Trim Pentagon personnel fat

Ashton Carter, President Barack Obama’s choice to be defense secretary, finishes his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

New Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has been told by auditors that his new headquarters doesn’t know how big it is, preventing it from beginning a promised and much-needed reduction in staff.

The news should make him laugh and cry at the same time. The Pentagon has such an unwieldy personnel system that it does not know how many people it actually employs, the Government Accountability Office has determined.

The Pentagon agencies include the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff and the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force secretariats and staffs, and other headquarters support agencies. The total number of jobs spills over from the Pentagon’s capacity of 24,000 into adjacent government office buildings.

Those agencies grew rapidly after the war on terror was launched in 2001. Army civilian and military staff rose 60 percent from 2001 to 2013, for example.

Now that large U.S. deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have ended, it is clearly time to begin shrinking the headquarters back to a sensible, and manageable size. Congress has demanded cuts. Departing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel promised a 20 percent reduction.

But nothing has happened, apparently because nobody knows where to begin. The Pentagon workforce contains a confusing mix of civil servants, military personnel and contract employees. A top civil servant informally known as the mayor of the Pentagon is supposed to keep tabs on all this, but like Congress lacks the data needed.

That is because none of the headquarters organizations systematically and continuously determines its staffing requirements, the GAO found.

The problem may be traced back to the loss of legislative caps imposed on Pentagon offices by Congress in the 1980s and 1990s. If such caps were in place today, the GAO estimated, Army staff would exceed the targets by 17 percent. Navy staff would be too large by 74 percent.

But the caps were waived by Congress in 2002. Unfortunately, nothing took their place.

The Defense Department complained that the GAO report failed to take into account the “complex and multilayered structure” required to carry out Pentagon missions. But there is also evidence of Pentagon foot-dragging in meeting the new congressional demand for a leaner headquarters.

Explaining why the Pentagon missed a congressional deadline for a plan to downsize, a Defense Department spokesman said the office responsible for the report “has undergone both a leadership change and a staff reorganization, which redirected efforts away from the report.”

This behavior will be familiar to connoisseurs of bureaucratic resistance to change as recorded by observers such as C. Northcote Parkinson, whose famous study of the inflexible size of the admiralty staff of the Royal Navy gave rise to Parkinson’s Law — “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was assistant secretary of the Navy years before he became president, described its resistance to change: “To change anything in the Navy is like punching a feather bed. You punch it with your right and you punch it with your left until you are finally exhausted, and then you find the damn bed just as it was before you started punching.”

Mr. Carter, confirmed last week by the Senate, obviously has work cut out for him, on matters large and small, as he takes over at the Pentagon.