(Courtesy of the Department of Defense)

WASHINGTON — The potential for layoffs in the defense contracting industry is taking center stage in the congressional showdown on how to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” but experts say that sequestration’s most immediate workplace cuts would be felt by civilian defense employees.

War funding and military personnel will be protected from sequestration — which is set to take effect Jan. 2 if Congress doesn’t take action — but as many as 108,000 civilian defense employees could be furloughed a few weeks after sequestration hits, said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. The furloughs could last through Sept. 30, 2013, the end of the fiscal year.

Civilian job losses in the Defense Department alone would amount to more than 12 percent of its workforce, which should be the immediate concern, Harrison said. “DOD civilian employees have a lot more to worry about than defense contractors do.”

Jacob Stokes, a research assistant at Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank with close ties to the Obama administration, agreed: “It’s just an arithmetic fact,” if you consider that sequestration calls for about 10 percent cuts across most accounts.

The across-the-board cuts of $1.2 trillion over 10 years, shared between defense and nondefense accounts, loom as a threat as long as lawmakers remain locked in a stalemate on how to reduce the national debt.

If sequestration happens, Harrison said the government would likely tell employees: “We want to keep you on our books, because we hope to take you back.” But nine-month furloughs with no guarantee of being placed back on DOD’s payroll would be just as damaging for many as layoffs, he said.

Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins said DOD civilian layoffs were “very unlikely,” though “furloughs and hiring freezes are possible.”

Experts also say indiscriminate cuts to the civilian DOD workforce would leave critical gaps in expertise. Civilians provide “mission-essential combat support functions, such as logistics support and maintenance, which have traditionally been performed by the uniformed military,” said Brenda Farrell, director of Defense Capabilities and Management in the U.S. Government Accountability Office, at a July 26 congressional hearing before the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Readiness.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., held the hearing out of concern that an estimated 89,000 civilian jobs could be cut, he said. In fact, some informal Pentagon estimates say those cuts over time could lead to as much as a quarter of the total civilian workforce getting laid off — the loss of almost 200,000 employees.

The potential loss of civilian defense employees is about more than jobs. It would be a loss of the institutional memory “which is particularly important in DOD because of the frequent rotation of military personnel and the short tenure of the average political appointee,” Farrell said.

The military could be forced to backfill for lost positions, Stokes said: “Everyone warns of a hollow force. … Some tough choices would have to be made.”

Yet, whether DOD is capable of making those tough choices in a strategically planned way remains to be seen. Farrell said that DOD’s overall strategic workforce planning has been lacking.

“DOD hasn’t progressed at the rate we’d like to see,” she said, despite the fact that Congress mandated in the 2006 National Defense Authorization Act that DOD do better strategic workforce planning.

The current DOD civilian workforce plan “is far from being mature enough to make informed decisions regarding the mix of personnel, or the costs, or the tradeoffs we are discussing today,” Farrell told Congress.

Frederick Vollrath, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for readiness and force management, also testified to Congress in the July hearing that he wasn’t aware of any efforts by DOD to conduct a full analysis of civilian force reductions, in the event of sequestration.

Forbes said that he was alarmed that DOD, by its own admission, has repeatedly said that it has “not done any planning — or will not say it’s doing planning.”

“It’s quite a shame,” Forbes said in an interview last week. “Because they haven’t done the planning, no one knows the exact repercussion of the cuts and what they are going to be.”

Robbins couldn’t confirm whether DOD was specifically working on a civilian workforce plan under sequestration.

But she said that Defense Department Comptroller Robert Hale told Congress at a Sept. 20 hearing that DOD will first produce guidance on the matter “over the next month as is done for a regular budget to the services.”

Then after that, it would be another six weeks until DOD could come up with detailed plans regarding the actual plans for sequestration, Hale said.

Harrison strongly questioned the wisdom of the Defense Department’s decision to put off planning for sequestration in the hopes that Congress will come to a resolution on the matter.

“The thing is: DOD is known for their planning,” Harrison said. “They plan for every conceivable military operation you can imagine, and some are highly unlikely to occur. But there is a reasonable chance this could happen, so why aren’t they planning for it?”

tsaij@stripes.osd.milTwitter: @JoyceTsaiDC

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