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A U.S. Defense Budget That Makes China Smile

U.S. Army Budget

“More tooth, less tail” is a common refrain from defense leaders in search of more combat power as budgets have flatlined. No matter the topline, it seems defense continues to get less for more. Except when it comes to civilians.

The President’s 2022 budget request proposes to grow the Pentagon’s army of civilians while shrinking active duty endstrength. Biasing one workforce over the other demonstrates an incoherence of priorities.

In the face of global threats, the Biden 2022 budget calls for cuts to the size, or endstrength, of every military service (except the fledgling Space Force), while the Department of Defense’s civilian workforce is set to grow. Active duty rolls will see a reduction of nearly 7,000 servicemembers across the combat-oriented branches. At the same time, the defense federal civilian population will grow by nearly 9,000 employees.

The combination of growing support structure and contraction of the active force is mismatched to global requirements.

Some, including at the Pentagon, contend that increasing defense bureaucrats relative to active military personnel provides cost savings and increased capabilities for the total force. The Government Accountability Office observed in 1994 that defense civilians cost the government approximately $15,000 less per year than a uniformed service member of equivalent seniority. Further, the Defense Department argues that the “use of civilians allows the Department to focus its Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Guardians on the tasks and functions that are truly military essential.” Despite these arguments, excessive investment in support threatens the flexibility of the total force.

Not mentioned by leaders are the very real costs of the expansion of the civilian workforce. A 2015 Defense Business Board report found that the Defense Department employed over a million civilians, contractors, and uniformed personnel in administrative positions to support just 1.3 million service members on active duty. The report further identified $125 billion in defense-wide savings over five years accessible without direct workforce cuts “through attrition and early retirements” and other cost improvements. In context, those savings could have funded the operations of 50 Army Brigade Combat Teams, 10 Carrier Strike Group deployments, or 83 F-35 Operations Groups. These reforms were never implemented, and the imbalance between active forces and support structure has only worsened.

One of the prime drivers of the bloat of civilian overhead has been a continuous increase of headquarters staffs. As Maj. Gen. (ret) Arnold Punaro notes in his new book The Ever-Shrinking Fighting Force, the staffs of Office of the Secretary of Defense, Joint Chiefs, Combatant Commands, and Defense Field Activities alone employ more than 240,000 defense civilians and contractors. From the 1950s onward, the growth of these staffs has helped push the defense-wide spending category from five percent of the defense budget to nearly 20 percent.

Unsurprisingly, the inflation of overhead costs has coincided with an accelerating decline in active-duty endstrength. The vast Defense Department’s employee balance has shifted away from combat power for the past decade. As the FY21 Green Book notes, the Pentagon fell below two servicemembers per civilian in 2011 and has not improved since. The President’s proposed force mix for 2022 offers a 1.7:1 ratio of active-duty military personnel to civilian employees, the least favorable ratio since before World War II. For perspective, the Pentagon maintained an approximately 2.2:1 ratio throughout the height of the Iraq War and a staggering 4.6:1 in 1945.

While the United States is not currently facing existential threats nor as intense combat as in World War II, the sheer multiplicity of potential challenges demands the versatility and prompt readiness that only uniformed, active servicemembers can provide. The contributions of defense civilians is valuable, but they are no substitute for uniformed servicemembers.

There is no replacement for the value of a ready, active force. In a pinch, a cook or a clerk—or a Congressional Liaison Officer—can pick up a rifle or stand a watch on a ship. But shock brigades of Principle Deputies and Vice Directors are unlikely to deter Russia in Europe or China in the Pacific. While a civilian may be cheaper to employ than an “equivalent” servicemember, it doesn’t make sense to grow one workforce at the expense of the other. If military requirements justify a smaller active force, so too should the military’s supporting workforces shrink accordingly.

Cutting active duty forces is a cut to active duty forces, and a recipe for a future hollow force given no letup in demand.

Securing complex interests will take both flexibility and commitment. While no one doubts the dedication or patriotism of the defense civilian workforce, an era of growing threats calls for more combat power—not less. More servicemembers and less force structure would reduce stress on people while allowing more time for training, maintenance, and deployment, according to Elaine McCusker and John Ferrari of AEI. It is time to arrest the Pentagon’s civilian bloat and invest those dollars into better manning of active duty units, ships, and squadrons.

A new 1945 Contributing Editor, Mackenzie Eaglen is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she works on defense strategy, defense budgets, and military readiness. She is also a regular guest lecturer at universities, a member of the board of advisers of the Alexander Hamilton Society, and a member of the steering committee of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security.

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Mackenzie Eaglen is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she works on defense strategy, defense budgets, and military readiness. She is also a regular guest lecturer at universities, a member of the board of advisers of the Alexander Hamilton Society, and a member of the steering committee of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security.




    July 26, 2021 at 7:08 pm

    The title of this article could well have been ‘hitler’s defence budget that makes europe smile’ if time could be dialed back to 1938.

    U.S. military is present in well over 100 countries today, with U.S. occupation ground units or troops still present in nations defeated in 1945 plus some more (nations occupied by the defeated ones).

