Today's military employs enough soldiers and sailors serving food to fill two entire Army divisions. It has so many graphic artists, pharmacy technicians, and stock clerks that they could staff an entire aircraft carrier themselves.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wants to shift 320,000 such support jobs to civilians, a move he argues would save money and free up 20 percent more military personnel for combat roles.
But critics say the biggest proposed shake-up of government employees in decades would undermine worker protections and not save nearly as much money as the Pentagon predicts.
Ever since taking office, Mr. Rumsfeld has criticized the Pentagon bureaucracy for the "tooth to tail" ratio of soldiers doing combat versus support roles. He blames the Pentagon's complex personnel rules that make it easier for military commanders to assign jobs to uniformed soldiers rather than to more efficient civilians.
"The Department of Defense is bogged down in the bureaucratic processes of the industrial age - not the information age," Rumsfeld told senators earlier this month.
The House has already approved Rumsfeld's proposed solution: a new national-security personnel system that would operate outside the civil-service rules that apply to all federal employees.
The legislation would tie raises to performance rather than longevity, give managers more flexibility to hire and fire quickly, and reduce collective bargaining by local unions - the same kind of exceptions granted to the new Department of Homeland Security.
The proposed changes - which are still being negotiated between the House and Senate - have drawn sharp criticism from union officials and Democratic congressional leaders. "The bill that passed the House gives the Department of Defense a blank check to scrap 100 years of civil- service protections," Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California said in a phone interview. Union leaders fear that shifting jobs to government civilians is just an intermediate step toward privatization.
Susan Collins (R) of Maine, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee chair, has proposed compromise legislation that would preserve workers' existing appeals process and collective-bargaining rights.
Yet long before Rumsfeld's reform legislation reached Congress, the Pentagon began shifting more work to nonsoldiers. Civilians are more likely to fix military computers or guard the checkpoints outside Army posts. The Marine Corps recently freed up 500 personnel by signing a contract with a private company to provide food service in its mess halls.
Those shifts help explain why the Defense Department's civilian workforce has grown by tens of thousands over the past decade, even as the Pentagon has shown little enthusiasm to increase the number of uniformed service members, which has remained constant since before the Sept. 11 attacks, says Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
So far, however, more civilian jobs haven't freed up more service members for combat, Mr. O'Hanlon says.
The Pentagon hasn't identified which additional jobs will make up the 320,000 jobs that civilians might do better. That number was first put forward by Clinton-era Defense personnel. Experts say likely candidates for conversion include positions in healthcare, administrative, and maintenance in the US.
One potential test, says RAND economist Frank Camm, is whether the job is listed in the phone book. "There's a good chance there's someone who knows how to do printing or run a radio station better than the military," he says.
No one argues that it costs more to have a soldier do any given job. Service members' benefits are a third higher than those of civilians, given housing allowances and a separate healthcare system. Plus, soldiers tend to rotate positions more often than civilians, so they must be retrained frequently.
Still, the military's global presence and warfare role make wholesale shifts of entire job functions more difficult. Even in such areas as food service, the number of military mess-hall servers will never go down to zero since someone will still have to serve food in war zones. "If the rear area is attacked, a military cook is not very good with a rifle but is much better than a government civilian," says Mr. Camm. He notes that Air Force studies in the late 1990s found only 7 percent of its jobs could be transferred to civilians.
The actual number, Camm says, is probably somewhere between the Air Force's lower figure and the more optimistic number touted by Rumsfeld.
Experts also disagree about the amount of money saved by transferring military jobs to either government or private civilians. Sam Kleinman, director of the resource analysis division at the CNA Corp., says past privatization efforts has saved the military as much as 50 percent. But O'Hanlon disagrees, saying the Pentagon has already privatized the "low hanging" fruit that is easiest to shift.
"Right now," he says, "it's a myth that privatization saves the Pentagon money."