to carry out the Pentagon and command staff reductions with or without a White House-congressional fiscal deal that lessens or voids sequestration.
Defense sources say remaining elements of US Joint Forces Command, absorbed into the Joint Staff and other Pentagon organizations in 2011, likely will meet the budgetary guillotine.
Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Adm. James Winnefeld told senators July 18 the idea is to cut “entire staffs,” calling what’s coming “a significant cut.”
A series of interviews with Democratic and Republican lawmakers suggests Hagel will receive little political pushback, an ironic twist for a secretary whose nomination — longtime Washington insiders said — was unprecedentedly partisan.
“I would prefer cuts there to areas where they’ve been cutting: flight hours and brigades,” Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Sen. James Inhofe said during a brief interview.
The effusive embrace for the Hagel plan last week was bipartisan, with the Obama administration’s political allies joining in.
“I think what he’s doing is leading by example,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Vice Chairman Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. “He knows he can’t expect maneuver forces in the field … to make significant cuts if he’s not going to cut his own office.”
A leading pro-Defense Department House Republican heaped praise, as well.
“There’s been widespread agreement that reducing the number of civilians in the Pentagon would be a good thing,” said House Armed Services Committee Vice Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.
“We’re too top heavy in the military. I’d say this is on the right track.”
Thornberry offered one of the few critical views of the plan, saying he would like to see the staff reductions completed long before 2019. “We’ve got a budget problem right now,” he told Defense News.
Political moderates and Pentagon-cutting tea party libertarians also like the plan.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, called the Pentagon “top-heavy,” adding “it could take some reductions.” And Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., called the proposal “a terrific idea.”
“There is plenty of room for savings in the Pentagon,” Paul said in a brief interview. “And if he can find savings that doesn’t hurt readiness, I’m all for it. … The overall Pentagon budget has some room for savings.”
While lawmakers applauded Hagel’s intentions, defense analysts and former officials of all stripes said there are ample reasons to believe the Pentagon can’t actually implement the plan in a way that generates any real savings.
“While the … analysis behind the recommendation to cut [defense secretary staff], Joint Staff and [combatant command] overhead by 20 percent is serious, Congress should remain skeptical of its implementation and oversee it carefully,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a former Senate GOP aide now with the American Enterprise Institute.
“The Pentagon’s track record in cutting itself, particularly DoD civilians, is non-existent in recent years,” Eaglen said.
“Since President Obama took office, he has overseen a defense budget reduction of 10 percent. And yet during the same time period, the size of the Pentagon civilian workforce has grown by about 13 percent.”
Gordon Adams, a former Clinton administration defense budget official now with the Stimson Center, called the plan “great symbolism, but not very meaningful.”
“Cuts in the future are the easiest to make,” Adams said. “The [service] chiefs love this sort of thing.”
That’s because it typically prevents cuts “where the real problem lies, which is the 70 percent of the ‘back office’ that resides inside the four services,” Adams said, referring to the kinds of office positions and other non-war-fighting jobs Hagel wants to eliminate.
“I’m all for cutting the ‘back office,’ but the problem is, as the Defense Business Board has pointed out, the 560,000 [personnel] who never deploy,” Adams said. “I wait with bated breath to see the plan to implement [Hagel’s] plan because I don’t think there really is one.”