Next Big Defense-Cut Target: Civilians

Mechanics and managers move to Alabama this summer in a downsizing experiment

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Since the end of July, 200 transferees a week have passed through a sleek corner conference room here at the Army's sprawling Redstone Arsenal.

They're issued identification badges, briefed about neighborhoods, and given tips for surviving stifling humidity and spicy barbecue - all part of the military's standard welcome to a new post of duty.

But most of these newcomers won't be wearing camouflage to work. They're civilians, not soldiers, and their very presence here in the hills of northern Alabama says a lot about the pressures involved in shaping the US military in an era of smaller budgets.

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The administrators, engineers, and technicians are all part of an aviation unit from St. Louis that was uprooted per recommendation of a 1995 base-closing commission. Moving them was politically difficult. Like most civilians who work for the military, they had roots in their community - and a staunch defender in their member of Congress.

Yet if US armed forces are to find the funds they need for a new generation of weapons, they must attack the problem of their civilian-force overhead, say many experts.

"Most of base closures in past have dealt with troops. They've said, 'Ok, let's get rid of the Strategic Air Command' and then they've cut those bases," says Erik Pages, vice president of Business Executives for National Security, a Washington-based think tank. "New base closings will have much more impact on business functions than military. It's going to be harder."

Here in Alabama the influx of civilians is supposed to ebb by October. The result will be a base with 547 military employees and 7,659 civilians - the largest support operation in the Army.

The newly combined AMCOM unit (Aviation and Missile Command) will be in charge of developing, testing, and maintaining the Army's highest technology hardware - from Comanche helicopters to Patriot antiaircraft missiles. It will also be an experiment with important lessons for the future management of the military.

Usually a mass influx of newcomers involves units of troops. At Huntsville, the Army will learn how a command of mainly civilians adapts to a move - and how a culture of missile builders can work side by side with a cadre of helicopter designers.

After four rounds of base closings, the number of the nation's military forces has been trimmed by 30 percent, while the civilian support staff has been cut by only 25 percent. That means there are more support services in the military these days than there are troops to support.

So as the next round of cutbacks is anticipated, military experts say, it's civilians - administrators, engineers, mechanics - who must go. (See chart above.) How the merger in Huntsville fairs could provide important lessons for tomorrow's inevitable civilian unit consolidations.

Officials in Huntsville are optimistic. "There's a lot of synergism out there," says Ernest Young, deputy to the commander at Redstone Arsenal. "I think in the long run, the Army will gain from this combination."

But there was opposition to this combination from the beginning. US Rep. James Talent (R) of Missouri has led the fight against the merger, arguing that the savings to the military won't be as high as the Pentagon claims and that a more efficient route would have been to reduce the St. Louis command but keep it in place.

"I was very skeptical from the outset about the Army's reasoning that it would save money," says Representative Talent. "In fact, everything I've seen since they made the decision has just confirmed that they are going to lose money because of the move. The problem is that the government doesn't downsize efficiently either."

While Talent lost the Redstone battle, he is part of a larger war being waged on this issue.

THIS spring, Secretary of Defense William Cohen announced that further cuts in military staff and infrastructure had to be made in order for the armed forces to afford needed new weapons and equipment. The Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review, a projection of the military's long-term needs, suggested trimming 61,000 military jobs - including reducing the military's civilian force by another 20 percent.

Congress balked at the thought of another round of cutbacks and closed the issue for now. Republican leaders say they have yet to see proof of the savings from the rounds of cuts in 1988, '91, '93, and '95.

Military experts, though, say further reductions are inevitable if the military is to have enough money to buy cutting-edge weapons systems. The issue now is not whether bases will be closed, but which ones will be closed.

"You can't fight anybody with a fort in Kansas or an airfield in Texas," says Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll, retired from the Navy and deputy director of the Center for Defense Information, a private, Washington-based organization. "We have too much air space and ground space tied up currently."

So, as the engineers developing the newest in attack-helicopter technology begin working side by side with those researching tactical missiles in Huntsville, the nation will be watching. Can two related, but different operations work closely together? Will the needed attitude adjustments occur as a new commander forges a new, dual vision for the Redstone base?

It's a formidable task, one that will challenge the Army to the very roots. The move of civilians is only part of it. Pasting missile development onto an aviation bureaucracy will bring challenges, as well.

"We're going to be dealing with two very different cultures," says Mr. Young. "The culture of the aviation world is not the same as the missile world.

"The Army itself is not organized in a way that's easy to combine tasks," he says. "A missile is used by a certain type of Army unit, and it's maintained and supported in a particular way. And a helicopter is placed into an Army unit, also, but in a different type of army unit, and they operate in a different environment. And as a result, the concepts of support are different."

But success at Redstone could help draw the blueprint for future civilian cutbacks - arguably the most important task for the military today.

"How do we shrink technology infrastructure in a very smart fashion?" asks military analyst Jim Wheeler, who works for Arthur Andersen in Indianapolis. "If you do it in a way that's not smart, you risk your ability to respond to military emergencies."

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