    U.S. military forces patrol the near skies, seas and airspace of nations regarded as ‘threats’ 24/7 COMPLETELY UNABLE to see in the mirror who’s the real threat. The very threat posed by this type of unsupervised or unfettered surveillance compels nations to build powerful forces to meet the threat posed by the U.S. as well as threats posed by its minions or vassal allies.

    For example, the recent HMS defender intrusion into crimea waters was coordinated with the U.S. which sent a spy plane to observe the expected reaction or possible lack of it.

    Russian guards fired live warning shots across the bow of the ship forcing it to leave though a spin was put out later by the british vassal that russkies were merely playing with some fireworks in an exercise a mile away from their ship.

    In november last year a Russian ship chased away a U.S. destroyer from the Peeter the Great gulf after it intruded into it from the Sea of Japan obviously with acquiescence fron japan, another U.S. vassal or minion.

    The defence budgets of U.S. and its ARMY of obedient vassals pose the real threat to peace and prosperity forcing other nations to up their military spending rather than put greater focus on social, economic and political reform.

  2. Brian Foley

    July 27, 2021 at 2:03 pm

    Frazier….you’re a communist, plain and simple…or a pseudo-intellectual with extreme views and a limited education. The counter to your argument is the relatively passive nature of America’s military might. A few examples…the US was the sole possessor of nuclear weapons for a five year period post World War Two, yet it didn’t use them. The US was the sole possessor of an air delivery of nuclear weapons for another three years after that and yet didn’t use them even during the bleakest hours of the Korean War. The US removed it’s troops from France when it left active NATO participation. When terrorists struck the US in 2001, the entire world held its collective breath waiting for the US to deliver a devastating blow to Afghanistan, yet the US choose the long, painful path of attempting nation building when its best interests would have served by literally leveling the place to sea level. No, the US isn’t perfect but it beats its main competitors…but you’d probably rather live under communism.

  3. John

    July 27, 2021 at 4:49 pm

    This article implies that the civilian growth/bloat is within the combat services, but looking at the Green Book the growth is almost entirely in the other Defense Agencies, nearly doubling over the last 10 years. I agree that these limited defense dollars could better be allocated for military modernization and readiness and I’d be interested why DoD is instead prioritizing civilian manpower growth in the different Defense Agencies.

  4. LT175

    July 27, 2021 at 9:54 pm

    I’m disappointed to see this article from Ms Eaglen, who is usually a cogent observer of American defense matters.

    There isn’t really analysis here; her “evidence” is just a restatement of her premise. There is no analysis of what the right size of the civilian workforce should be, and more importantly, why. Some of the financial analysis is inaccurate to the point of being almost disingenuous. Comparisons to 1945 without analysis are misplaced; the world has changed greatly, and the military of 1945 was far from a paragon of efficiency. Finally, given the 3 million total personnel in the Department, this rather bombastic argument is over relatively small numbers. Labelling this “a budget China would love,” while not even addressing the rest of the budget (acquisitions, etc., is frankly breathless and a little silly.

    The article raises an important question, but chooses to answer it through bombast and catchy titles rather than substance.


    July 27, 2021 at 10:26 pm

    This article should be “US defense budget that makes war profiteers and warmongers smile”.

    DOD wants over $700 billion but this is just its base spending needs. It does not cover contingency spending, black budget spending and bribe money spending (ghost money). All in, typically goes over $1 TRILLION every year.

    US fed budget is over 4 trillion, DOD bill is around 25% thus the 1 trillion yearly is right in the ballpark.

    Google ‘Pentagon cannot explain $35 trillion accounting black hole’ and yiu will know why DoD defense budget makes Wall Street smile.


    July 27, 2021 at 10:38 pm

    This piece should go like this – “defense budget that makes war profiteers and warmongers smile”.

    Yearly, pentagon requests $700 billion for spending, but this is only for its base budget. Contingency spending, black ops spending and ghost money spending up it to a trillion a year.

    US fed budget is over $4 trillion and DoD bill is roughly 25% thus $1 trillion is very correct.

    Why does US needs so much money on defense? To make genghis pale in comparison. Google ‘Pentagon cannot explain $35 trillion accounting black hole’ and see for yourself.

  7. Jimmy John Doe

    July 28, 2021 at 1:18 am

    This article’s more appropriate caption would be ‘defense budget makes war profiteers and racketeers smile’.

    The US defense budget typically goes over $1 trillion yearly. The often quoted figure of 600 to 700 billion is a humbug. Like a smoke and mirrors report.

    Readers should look up “Pentagon unable to explain $35 trillion accounting black hole in its books”.

    The bigger the humbug the bigger the hole.

  8. Vandervecken

    July 28, 2021 at 8:08 pm

    Frazier, you are a low grade Moron and embarass yourself. Our defense budget is a drop in the bucket compared to Entitlement Spending in the Fiscal Budget (welfare entitlements are over 50% of the Budget now, Einstein) and given our global commitments and the reliance of Europe and Asia in our forces to keep Bad Actors (like Genocidal China that has murdered more than 100 million of it’s own citizens within living memory, just to establish the dominance of the Communist Party) means that when they attack our allies we won’t be there to help. Cupcake.

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