WASHINGTON -- The military, using financial incentives, stricter promotion policies and layoffs to reduce its active-duty ranks, has cut its payroll so quickly in recent months that it has already exceeded reductions ordered by Congress for this year, Pentagon figures show.
The undertaking has not been trouble-free, and thousands of people are believed to have been "jerked around" by a military that has fumbled some decisions about who should stay and who should go, according to recently departed military personnel.
One reason for this problem is that, as one Army official put it, some of the plans for drawing the military down to sufficient, affordable post-Cold War levels are "being made up as we go along."
In the process:
* More than a thousand Army language specialists were deemed eligible for generous exit bonuses in early January -- but the unprecedented offers were withdrawn without explanation four days later.
"I jumped all through the hoops and then, whoops! Rule change B and then rule change C and then whoops! you're not eligible," said Don W. Wright, a former staff sergeant who left the Army after 12 years and now sells insurance in Baltimore. "They told me things were always changing; it was like a maelstrom. They didn't plan -- they reacted."
The Army at first denied that the linguists were ever offered the bonuses, but a spokesman later conceded that these soldiers were victims of an "oversight."
* An Army selection board decided in March to lay off 244 majors because too few in that rank were volunteering to leave the service. They were told to leave by Sept. 29, but officials recently decided that some could stay as late as January 1993.
Also in March, another board was scheduled to review the performance records of 2,000 captains, 700 of whom would be laid off, but the Army canceled the meeting at the last minute, declaring the action unnecessary after all.
jTC * More than 400 captains were forced to quit the Air Force by Feb. 29, with many complaining of being cheated out of a promotion and an exit bonus. For more than 10 years, 90 percent of qualified Air Force captains routinely received promotion to the rank of major, but that rate was trimmed last July by 10 percent.
That meant that the last promotion board effectively chose between captains who would advance their careers and those who would be laid off before qualifying for retirement pay. The departing officers were ineligible for exit bonuses, partly because the Air Force changed the promotion schedule and convened the board long before bonuses were offered Jan. 31.
"They're only concerned about getting people out, and they're not treating us in a fair and equitable manner," said Robert Starks, 36, who has since found work as an engineer at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard in California.
* About 1,700 Air Force Reserve lieutenants and captains who have full-time assignments will be given pink slips after a "reduction-in-force" board begins meeting tomorrow.
The Air Force formally announced that layoffs were necessary only recently, after it became clear that fewer officers than expected took exit bonuses, despite two extensions of an April 29 deadline. More than 9,100 officers are at risk of being fired, some of whom were not eligible for the buyout, and they have had little time to prepare for the board meeting.
Christopher Jehn, assistant secretary of defense for personnel, told a Senate committee last month that the military has taken pains to avoid laying off people, especially those with less than the 20 years of active-duty service needed to qualify for retirement pay. "Our results to date are encouraging," he said.
The services have relied on financial incentives and various management tools to cut active-duty forces by 548,000 by 1997. This year alone, military strength must shrink by 120,000; another 99,000 men and women will be returned to civilian life in 1993, unless Congress persuades President Bush later this year to accept deeper personnel cuts.
The latest Pentagon figures show that 1.885 million people were in active duty as of May 31, the lowest level since 1950. The decline exceeds the 1.886 million target that Congress ordered the military to meet by Sept. 30, but Mr. Jehn said that the Pentagon has aimed for a lower limit of 1.865 million.
While the Navy and Marines do not plan wholesale layoffs over the next two years, all the services are using "selected early retirement" boards to weed out senior officers with low-performance records. They have made it harder for junior personnel to re-enlist for second and third tours, and the Navy recently removed several job ratings from its priority list for re-enlistment bonuses, the financial incentives used to retain sailors with critically needed skills.