WASHINGTON — A top Pentagon official said Tuesday that he believes a “significant fraction” of 320,000 military slots will be transferred to the civilian work force in the coming years.

Dr. David Chu, undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness, spoke with reporters about the jobs plan, which falls under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s vision of revamping the Department of Defense personnel system, elements of which are being debated in Congress for inclusion in the 2004 defense bill.

“I do expect a significant fraction of jobs” to be moved to either civil service or private contractors, Chu said, but added that “the goal is not to reduce end-strength” for the services.

When asked whether moving some defense jobs to the civilian side and not reducing the number of uniformed personnel would not be a real gain in end-strength, Chu would only say that the 320,000 jobs were “the set that’s up for review. We just don’t know.”

An estimated 320,000 military personnel are in assignments that civilians could fill at less cost, Chu said. If Congress approves a new personnel system, many more military members will be available to fight the war on terrorism or to address other expanding military missions, he said.

The push is one result of a 1997 study that concluded that there were approximately 320,900 military in occupational specialties that were “commercial” in nature, including administration, recruiting, counseling, weather and information technology, according to a DOD official.

How this would affect servicemembers currently in those positions isn’t yet clear, a DOD official said. Training into another job is a standard solution to manpower imbalances, but without clear sets of numbers, officials can’t say what programs might be used.

Chu said that none of the changes would happen this calendar year. “I’d expect modest change in 2004,” he said.

Which specific jobs would be transferred is part of the study. Chu noted that services vary widely, for example, on how many civilians they have in health care. Part of the purpose of the study is to compare how effective each service’s approach is, and to make the successful aspects universal.

Chu dismissed criticisms that civilians could not do certain jobs that servicemembers have traditionally done, such as those in hostile areas.

“I’d be reluctant to say that contractors can’t do some things. There were 11,000 to 12,000 civilians in [Kuwait and southern Iraq during the combat phase], and 80 percent were contractors. We had contractors in Vietnam, fork-lift operators” and others, Chu said.

“And commercial [contractors] versus civil service — the life change … you can’t make civil service go [to a hostile region], but you can tell a contractor, ‘I need a team at Camp Pennsylvania to repair helicopters in a week.’”

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