Bring Back BRAC — Permanently

In recognition of the fact that America’s security environment and military organization would continue to change, the 2005 Defense Base Closure and realignment (BRAC) Commission recommended future closure rounds take place every 8 to 12 years. In 2012, then-Defense Secretary Panetta renewed the BRAC debate, requesting new rounds take place in 2013 and 2015. Since then, Congress has explicitly denied authorization for a new round of base closures.

The argument, however, does not simply end with the disapproval of Congress. Pentagon leaders insist on the need for a new BRAC round to save money, realign forces to meet today’s security needs, and divest the Defense Department of excess infrastructure. While the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act again deny the Pentagon’s request, and will likely do the same next year, when Congress does finally accept the need for a new BRAC round it should implement the 2005 Commission’s recommendation to make closures a regular process.

Background

When the first BRAC round was authorized in 1988, it was a process decades in the making. In 1977, Congress effectively usurped closure authority that had previously belonged to the Commander-in-Chief. By requiring the Pentagon to submit various reports prior to closing a base, Congress gave closure opponents myriad avenues to prevent the shuttering of military installations — regardless of the budgetary or strategic rationale for doing so. Congressional dismay over Secretary McNamara’s base closures during the 1960s prevented the successful closure of any major defense bases during most of the 1980s.

…when Congress does finally accept the need for a new BRAC round it should implement the 2005 Commission’s recommendation to make closures a regular process.

In congressional testimony last spring, various Pentagon officials highlighted the need for a new BRAC round to eliminate excess infrastructure. In March, the Army reported its facility capacity was 18 percent greater than its needs demanded, while the Air Force reported that 30 percent of its total infrastructure was excess. Military end strength is set to decline over the next few years which will only increase excess capacity. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Pentagon manages more than 557,000 facilities worldwide with a value of over $800 billion. Assuming even a fraction of those facilities are obsolete, allowing the Defense Department to close them could save billions.

Necessity

Further, BRAC is a necessary response to an ever-changing and constantly challenging global security environment. Congress recognized the need for closures and realignment following the end of the Cold War, authorizing BRAC rounds in 1988, 1991, 1993, and 1995. In 2005, Congress heeded Secretary Rumsfeld calls for realigning the military in the face of a new terrorist threat and need to combat violent non-state actors. Today, however, Congress seems reluctant to allow the Pentagon to reorient itself to address different and emerging threats.

Congress seems reluctant to allow the Pentagon to reorient itself to address different and emerging threats.

Congressional reluctance to authorize a new BRAC round stems from three main concerns: first, BRAC removes Congress from the process entirely; second, BRAC threatens jobs for constituents; and, lastly, the 2005 BRAC round proved to be costlier than envisioned.

The BRAC process is inherently designed to diffuse responsibility and blame for unpopular changes. It requires presidential nomination and Senate confirmation of an independent BRAC Commission, at which point Congress loses control over the process. Individual senators and congressmen can — and most certainly do — testify before the Commission and lobby on behalf of their local bases but can do nothing to stop the final BRAC recommendations. The final BRAC report must be passed or defeated as a single package — no amendments are allowed. This leaves congressmen nearly powerless to influence outcomes.

Military bases impact the economy of every state. So much so that when the Pentagon requested a new BRAC round in 2012, states began hiring consulting firms to assess and trumpet their military strategic value. A 2015 report commissioned by the government of North Carolina estimated that the military supports roughly 10 percent of the state’s employment or more than 578,000 jobs and $66 billion in gross state product. A similar report by Illinois found that $13.3 billion of its gross state product was dependent on military and other defense activities. That particular report also showed the military’s impact on each of the state’s congressional districts. While the $4.2 million in military contracts that originated in Illinois’ 2nd congressional district isn’t much in terms of the Pentagon’s total budget, it matters a great deal to the people who hold the jobs those dollars support. Few congressmen are willing to take money out of the pockets of their own constituents, even on the advice of admirals and generals.

Few congressmen are willing to take money out of the pockets of their own constituents, even on the advice of admirals and generals.

