November 13, 2013

Discretionary SpendingOption 3

Function 050 - National Defense

Replace Some Military Personnel With Civilian Employees

(Billions of dollars) 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2014-2018 2014-2023
Change in Spending                        
  Budget authority 0 -0.3 -0.9 -1.6 -2.3 -2.7 -2.9 -3.0 -3.2 -3.4 -5.0 -20.2
  Outlays 0 -0.2 -0.8 -1.4 -2.1 -2.6 -2.8 -3.0 -3.1 -3.3 -4.6 -19.4

Note: This option would take effect in October 2014. About 30 percent of the above savings reflect intragovernmental transfers and thus would not reduce the deficit.

The workforce of the Department of Defense (DoD) consists of members of the active-duty and reserve military, federal civilian employees, and private contractors. According to data from DoD, thousands of members of the military work in support, or “commercial,” jobs that could be performed by civilians. The jobs are done in military units that do not deploy overseas for combat, and they do not involve functions that could raise concerns about personal safety or national security.

Under this option, over four years DoD would replace 70,000 of the more than 500,000 uniformed military personnel in commercial jobs with 47,000 civilian employees and, as a result, decrease military end strength (the number of military personnel on the rolls as of the final day of a fiscal year) by 70,000. By the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate, those changes could reduce the need for appropriations by $20 billion and for discretionary outlays by $19 billion from 2015 through 2023. The reductions would occur primarily because fewer civilians would be needed to replace a given number of military personnel (civilians have fewer collateral duties and do not generally rotate among positions as rapidly as military personnel do) and because the cost of employing a civilian is, on average, less than that for a military service member.

Although there is precedent for such conversions (between 2004 and 2010, DoD converted about 48,000 military positions to 32,000 civilian jobs), only a small percentage of all military positions have been reviewed for that purpose. Moreover, the approach to using military or civilian employees to perform various commercial functions differs from branch to branch. For example, the Army fills 5 percent of its contract administration jobs with military personnel, whereas the Air Force has 63 percent of those jobs staffed with military personnel. The Navy employs military personnel for 49 percent of its jobs in retail supply operations; the Air Force, 70 percent. If each service adopted the personnel mix with the lowest percentage of military personnel in commercial occupations, up to 140,000 military positions could be opened to civilians, CBO estimates. Under this option, civilians would carry out the responsibilities for about half of those positions.

An argument for converting military to civilian positions is that civilians require, on average, less job-specific training over their careers because they are not subject to the frequent transfers that military personnel are. Replacing military with civilian personnel also would increase efficiency and save money if, as CBO anticipates, fewer workers could provide services of the same quantity and quality. However, if DoD did not reduce military end strength but simply reassigned military personnel to other duties, total personnel costs would increase by an amount reflecting the costs of the civilian replacements. In that case, this option would still free some military personnel to fulfill their primary mission of training for and, if necessary, engaging in combat.

An argument against this option is that, even though many service members might spend part of their careers in jobs that could be performed by civilians, most are trained fighters who could be deployed if needed. Replacing such military personnel with civilians could reduce DoD’s ability to respond quickly if called upon to do so. Moreover, despite the potential cost savings, the military services try to avoid converting certain types of positions because it could lead to reductions in effectiveness or morale. For example, the Navy must provide shore positions for sailors—so that they do not spend their entire careers at sea—even if some of those positions could be filled by civilians.