By Enea Gjoza
A much-needed process to shutter unnecessary military bases might finally see the light of day.
In testimony to Congress last week, the Air Force and Army vice chiefs highlighted the crisis of redundant infrastructure facing the military and emphasized the urgency for a new Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission to eliminate spare capacity. With Senators John McCain and Jack Reed recently signaling a willingness to consider the prospect, it seems the long-overdue next round of BRAC might move closer to becoming a reality.
The military, and especially the Army and Air Force, have been spending billions for years on maintaining unneeded bases. Even if the Army grows in size by 25,000 active duty troops, 21 percent of its infrastructure will be excess capacity. For the Air Force, redundant capacity currently stands at a staggering 25 percent of its holdings.
The cost of all of this amounts to approximately $2 billion annually (in perpetuity) according to Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. This is particularly troublesome given those two services have $36 billion in collective maintenance backlogs, a problem savings from BRAC could go a long way toward alleviating.
Mustering the political will to carry out base closures has been a longstanding challenge. Military leaders have long led the charge for cuts, but bases are a major economic stimulant in the communities where they are located, and the threat of job losses in their districts has made members of Congress hesitant to act.
To address the issue, the Base Closure and Realignment Act was passed in 1988 (and later updated in 1990), authorizing a non-partisan commission to make decisions on what bases to shutter or re-align. Multiple rounds of closures followed, shuttering 121 major bases and generating savings of $12 billion annually.
The last round of BRAC in 2005 was unusually expensive, leading to accusations from Congress that the closure’s cost-savings were overstated. For its part, the military has argued that the 2005 round was unique in involving more consolidation than closure. General Daniel Allyn, vice chief of staff for the Army, testified that the Army now saves $1 billion a year as a result of that restructuring.
Since 2005, Congress has rejected repeated pleas from the military to launch another round. For more than a decade now, attempts to reauthorize BRAC have been as fruitless as Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the mountain, only to see it roll back down again.
This is a failure of leadership. Reauthorizing BRAC is imperative for a well-functioning military, for budget discipline, and ultimately for the communities affected.
Senior officers have long argued that money wasted on useless infrastructure could instead be going toward pressing military needs. With the military now exploring ways to become more cost-effective as a result of the Budget Control Act, it is only reasonable to allow the Pentagon to make choices about what to eliminate based on strategic needs.
In taking cuts to redundant bases off the table, Congress handicaps the military and forces budget reductions to valuable programs instead.
Many members of Congress are worried about the impact on local communities if BRAC is permitted. Those concerns are legitimate. However, the fears of economic disaster are rooted in a faulty model of what happens when the bases close. We have long assumed that shuttering a base was akin to taking an axe to the roots of a community, causing it to wither and die. However, what we are actually seeing is there is indeed life after BRAC. In practice, the process is more like pruning, causing a rebirth and transformation in many of the affected areas.
Christopher Preble, a scholar with the Cato Institute who has studied the aftermath of base closures, has found many cases of communities thriving after a base is shuttered. The former Brunswick Naval Air Station in Maine was transformed into a hub for businesses and start-ups, becoming a major economic center. Similarly, the Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire has become the Pease International Tradeport, generating nearly 10,000 jobs. A new round of BRAC could also see states like Virginia and Florida end up net winners, with facilities shifting to them as part of the re-alignment process.
BRAC is politically sensitive, but it is still by far the best process given the alternatives. Cuts under BRAC are made based on actual military need and through a transparent process that allows communities to prepare. Without it, the Pentagon must still find the savings to stay within the budget caps, and will do by cutting capacity sporadically, without warning, and without regard for military value.
Even Tim Ford, the CEO of the Association of Defense Communities, has argued that despite the sometimes painful process BRAC fosters, it is preferable to the “death by a thousand cuts” approach to cost cutting that would be implemented in its absence. Ford contends that “communities can overcome whatever obstacles come their way” but “they need certainty and direction from policymakers willing to make difficult decisions.”
Those difficult decisions must now be made. The choice isn’t between sparing communities the pain of BRAC or not doing it at all, but rather between a predictable process with time for economic transition and sudden, unilateral cuts.
In authorizing a new round of BRAC, Congress would both enhance military readiness and be doing their constituents a favor.
Enea Gjoza is fellow at Defense Priorities and a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he is also a Belfer IGA Student Fellow. Prior to attending HKS, Enea was a policy analyst at the Charles Koch Institute, where he worked on developing new approaches to U.S. foreign policy and grand strategy.
This piece was originally published by Forbes on March 8, 2017. Read more HERE.