Finally, the 2005 BRAC round has proven costlier than originally projected. In 2012, GAO reported that the military construction costs associated with that round had gone up by 86 percent while projected savings had decreased by 72 percent. Over 20 years, DOD was projected to save under $10 billion. It should be noted, however, that the 2005 BRAC round was the largest realignment and closure round to date. Critics have also derided Secretary Rumsfeld’s management of BRAC — from his original proposals through implementing the final recommendations approved by Congress. GAO analysis of previous BRAC rounds show that they have saved billions and provided cost avoidances. BRAC, when implemented properly, does save money. Further, while base closures can prove initially traumatic for communities, they also provide an opportunity for economic diversification and land reuse. The best example of this may be the closure of Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire. The base was closed in 1991, taking with it about 3,400 military and 1,000 civilian jobs. A redevelopment commission led by state and local authorities was successful in development the reuse plan for what is now the bustling Pease International Tradeport.

Path Forward

Congress should not force the Pentagon to choose between the upkeep of obsolete facilities and maintaining readiness. Every dollar spent maintaining an obsolete facility or a redundant base is a dollar that cannot be spent on military training or overseas operation. In these lean fiscal times, Congress has taken to using extraordinary measures to fund defense operations but has thus far refused to allow Defense officials to make savings. Instead, Congress should allow the Pentagon to allocate its resources toward the proper ends.

Every dollar spent maintaining an obsolete facility or a redundant base is a dollar that cannot be spent on military training or overseas operation.

In 1977, Congress effectively took responsibility for the base closure process. Today, it shirks that responsibility — threatening national security and the Pentagon’s fiscal position — by ignoring pleas for a new BRAC round. Not only should Congress approve a new BRAC round, it should authorize the BRAC process to occur at regular intervals in accordance with recommendations from the 2005 Commission. Threats to the United States will continue to change and the country’s defense posture should be free to change as well.In recognition of the fact that America’s security environment and military organization would continue to change, the 2005 Defense Base Closure and realignment (BRAC) Commission recommended future closure rounds take place every 8 to 12 years. In 2012, then-Defense Secretary Panetta renewed the BRAC debate, requesting new rounds take place in 2013 and 2015. Since then, Congress has explicitly denied authorization for a new round of base closures.

The argument, however, does not simply end with the disapproval of Congress. Pentagon leaders insist on the need for a new BRAC round to save money, realign forces to meet today’s security needs, and divest the Defense Department of excess infrastructure. While the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act again deny the Pentagon’s request, and will likely do the same next year, when Congress does finally accept the need for a new BRAC round it should implement the 2005 Commission’s recommendation to make closures a regular process.

Background

When the first BRAC round was authorized in 1988, it was a process decades in the making. In 1977, Congress effectively usurped closure authority that had previously belonged to the Commander-in-Chief. By requiring the Pentagon to submit various reports prior to closing a base, Congress gave closure opponents myriad avenues to prevent the shuttering of military installations — regardless of the budgetary or strategic rationale for doing so. Congressional dismay over Secretary McNamara’s base closures during the 1960s prevented the successful closure of any major defense bases during most of the 1980s.

…when Congress does finally accept the need for a new BRAC round it should implement the 2005 Commission’s recommendation to make closures a regular process.

In congressional testimony last spring, various Pentagon officials highlighted the need for a new BRAC round to eliminate excess infrastructure. In March, the Army reported its facility capacity was 18 percent greater than its needs demanded, while the Air Force reported that 30 percent of its total infrastructure was excess. Military end strength is set to decline over the next few years which will only increase excess capacity. According to theGovernment Accountability Office (GAO), the Pentagon manages more than 557,000 facilities worldwide with a value of over $800 billion. Assuming even a fraction of those facilities are obsolete, allowing the Defense Department to close them could save billions.

Necessity

Further, BRAC is a necessary response to an ever-changing and constantly challenging global security environment. Congress recognized the need for closures and realignment following the end of the Cold War, authorizing BRAC rounds in 1988, 1991, 1993, and 1995. In 2005, Congress heeded Secretary Rumsfeld calls for realigning the military in the face of a new terrorist threat and need to combat violent non-state actors. Today, however, Congress seems reluctant to allow the Pentagon to reorient itself to address different and emerging threats.

