May 19, 2016
The Russians? Iran? The Chinese? Invaders from Zeta Reticuli?
What the nation’s military communities fear more than anything is four letters:
The Pentagon describes Base Realignment and
Closure as “the congressionally authorized process DoD has used to
reorganize its base structure to more efficiently and effectively support our
forces, increase operational readiness and facilitate new ways of doing
underway in 1988, with the Defense Authorization Amendments and Base Closure
and Realignment Act. (Previously, it was literally
illegal for the Pentagon to close a base without legislative approval.) The
Congressional Research Service described the law’s key innovations as an
“independent commission” with ultimate decision-making authority, and a “fast
track, no-amendment vote” by the House and Senate. The goal was to neuter
logrolling, and it worked. Early results were encouraging, so two years later,
the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Act established the procedures for
subsequent rounds of right-sizing.
four BRACs had reaped a total of 235 closings and realignments. Legislative
careerists began to worry -- maybe the process was working too well. Interest in new rounds waned. As Admiral David E.
Jeremiah and Marine Corps General Richard D. Hearney lamented in a 2001 Los Angeles Times op-ed, “Every year
the military begs to shut down obsolete facilities. Every year Congress says
recent BRAC round, conducted in 2005, almost didn’t happen. Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld, lobbying for a leaner military, thundered that no
“organization can say that it’s doing a good job with the taxpayers’ dollars if
it’s maintaining some 20 percent to 25 percent excess capacity.” And
libertarian defense analyst Charles V. Peña peskily observed that “U.S.
military bases do not exist to support local economies. They exist to defend
U.S. national security.”
elections were on the line. Fedpols worried about vulnerable facilities in
their home states and districts maneuvered to torpedo BRAC. Sen. John Thune
(R-SD), desperate to “save” Ellsworth
Air Force Base, griped that another round would be “premature” and
“indiscriminate.” His colleague Olympia Snowe (R-ME), worried about the Portsmouth Naval
Shipyard, whined about a “runaway train that threatens to derail our
forces prevailed, although approval in the Senate was a close call: 53-47.
Nonetheless, many communities successfully convinced commissioners to remove
their pork -- er, essential components of
our defense architecture -- from the Pentagon’s target list. Naval
Submarine Base New London slipped the noose. (Sen. Joe Lieberman: “It is
cruel and unusual punishment that Connecticut does not deserve and our national
security cannot afford.”) New Mexico’s Cannon Air Force
Base survived. (Sen. Jeff Bingaman: “The Defense Department significantly
underestimated the adverse effect on this community and this part of our
state.”) Thune got his way, too -- as did Snowe.
facilities weren’t so lucky. They got shuttered, or merged. The overall impact
was massive -- 765 closures and realignments. And the most sweeping BRAC round
yet made a lot of people nervous. When, and where, might the ax fall again?
Associated Press investigation found that states “with large military bases
are filling what is traditionally the federal government’s role by picking up
the tab for construction and repairs, saying they can’t afford not to. The
number of states willing to spend taxpayer money to fix infrastructure in
military facilities, and the scale of the projects, has increased steadily in
the past five years. State officials argue the Pentagon keeps asking for base
closings and they want to protect their bases and the revenue they bring in.”
needn’t worry. In March, the
Pentagon issued a report that listed the Army’s excess capacity at a
stunning 33 percent, with the Air Force just a notch behind, at 32 percent.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work reminded Capitol Hill that the Pentagon
“has repeatedly testified” that “spending resources on excess infrastructure
does not make sense,” and pressed Congress to “provide the Department
authorization for another round of BRAC.”
trade publication Defense News dryly
observed that “resource-sucking bases and activities represent jobs -- and
votes -- back home.” The fiscal 2017 National
Defense Authorization Act has yet to be finalized, but it’s a
near-certainty that a BRAC go-ahead won’t be a part of the legislation.
to the Government Accountability Office, the Pentagon “manages a global
real-property portfolio consisting of more than 555,000 facilities worldwide.”
It’s an thoroughly unmanageable empire, designed not for homeland defense, but
been a decade since BRAC round #5. Don’t hold your breath waiting for #6.
D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.
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