Next Big Defense-Cut Target: Civilians
Mechanics and managers move to Alabama this summer in a downsizing experiment
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.