New Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter promised to shed excess civilian staff as he faced repeated pressure last week from Congress' defense committees.
"I think we should go after excess wherever we find it in the department," Carter said. "The civilian workforce, like the military personnel end-strength, has to be something that we scrutinize and reduce."
But over the years, the Pentagon's civilian workforce has found itself highly resistant to reduction — even when "cuts" are made.
For example, last week as Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James asked House appropriators to increase the service's 2016 budget, she noted that the Air Force has responded quickly to calls in 2013 to shed 20 percent of its civilian workforce.
"We didn't have to do it in one year, but we did, because we could get the savings more quickly," James told House Appropriations defense subcommittee Chairman Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J.
The Air Force did make steep cuts starting in 2013, as did all the services. It shed 11,567 civilian employees between 2013 and 2014, according to data released by the Defense Department in its fiscal 2016 budget documentation. The Navy shed 14,185 civilians, the Army shed 47,048 civilians, for a total of 72,800 cuts.
But based on the newly released figures, most of the civilians were not actually cut from the payroll.
In that time frame, the number of civilians the Pentagon reported under its "defense-wide" accounts — staff that perform agency-wide operation and maintenance, medical and administrative functions — rose by 58,436.
And based on the Pentagon's fiscal 2015 and 2016 requests, another 17,000 civilians will be added back in to the services and to its defense-wide payroll over the next two years — basically restoring every cut made in 2013.
In that same period, the active-duty military cut its end strength by 50,000 troops and plans to shed another 30,000 troops through 2016.
"Every time we hear about reduction of force, it's always on our front line, it's always the people we're depending to be on the front line fighting and defending us," Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., told Carter. "But when you look at basically the size of the staffs … it's just overwhelming, the size of the staff keeps growing."
The result is an odd balance to the Defense Department's "spear" – a 1:1 ratio of fighting troops to civilians. The active-duty military is 1.34 million troops strong, as of the 2014 report. The back office, based on the 2014 civilian data and 2013 contractor data, the most recent available, is 1.35 million strong: 629,000 contractors and 724,000 civilians paid by the U.S. government.
"This inverted ratio of federal defense civilians and federal defense civilian contractors to active duty uniformed forces has been heading in the wrong direction for years now," said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
The Pentagon, due to government closure, was not immediately able to provide a response about the civilian personnel numbers.
California Republican Rep. Ken Calvert, a member of the defense appropriations subcommittee, introduced legislation in January to get the Pentagon to begin to actually cut its civilian workforce.
"Something is clearly wrong with that equation," of continued civilian growth while active duty end strength is cut, Calvert said.
Calvert's bill, the Rebalance for an Effective Defense Uniform and Civilian Employees (REDUCE) Act, would require the Defense Department to cut the civilian workforce 15 percent starting in fiscal 2017.