Support our mission
 

He reportedly has the “hooah” attitude, aura of authority and lack of locks of an Army commander.

But when Nicholas M. Mikus Jr. took over a logistics headquarters based in the Netherlands last month, he did so without the eagle rank insignia worn by the outgoing colonel.

Mikus is a civilian, and his appointment to the new post of general manager of the Army Material Command/Combat Equipment Group Europe is one example of a trend America is pursuing across the globe. In an effort to save money and free up uniforms for combat duty in places such as Iraq, the Defense Department plans to turn some 20,000 military positions into civilian ones by the end of the next fiscal year, according to budget documents.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said that number could eventually grow to 300,000 jobs for civil servants or contractors — or looked at another way, it could mean that many more troops freed up for war.

“It’s really taken off like gangbusters in the last couple of years, because they need more trigger pullers,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense think tank.

Military officials and experts view the trend largely in positive terms — though the plan has vastly different implications inside Washington than in perilous Iraq, where civilian contractors face grave danger working as security guards or in intelligence. Some in government also privately complain that contractors put their companies’ profits ahead of the military mission.

In Mikus’ civil service example, though, the military-to-civilian switch did not greatly affect the buzz and hum of operations.

“In fact we are an Army organization and an Army mission, and the mission is unchanged, and that is supporting warfighters,” said Chuck Fick, a spokesman for Combat Equipment Group Europe.

About the only impact Fick observed is that military justice at the headquarters has to be dealt with by officers outside the command since a civilian cannot convene a court-martial. But Mikus will nonetheless sign the fitness reports of lieutenant colonels working for him at affiliate posts.

“I believe this is a sign of the times,” Fick said. “Only about 40 of our more than 1,000 employees are soldiers.”

Also in Europe, the Installation Management Agency plans to convert 550 positions — more than half of the organization — into civilian slots.

“The chief of staff of the Army needs the manpower to build the new modular brigades,” Dani Villiva, the command’s manpower chief, said in a press release.

“The Army is looking worldwide to take military out of garrison operations wherever possible and put them back into the warfighting force.”

Spokesman Michael Beldermann said about 150 of the jobs are in the military police sector — desk sergeants, drug awareness officers and safety inspectors. However, none of the civilians will replace an officer of the level of a battalion commander. Senior civilians will more likely lead the directorate of public works or hold similar posts.

Pentagon spokesman Jim Turner said Rumsfeld has indeed made the transitions a priority. The president’s initial defense budget for 2005 included $572 million to convert 10,070 jobs.

In August, Rumsfeld told Pentagon employees that the end number could be enormous.

“Today, I’m told, we have some 300,000 uniformed positions that conceivably could be handled by civilians,” Rumsfeld said, according to a Defense Department transcript.

“Now, we don’t know if that’s true precisely. That’s from some studies back three or four years. But we’re in the process of analyzing those studies and determining what numbers of those positions conceivably could be filled by civilians.”

Pike, the military analyst, said whether the push succeeds in saving money depends on where the new jobs are based. Hiring civilians rather than expanding troop numbers avoids uncomfortable downsizing of uniforms later on, the threat of which erodes morale. A civilian who is no longer needed to manage a dining hall could more easily find work managing a restaurant in the States than could a soldier whose first calling is fighting.

But there is a difference between hiring government employees or contractors in Europe or the States and hiring private contractors in Iraq.

“On the other side you have contractors out on the battlefield, and that’s a different kettle of fish,” Pike said. “In Iraq, a civilian truck driver is going to make a lot more than a uniformed truck driver.”

Contractors in Iraq also regularly hire private muscle. That’s expensive. Early in the war, water cooler wisdom around Washington held that any company operating in Iraq should devote 5 percent of its budget to security. Now, Pike said, that number is closer to 20 percent.

“The problem you’ve got with these poor security guards is they have M-16s and armor-plated SUVs, which is pretty impressive here in Washington,” Pike said. “But you go up against guys with [rocket-propelled grenades], and it’s nothing.”

And Pike said that since these civilian forces work outside the military command structure, they’re at very high risk.

“You can’t have a freelancer calling in for gunship support,” he said.

Migrated

stars and stripes videos

around the web

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up