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Outside View: Pentagon's most perplexing challenge: People
by Harlan Ullman
Steyning, England (UPI) May 15, 2013


Hagel announces unpaid leave for Pentagon civilians
Washington (AFP) May 14, 2013 - The Pentagon will place most of its nearly 800,000 civilian employees on unpaid leave for 11 days through September to "survive" steep automatic budget cuts, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday.

The Pentagon chief told an audience of civilian defense workers that he regretted the decision and had tried to limit the length of the furloughs while safeguarding the military's combat readiness.

"I'm sorry, but I have to be honest and deal with the facts. You deserve honesty and you deserve the facts," he said at a conference hall in Alexandria, Virginia.

An initial plan for furloughs of up to 22 days or 14 days had been scaled back after Congress approved additional funding.

But Hagel, describing a difficult set of choices, said he reluctantly concluded there was no way to avoid furloughs altogether.

"I could not go responsibly any deeper into cutting or jeopardizing our core missions on readiness, training. That is why I made a decision that we'll go forward with furloughs starting July 8 of 11 days," he said.

Nearly 69,000 civilians will be exempt from the furloughs, including intelligence officers, shipyard workers, those working in combat zones or in foreign military sales and some medical and police personnel, according to a memorandum issued by Hagel's office.

Under automatic budget cuts enacted by Congress, the Pentagon must slash its funding by roughly $37 billion through the end of the current fiscal year.

Asked by one employee if he could promise an end to further furloughs next fiscal year, Hagel said he could not offer any guarantees, as budget decisions were in the hands of Congress.

"What we're doing here is we're just trying to survive and get through this fiscal year," he said.

US commanders have warned the reductions will undermine military readiness by forcing cuts to training and maintenance.

Under mounting fiscal pressure, the Pentagon has already begun laying off temporary and contract employees and plans to scale back its civilian workforce by 5-6 percent over the next five years, according to Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter.

The Defense Department has proposed a budget for 2014 that would keep military spending steady at $526.6 billion, without taking into account the cost of the war in Afghanistan or the automatic budget cuts.

But the budget proposal may never be approved given the political stalemate in Congress, with both parties deadlocked over how to reduce the deficit.

The automatic budget reductions, or sequestration, were part of a 2011 law designed to contain the federal government's growing deficit and national debt.

Republican Senator John McCain mocked fellow lawmakers for allowing the budget cuts to go ahead for the military while taking action to avoid furloughs for civilian air traffic controllers.

"Our priority is air traffic control, by God, so we don't have to wait in line too long at an airport," he said.

"This is the most upside down, unbelievable, Alice in Wonderland experience when we're looking at the actual devastation of our ability to defend this nation."

Here at a conference on Professional Military Education, attention is being focused on one small sliver of the largest challenge facing militaries in general and Western forces in particular: People.

While John Paul Jones may be less popular in these isles than across the Atlantic, paraphrasing one of his better bon mots captures this perplexing challenge, "People are more important than guns in the rating of a ship."

Over the next year and led by the Strategic Choices Review undertaken by the Pentagon and to be finished by month's end, the latest Quadrennial Defense Review will be conducted.

The mega-challenges are clear. Regardless of the effect of sequestration, the defense budget will contract. The only question is how much.

Inbuilt cost growth of astounding proportion for both people and equipment will mandate huge program changes even if defense spending were to remain constant -- which it won't.

Simultaneous modernization of strategic, naval, air and ground systems creates further tectonic pressures on where to set priorities and where not.

And to make matters worse, massive regulatory burdens and congressional micromanagement compound inefficiencies and multiply obstacles in taking rational and sensible decisions over using already scarce and strained resources.

Yet, while everyone pays lip service to the importance of people, without fundamental changes to personnel policies, will the United States be able to maintain capable, motivated, agile, prepared and professional forces essential to protecting the nation's security into the future?

This warning doesn't suggest military and civilian Pentagon leadership is unaware of the seriousness of this issue. It does mean that without real revolutions in how we resolve these personnel challenges, warnings of a 21st-century variant of the infamous "hollow force" will sadly prove prescient.

Twelve years of war have had and will have profound effect on the forces particularly those having served multiple tours at war even though a minority of people in uniform has actually spent much time in combat. No sector in American society is held in higher esteem than the military. "Thank you for your service," is as common an expression today in America for people in uniform as is "Hello."

Service personnel rightfully believe that they are protecting the country. They are highly skilled; dedicated; armed with the best weapons and technology available; and believe in what they are doing. Virtually no expense has been spared in providing them the wherewithal to carry out their duties including importing U.S. institutions such as PX's, latest movies and fast-food chains to forward operating bases.

The U.S. government even sends bottled water at $800 a gallon to front-line troops and has spent $70 billion in countering improvised explosive devices to protect our people in uniform.

For those who have served in combat, responsibilities are heavy as is the rush of adrenalin when in action and bullets are flying. Even junior enlisted personnel often have responsibilities far greater than their rank suggests. And however dangerous, many fighting men and women are attracted to this line of work.

As the war in Iraq is over and the drawdown from Afghanistan takes hold, fewer Americans will be sent in harm's way, assuming that another conflict doesn't erupt.

So what then do our forces have to look forward to in peacetime and will those duties be so routine, onerous and uninteresting as to make retaining a highly professional force difficult or impossible?

And there is the matter of ethics and even morality.

Most of our operations on the ground have been "capture or kill" missions reinforced by the ability to bring direct and indirect fires to bear and to rely in many cases on drones and standoff attacks.

The line between this form of war and assassination is quite fine. Laws of war, more or less well developed in battle between like conventional forces, don't preclude atrocities or excesses. However, over centuries, unlike current conflicts, laws of war have precedence and a certain legitimacy in international law.

Consider the staff sergeant or lieutenant back from the wars where perhaps responsibility for protecting or governing a town, village or large area was theirs. In many cases, life-or-death decisions were common.

Yet, in peacetime, these same non-coms and officers will be evaluated as to how well they fill out duty rosters to provide troops for menial tasks or guard duty while budgets will erode training and honing professional skills.

Solutions to resolve this people crisis about what is the No. 1 priority for defense abound PROVIDING the nation's leadership recognizes and chooses to act on this understanding. The senior military leadership is able and prepared to create these solutions. But policy must allow them to do so. And revolutionary ideas are more than welcome and needed.

(Harlan Ullman is chairman of the Killowen Group, which advises leaders of government and business, and senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council.)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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