Base Motives

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Let’s suppose you’re a typical American family, with kids that have largely grown up and flown the coop, leaving you and your spouse empty-nesters. Well, maybe not complete empty-nesters. You had a rather large brood, and before you consider downsizing, you need to figure out how many kids are actually still living at home. So you conduct a bunk check, seeing who has moved out and who has still failed to launch.

As the Pentagon shrinks, it logically wants to do the same thing.

But get this: Congress has barred the U.S. military from seeing how many empty bedrooms – oops, make that surplus posts, bases, hangars, piers and runways – it has.

Because…if the Pentagon doesn’t know how much excess infrastructure it has, there’s no way it can ask Congress for permission to shutter more bases. Ain’t democracy grand?

Some in the Defense Department don’t think so. “We have been precluded under recent [annual defense-spending authorization laws] from spending any money to do the kind of analysis that can provide a highly-specific answer” regarding how much wasted space the Pentagon has, Army Secretary John McHugh said Tuesday. “But we have pretty good analysis from about a decade ago that showed at the time that the Army was about 20% over-structured.”

Amid tough economic times, and a shrinking military budget, Congress is in no mood to let the Pentagon close additional bases. Over the past 25 years, more than 350 military installations have been closed by so-called Base Realignment and Closure commissions, or BRACs (pronounced “brack”). But it has been nearly a decade since the last BRAC round, and the Pentagon wants another in 2015 to shed its excess real estate.

Under the BRAC process, the Pentagon recommends bases to be closed to a special commission, which can tweak the list before sending it on to Congress for a final up or down vote on the entire list (in the good ol’ days, Congress — believe it or not — actually made tough decisions on its own without handing them off to such subcontractors). But military bases and the jobs they provide voters, have become cherished pets of Congress. Lawmakers have no interest in a sixth BRAC round.

“While base closures and realignments often create socioeconomic distress in communities initially, research has shown that they generally have not had the dire effects that many communities expected,” the Congressional Research Service reported last year. But no one actually believes that.

When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee two weeks ago, he said lawmakers “need to look at our domestic footprint” and launch a new round of base closings.

No way, Congress countered. Things have gotten so bad on the BRAC front that Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the armed services committee, referred to the Pentagon claim of savings as an “allegation.” He told folks back home not to worry. “I would urge our constituents not to start lawyering up and hiring consultants” to keep the local military base open, he said, “because it’s got a long, long way to go before Congress approves another BRAC round.”

Congress contends it costs too much to close bases, and takes too long to realize any savings. Besides, there are overseas bases that remain open, they like to point out.

“Now is not the time to spend billions of dollars on another BRAC round, especially as the Department of Defense grounds combat aircraft and cancels ship deployments due to sequestration,” Senator Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s readiness panel, told Pentagon officials last week. The Government Accountability Office estimated the 2005 BRAC round cost $35 billion, topping the initial $21 billion estimate by 67%. “In this time of fiscal uncertainty,” Shaheen said, “we clearly can’t afford another round like the last one.”

Pentagon officials say the high cost of the 2005 round was a fluke, carried out while the military was expanding in both troops and dollars. “The previous five rounds of BRAC are providing us with recurring savings of  $12 or $13 billion every year, savings that does not result in decreased capability because it is derived from the elimination of excess,” countered John Conger, the acting deputy defense under secretary for installations. “That’s like getting a new aircraft carrier every year, or six submarines.”

Conger said Congress created the BRAC process to wring politics out of the base-closing process. “One of the dynamics that led to BRAC in the first place was that when base closures were proposed, there was politics. It depended on who the chairman was, you know, based on what got closed and what didn’t get closed,” he said. “And this was a way to take politics out of the process and put it into a `You can’t edit this list’ type of dynamic, so you didn’t have the base closures dependent on who was the most senior person at the table.”

The Army isn’t alone when it comes to excess real estate. “While we have no current capacity analysis from which to draw, our capacity analysis from 2004 suggested that 24% of our basing infrastructure was excess to needs,” Kathleen Ferguson, the Air Force’s top basing official, told Congress last Thursday.

“The last BRAC was based on 340 cruisers-equivalents. We don’t have anywhere near 340 cruiser-equivalents, we don’t have anywhere near 340 ships and it’s unlikely we will have that many,” Vice Admiral William Burke, the deputy chief of naval operations, told a House panel last Friday. “We are carrying excess overhead that we need to get at.”

Money spent keeping unneeded bases open is wasted. “I’d rather be spending an available dollar on a new platform to keep our soldiers safe,” McHugh said. “I’d rather be spending it on a new program to support our soldiers and their families, than to sustaining infrastructure that is simply not usable.”

Of course, McHugh spent 17 years in Congress, representing the upstate New York district that is home to the Army’s Fort Drum. He protected the huge base from several BRAC rounds. “I went through three of them in Congress,” he noted, “and not many of them were fun.”

Battleland asked McHugh if Congress is “irresponsible” for barring the military from determining how much excess property it now has. “I’m not going to characterize what Congress does in that fashion,” he said adroitly. “I will say that it does not provide us the opportunity to make informed judgments.”

But the former lawmaker also said he understands what’s motivating his former colleagues. “I probably would have voted for it,” he said, if he were still on Capitol Hill.