DoD leaders say automation isn’t taking over any civilian jobs yet

It’s hard to listen to any military leader these days and not hear the words automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning. The Defense Department is putting hundreds of millions of dollars in those assets.

While they are supposed to takeover some menial tasks and do some jobs better than actual employees, DoD personnel leadership doesn’t see it making an impact on how many civilian workers the Pentagon maintains. At least not yet.

On Tuesday, the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee held a hearing on the defense workforce. While hearing testimony about how the Pentagon is in dire need of talented individuals, the topic turned to the military’s civilian bureaucracy and how DoD might save money by cutting some staff, especially if tasks are being automated.

Pentagon leaders, though, felt the new technologies were only bettering employees’ work, not making their jobs obsolete.

“We are not currently incentivizing civilians to retire at this point,” said Gina Ortiz Jones, undersecretary of the Air Force. “The Air Force Personnel Center, however, is conducting a needs assessment to determine which units may need voluntary early retirement authority or voluntary separation incentive payments.”

Meredith Berger and Christopher Lowman, both performing the duties of the undersecretary of the Navy and Army respectively, had similar thoughts.

“We assess these civilians as part of the total force, and it’s an important contribution to our capability,” Berger said. “We are constantly assessing to make sure that we have the right people in the right job at the right time to be able to deliver warfighting capability.”

There are a handful of reasons why DoD does not want AI or automation to cut back its more than 700,000 civilian employees.

One is simply that the technology isn’t there. While the technologies make it easier for civilians to do their jobs, AI is currently working as a facilitator to free up civilians for more intense tasks. A study from Deloitte found that the skill level of employees needed by the government is rising. However, some tasks are still time-consuming with low payoff. Those include peripheral tasks and high-volume tasks.

“In 2016, the US Army Research Labs (ARL) automated testing of electronic silicon wafers used in military radios and cellphones,” the authors wrote. “Testing circuits is critical to making sure that soldiers’ communication equipment functions properly, but the testing process was time-consuming and dull, requiring mid-level skills (such as those possessed by engineering graduate students) and painstaking attention to detail. Testing was viewed as a bottleneck in the production process, and delays encouraged ARL to automate the testing tasks.”

Automating the process decreased how long the work took by 60 times, freeing up people with high skill levels to do jobs that are more important or to innovate.

Another reason DoD is reluctant to reduce its workforce is that it doesn’t want to lose talent. The Pentagon is fighting for the best and brightest with top-tier tech companies.

“We’re looking at how we ensure we don’t cut ourselves off from key civilian talent,” Ortiz Jones said. “Especially as their their expectations of quality of life and work-life balance due to COVID. We want to make sure we have the right size and the right capabilities like telework.”

Congress has tried to cut DoD’s civilian workforce in the past and some lawmakers think it may have come back to bite them. In the mid-2010s Congress cut DoD’s headquarters operating budget by 25% .

Sen. Tim Kaine felt that lead to some of the maintenance problems in privatized military housing that reared up two years ago.

“A couple years after those cuts we had huge crises and challenges in the military housing program,” Kaine told Federal News Network in March. “Turns out that one of the reasons for the housing problems is the arbitrary cut of headquarters staff. The military housing staffers were significantly reduced, which made it harder for them to exercise oversight over the private housing contractor. Sometimes we do things and then we don’t go back and ask, ‘Okay did it work out the way we thought?’ I’m going to be pretty wary about advancing new acquisition reforms right away.”

That doesn’t mean that DoD won’t want to make cuts in the future when technologies develop more. All of the DoD leaders who testified said they are constantly monitoring the size of their workforce based on needs.

“We’re assessing the civilian size at the same time that we are for our military members,” Lowman said. “We will execute the appropriate process to find out how the incorporation of new technologies such as AI, machine learning, and data analytics affect the civilian workforce, along with the military members.”

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