Base Closure Proposal Faces Uphill Battle

By Jon Harper
Virginia's Fort Monroe military installation was closed in 2011.

The Defense Department’s latest push to persuade Congress to authorize another round of base closures is unlikely to succeed this year, according to analysts.
A recent Pentagon report concluded that the Defense Department has 22 percent excess infrastructure capacity. For the Army and Air Force, the excess is 33 percent and 32 percent, respectively.

“Spending resources on excess infrastructure does not make sense,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work said in a recent letter to lawmakers.

Based on historical trends, another round of base realignment and closure could save the Pentagon $1.5 billion to $3 billion in annual savings in perpetuity once up front costs are paid for, according to Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense budget analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

“These savings could make a major dent in the need to reinvest in the U.S. military’s combat power,” she said in an email. The extra funds would be enough for the Air Force to buy five additional F-35s and eight C-130Js; the Navy to purchase 14 additional F/A-18 Super Hornets; or the Army to restore readiness levels, among other procurement options, she noted.

But BRAC is unlikely to be approved by lawmakers in an election year, analysts said. Beyond that, it will continue to be an uphill battle.

“If a new president isn’t interested in spending the political capital at the White House to get this through and the new [secretary of defense isn’t able] to berate Congress into submission … then it just won’t happen,” Eaglen said.

Pentagon leaders have threatened to act unilaterally and use existing waiver authorities to close down unneeded facilities. But an end-run around lawmakers would be a difficult proposition.

“While DoD could exercise these waivers, you still have to go through the environmental review process, so that’s going to slow you down,” said Andrew Hunter, director of the defense-industrial initiatives group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, during a briefing with reporters. “That gives Congress enough time to come in and pass a law prohibiting this specific action you’re taking.”

Outside Capitol Hill, there is growing unity within the broader national defense community about the need for BRAC, Eaglen noted. Interested parties are tired of “the death-by-a-thousand-cuts” to military construction accounts — the result of efforts to offset the cost of maintaining excess infrastructure, she said.

“The louder their voices become, the more likely Congress is to act,” she said. “But again, this is an open question” as to whether that will happen.

Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst at CSIS, said the next administration should consider pursuing a different path in the face of congressional intransigence.

“Right now it appears that the politics are not supportive of a base closure commission, so let’s find another way forward that doesn’t have to use a BRAC-like construct,” he said.

The Pentagon could propose smaller sets of closures and provide Congress with a list of specific bases that should be shuttered. That could reduce opposition from some lawmakers who fear that an unpredictable BRAC commission could lead to job losses in their districts, he said.

“It could flip the politics here and make this more appealing to members of Congress if you just go ahead and name the losers up front,” he said. If you identify “the congressional districts that are going to lose on this, that implicitly makes everyone else a winner and so then you’ve got some basis of support.”

Photo: Army

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Leadership, DOD Policy

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