US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday that the Pentagon's top brass will cut their staffs by 20 percent. (Karen Bleier / AFP)
JACKSONVILLE, FLA. — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday that the Pentagon’s top brass will cut their staffs by 20 percent.
Hagel told reporters traveling with him on a three-day trip to visit four military installations that the cuts will affect his own Office of the Secretary of Defense as well as the Joint Staff and the headquarters staffs for the four individual services.
The cuts will be carried out over the 2015-2019 time frame and save an estimated $1.5 billion, Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
Officials said the initiative will affect permanently assigned defense civilian employees, military personnel and contractors, although the ratio and depth of cuts among those three demographics is still to be determined. No hard decisions are likely to emerge until the Pentagon unveils its fiscal 2015 budget request in February.
The Office of the Secretary of Defense currently has a staff of about 2,000 and the Joint Staff has more than 4,000.
The planned cuts are among the first details to emerge from the so-called Strategic Choices and Management Review, which Hagel ordered in March to help set spending priorities at a time of intense budget pressure.
“These cuts will be implemented even if Congress lifts sequester-level budget caps,” Little said, referring to the across-the-board spending cuts that took effect in March.
The announcement is the latest in a series of cutbacks that are taking hold within the Defense Department as the outlook dims for near-term relief from the massive, mandatory budget reductions known as sequestration. DoD will have to shave about $52 billion from its planned spending in 2014 if sequestration remains in place.
A senior defense official speaking on background said Hagel “wants to show that this is not just cutting bases and programs outside Washington. This is going to start with his office. These cuts are too big for the secretary of defense not to set an example. He's been emphatic about that.”
Hagel addressed another aspect of the bad news forced by sequestration Tuesday when he spoke to a group of civilian aircraft engineers who began furloughs last week at Naval Air Station Jacksonville.
“We now have the very real probability that sequestration will continue,” Hagel said. “We better get on some high ground and start figuring this out because that is what’s coming.”
The Florida base was Hagel’s second stop on his three-day tour of military sites along the southeastern seaboard. He is meeting with troops, families and civilian employees to talk about the budget cuts that have forced the Pentagon to furlough nearly 700,000 civilian employees for 11 days between now and September.
Hagel was pessimistic about the budget pressures lifting anytime soon.
“We’re just at the front end of what’s coming here,” Hagel said. “The ripple effects of this are very serious and I think we’re just at the front end of people beginning to understand it. It’s reality. It’s in law now. It’s going to happen. I’m being as brutally honest with you as I can be. That’s an obligation that all leaders have, to be straightforward.”
Last week Hagel notified lawmakers on Capitol Hill that sequestration could force the Pentagon to freeze promotions and recruiting, impose civilian layoffs and scale back investment in large weapons programs next year.
In Jacksonville, he spoke to employees after touring the Navy’s Fleet Readiness Center Southeast, where dozens of Navy aircraft were undergoing maintenance overhauls. The center is closed on Fridays through September due to the civilian furloughs affecting its 2,700 workers.
Hagel also met with the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, where he faced questions about what he thinks Congress will do regarding sequestration.
“I don’t see a lot of hopeful signs that this is going to be resolved,” Hagel said during a lunch meeting at the base’s officers’ club.
The secretary later toured the base commissary, which is now temporarily closed on Mondays.
He spoke to Joel Logue, a 74-year-old retired Navy senior chief who drives to Jacksonville to volunteer at the Naval Hospital on Mondays and typically stops at the commissary on his way home, but cannot now because of the limited hours imposed by furloughs.
“Can you fix that?” Logue asked the secretary near the store’s meat counter.
“We’re trying to fix it all,” Hagel told him. “I’m sorry that you’re inconvenienced. We’re doing our best to get this back on track.”