Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says that while Pentagon workers'… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will furlough 650,000 civilian employees without pay for six days this year after months of warnings that mandatory budget cuts might idle defense workers for far longer, officials said Tuesday.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who has vowed to help furloughed defense workers since he took over the Pentagon in February, said fewer furlough days became possible after officials found savings elsewhere in the military budget.
In addition, Hagel said the ongoing U.S. withdrawal of combat troops and equipment from Afghanistan was proving less costly than anticipated, and money was shifted from Pentagon weapons acquisition accounts to help pay for personnel.
"I … said we would do everything possible to find the money to reduce furlough days for our people," Hagel said in a statement.
While defense workers will welcome the change, it may complicate the task of staving off further Pentagon budget cuts next year.
Critics are likely to argue that defense officials painted doomsday scenarios that overstated the likely effects of the $37 billion in Pentagon budget cuts, part of a government-wide spending reduction known as the sequester that took effect in March after Congress and the White House failed to agree on a budget plan.
The Defense Department initially predicted that civilian workers might face 22 days without pay this year. In May, that was halved to 11 days. The latest cut nearly halves it again.
Hagel faced sharp questioning and complaints by civilian workers when he visited military bases in North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida last month. He warned that additional budget cuts were likely next year, possibly triggering more furloughs and even layoffs, unless Congress and the White House reach a budget deal.
About 85% of the Defense Department's 850,000 civilians have been furloughed, most of them for one day a week over the last five weeks. Most of those who are exempt from furloughs are foreign nationals or workers who are not paid through money appropriated by Congress.
Nearly 7,000 defense intelligence contractors whose jobs are deemed essential have been spared, along with about 29,000 workers at Navy shipyards.
Hagel reiterated Tuesday that the mandatory budget reductions had "seriously reduced military readiness" by forcing cuts in maintenance and training in each of the military services.
But he acknowledged that, in addition to reducing furloughs, the Pentagon had been able to resume many of the training and other operations it previously had curtailed, after Congress agreed to let the Defense Department move money between accounts.
"The Air Force has begun flying again in key squadrons, the Army has increased funding for organizational training at selected units, and the Navy has restarted some maintenance and ordered deployments that otherwise would not have happened," he said.