Too many military personnel performing civilian jobs?

The fight about whether a civilian or contractor should fill a particular government job is a long-running one that probably will never die. But in a new report, the Congressional Budget Office raised a question that’s not asked quite as often: do we have too many uniformed military personnel performing office work?

CBO seems to think so. The office estimated that DoD has 340,000 military members assigned to “commercial” or support jobs. Converting just 80,000 of those into civilian positions would trim DoD’s personnel costs by anywhere between $3.1 billion and $5.7 billion per year, analysts concluded.

CBO is almost universally respected as fiercely nonpartisan for its expertise on fiscal matters — not necessarily for achieving the most effective personnel policies. But it definitely has a point when it concludes that military personnel are a lot more expensive to employ in the types positions where a civilian could do the work. Counting veterans benefits, health care, pensions, education and ancillary benefits like commissaries, the average military member costs the federal budget $135,000 per year compared to $96,000 for the average civilian. Also, a smaller number of civilians could replace existing military members in non-combat jobs.

CBO acknowledged that figuring out the right mix between military personnel and civilians is an extremely difficult policy question, which it doesn’t try to definitively answer in this study.

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So why 80,000? That figure is based how many military positions each of the four DoD branches have already converted from military jobs to civilian ones in categories like finance, IT, health care and logistics. And CBO assumes that each service should be able to replicate the shift from military work to civilian that their sister services have already undergone in each of those categories.

But at the moment, the services are very different in terms of how they allocate military personnel to a given job function.  For instance, 62 percent of the Marine Corps’ finance and accounting workforce is made up of fully-trained riflemen. In the Army, 83 percent are civilians.

Some of those differences are likely more arbitrary and cultural than analytically sound, but there are also good arguments to keep some military members in “commercial” positions.

It would be a bad idea, for example, to create an acquisition workforce made up exclusively of civilians who had no recent battlefield experience — something Congress emphasized in the 2016 Defense bill when it gave the uniformed deputies that worked for each of the military services’ civilian acquisition chiefs a greater role in determining weapons system requirements.

And, as CBO acknowledged in its report, there were plenty of other good reasons the armed services might want to reserve a good number of non-combat jobs for their admittedly more expensive uniformed personnel.

“Support jobs can serve as a rotation base for service members who have been assigned overseas or aboard ship, providing them with a temporary break in a nondeploying or onshore position,” analysts wrote. “Alternatively, such positions may offer military personnel paths for advancement. Those positions also help ensure that enough senior enlisted personnel and officers are available for immediate overseas deployment or to form new units.”