By Sandra Basu

WASHINGTON – The DoD plans to cut its civilian workforce by 5% to 6% by the end of fiscal year 2018, including more than 5,000 from the Military Health System.

President Barack Obama’s FY 2014 proposed base budget request of $526.6 billion for the department also calls for elimination of “excess infrastructure,” which could result in more trimming of personnel.

“The FY 2014 budget is a reflection of DoD’s best efforts to match ends, ways and means during a period of intense fiscal uncertainty,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee last month. “It is a balanced plan that would address some of the department’s structural costs and internal budget imbalances while implementing the president’s defense strategic guidance and keeping faith with our men and women in uniform and their families.”

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, right, speaks with U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), last month at the Pentagon. Hagel and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense to discuss the president’s budget directive for the 2014 fiscal year and the continuing effects of sequestration on the defense budget. DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

The Military Health System would not go unscathed in these plans. As part of the overall effort to reduce the civilian workforce, DoD has planned to reduce the MHS workforce by 5,235 full-time equivalents from FY 2012 to FY 2018.

It might not end there, however. The document also stated that “reductions could be over 8,000 full time equivalents depending on future decisions regarding clinical infrastructure, public health, mental health, and wounded warrior care.”

Reimplementing BRAC

Overall, about half of the planned reductions in the total DoD civilian workforce depend on infrastructure consolidation, restructuring of military treatment facilities and forecast reductions in demand for depot maintenance, according to budget documents. In an effort to shed infrastructure, DoD is proposing one round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) in 2015. In addition, Hagel explained that DoD is also taking important steps “to cut back on support costs.”

“We will institute a study of our Military Treatment Facilities, including many hospitals and clinics that are currently underutilized,” he said. “By the end of this year, we will have a plan in place that suggests how to reduce that underutilization while still providing high-quality medical care. This restructuring, coupled with a BRAC round and other changes, would permit us to plan on a cut in our civilian workforce that will comply with congressional direction.”

BRAC was last implemented in 2005, and it was during that round of closures and realignments that Walter Reed Army Medical Center was shut down and its capabilities joined with those from National Naval Medical Center to create the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, opening in 2011.

In a press briefing last month, Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller) Robert Hale said DoD must be able to implement BRAC again and restructure MTFs in order to reduce civilian personnel. Last year, Congress rejected a similar request by DoD officials who sought approval to implement the BRAC process.

“Congress passed a law that stated that we had to reduce civilian personnel roughly in proportion to military personnel,” he explained. “We can’t do that without things like BRAC and the ability to restructure some of our treatment facilities, because a lot of our civilians work there, and we have to eliminate the requirement before we eliminate the people.”

Hale said that, if plans go through to implement BRAC, the commission would meet in 2015 with base closures not happening until 2016.

“At which time I hope the economy is in much better shape and so I think that may work in our favor,” he said.

Hale told lawmakers at a hearing that the proposed BRAC for 2015 will differ from the 2005 BRAC.

“BRAC 2005 built a lot of new facilities, it was partially a response to 9/11 and we are not going to do that again. This will be more of a more classic realignment and closure round,” he said.

When asked during a congressional hearing whether now was the right time to implement BRAC, Hale told lawmakers that if BRAC is not implemented now then future DoD leaders will not have money that will be needed.

“We have to do it, even though times are tough,” he said.

Meanwhile, news of DoD’s plans for civilian staff reductions and desire to implement BRAC came while the department already was struggling with sequestration and the possibility of furloughs. Though officials already had said in March that civilian employees could experience unpaid furloughs for as many as 22 days, that number had been reduced by the end of March to 14 days and further cuts in furloughs also were thought to be possible.

In a written statement, the American Federation of Government Employees called on the Department of Defense “to do the right thing for its employees and the country” by cancelling the planned furlough of civilian workers.

“Many of the services and Defense agencies say they can reduce or eliminate the number of furlough days for their workers, and they should be allowed to exercise this flexibility,” AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. said in a written statement. “Forcing all employees off the job without pay for the same number of days out of some misguided notion of fairness is damaging to employees and undermines mission.”