Congress seems reluctant to allow the Pentagon to reorient itself to address different and emerging threats.

Congressional reluctance to authorize a new BRAC round stems from three main concerns: first, BRAC removes Congress from the process entirely; second, BRAC threatens jobs for constituents; and, lastly, the 2005 BRAC round proved to be costlier than envisioned.

The BRAC process is inherently designed to diffuse responsibility and blame for unpopular changes. It requires presidential nomination and Senate confirmation of an independent BRAC Commission, at which point Congress loses control over the process. Individual senators and congressmen can — and most certainly do — testify before the Commission and lobby on behalf of their local bases but can do nothing to stop the final BRAC recommendations. The final BRAC report must be passed or defeated as a single package — no amendments are allowed. This leaves congressmen nearly powerless to influence outcomes.

Military bases impact the economy of every state. So much so that when the Pentagon requested a new BRAC round in 2012, states began hiring consulting firms to assess and trumpet their military strategic value. A 2015report commissioned by the government of North Carolina estimated that the military supports roughly 10 percent of the state’s employment or more than 578,000 jobs and $66 billion in gross state product. A similar report by Illinois found that $13.3 billion of its gross state product was dependent on military and other defense activities. That particular report also showed the military’s impact on each of the state’s congressional districts. While the $4.2 million in military contracts that originated in Illinois’ 2nd congressional district isn’t much in terms of the Pentagon’s total budget, it matters a great deal to the people who hold the jobs those dollars support. Few congressmen are willing to take money out of the pockets of their own constituents, even on the advice of admirals and generals.

Few congressmen are willing to take money out of the pockets of their own constituents, even on the advice of admirals and generals.

Finally, the 2005 BRAC round has proven costlier than originally projected. In 2012, GAO reported that the military construction costs associated with that round had gone up by 86 percent while projected savings had decreased by 72 percent. Over 20 years, DOD was projected to save under $10 billion. It should be noted, however, that the 2005 BRAC round was the largest realignment and closure round to date. Critics have also derided Secretary Rumsfeld’s management of BRAC — from his original proposals through implementing the final recommendations approved by Congress. GAOanalysis of previous BRAC rounds show that they have saved billions and provided cost avoidances. BRAC, when implemented properly, does save money. Further, while base closures can prove initially traumatic for communities, they also provide an opportunity for economic diversification and land reuse. The best example of this may be the closure of Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire. The base was closed in 1991, taking with it about 3,400 military and 1,000 civilian jobs. A redevelopment commission led by state and local authorities was successful in development the reuse plan for what is now the bustling Pease International Tradeport.

Path Forward

Congress should not force the Pentagon to choose between the upkeep of obsolete facilities and maintaining readiness. Every dollar spent maintaining an obsolete facility or a redundant base is a dollar that cannot be spent on military training or overseas operation. In these lean fiscal times, Congress has taken to using extraordinary measures to fund defense operations but has thus far refused to allow Defense officials to make savings. Instead, Congress should allow the Pentagon to allocate its resources toward the proper ends.

Every dollar spent maintaining an obsolete facility or a redundant base is a dollar that cannot be spent on military training or overseas operation.

In 1977, Congress effectively took responsibility for the base closure process. Today, it shirks that responsibility — threatening national security and the Pentagon’s fiscal position — by ignoring pleas for a new BRAC round. Not only should Congress approve a new BRAC round, it should authorize the BRAC process to occur at regular intervals in accordance with recommendations from the 2005 Commission. Threats to the United States will continue to change and the country’s defense posture should be free to change as well.

Header Photo: The Commission questions Gordon R. EnglandVern Clark, and Michael Hagee in 2005.


Devon Hill is a Legislative Assistant at a law firm specializing in BRAC and defense environmental cleanup. He previously worked for the United States House of Representatives and is currently an M.A. candidate in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


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