Hagel Vows a Smaller Staff for Brass in $2 Billion Cut

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is pledging savings at the top of the Pentagon, with a 20 percent reduction over five years in spending on personnel to support him and the highest-ranking U.S. military officials.

The cuts that will start next year may yield $1.5 billion to $2 billion in savings based on early estimates, and the move to reduce the staff that serves the military brass will be made even if automatic budget cuts now in effect are canceled, Pentagon spokesman George Little said yesterday in a statement.

Hagel’s remarks yesterday were his first disclosure of actions resulting from a review he ordered in March, citing the need to weigh Pentagon choices in a time of “both budgetary and strategic uncertainty.”

“We will be rolling out and announcing the specifics of these reductions that came as a result of the review I directed,” Hagel told reporters during a visit to the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida. The 20 percent reductions will apply to the offices of the secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs as well as the military services’ headquarters staff.

Little said he couldn’t say how many jobs may be cut at the Pentagon.

Hagel is due today to complete a three-day tour of four military bases in the southern U.S., where he’s meeting with soldiers and their families as well as Pentagon civilians concerned that budget cuts and furloughs are posing a hardship.

The Defense Department has begun 11 days of unpaid leave for 651,542 civilian employees in order to save about $1.8 billion of the $37 billion it must trim this fiscal year under the automatic budget cuts called sequestration.

’Sobering Meeting’

Hagel said that he and top leaders of the Pentagon, including General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, briefed President Barack Obama last week on the furloughs and the findings of the strategic review.

“It was a sobering meeting,” Hagel said.

The Pentagon will have to cut $52 billion from its proposed fiscal 2014 budget unless Obama and Congress agree on an alternative in place of sequestration. More funding cuts may lead to further reductions in military personnel, Hagel said yesterday.

On his tour of the bases, Hagel heard complaints from Defense Department civilians as well as business leaders about how the furloughs are hurting them.

The forced time off is harming Defense Department-run schools that serve military families, said Claire Riggle, an employee at the Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

Schools Shut

“Working at Womack, I have been hit by the furloughs, and they’re inconvenient and difficult, but what bothers me more is the effect it has on our children,” Riggle told Hagel in a town hall-style meeting on July 15. “And beginning in August, the schools will be having furloughs, so within the first month of school, the children will have missed a whole week of school.”

Hagel told her that school teachers were furloughed for only five days, and the Pentagon gave principals flexibility to arrange for the time off before schools reopened.

At the Navy facility in Jacksonville, Elizabeth Nealin, head of the research and engineering department at the Navy’s Fleet Readiness Center Southeast, told Hagel that the planned 2014 budget cuts and potential additional furloughs next year could disrupt productivity.

Hagel told Nealin that the Pentagon was “preparing for the worst. We are planning for a $52 billion cut, maybe it won’t happen. But we are preparing. We have to.”

‘Further Cuts’

In order to preserve military readiness and training, the Pentagon may seek “further cuts in personnel,” Hagel said, adding “you can’t buy back readiness.”

At a lunch yesterday with executives from the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, one participant asked Hagel whether Congress was likely to roll back the automatic cuts.

“I don’t see a lot of hopeful signs that this is going to be resolved,” Hagel said, citing the polarization in Congress. With the congressional elections next year there’s “less incentive to compromise.”

Hagel encouraged the group to educate lawmakers about the effects of budget cuts and furloughs.

“The more the member of Congress can understand, is educated and you give them facts, they’ll come up with answers,” he said.

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