With no BRAC on the horizon, Army pursues ‘base of the future’

Assuming the Army completes its planned drawdown to 450,000 active duty soldiers by the end of next year, the service will own and operate 21 percent more real estate and facilities than it can conceivably put to productive military use.

In this year’s budget presentation, officials continued the fourth year of what’s so far been a fruitless quest to use another round of base realignments and closures to reduce what they say is $500 million in annual wasted spending. But having gotten the message from Congress that there’s no BRAC round in the offing, they’re also looking for more cost-effective ways to use the land Army continues to own through a “base of the future” study, due to start later this month.

The project is partially about mitigating the BRAC dilemma, but not entirely so. In many locations, bases currently function as walled-off, self-sustaining miniature cities-within-cities for reasons that don’t have much to do with their current missions, said Katherine Hammack, the assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment, who wants to use the initiative to rethink what military bases should and shouldn’t do over the longer term.

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“It’s very interesting to me that our bases are called forts, because that word comes from our fortress model of the 1800s: put everything behind the fence and defend yourself against the natives. That’s still our basing model,” she said at a recent meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army. “We’re still doing that in places like Fort Bliss, Texas. What kind of security do we need, and what are we securing ourselves against? Is that the kind of model we need for the future? What do we need to do on base, and what is better done in the communities that surround us?  Do we need restaurants or hotels on a military base, or should we just focus on things like training and equipping?”

To some extent, the Army and the other military services have partially answered that question by getting out of the business of running on-base housing, temporary lodging and dining and turning those over to private contractors. But those facilities are usually still inside a base’s security perimeter and the actual facilities are, in many cases, still owned by the Army.

A team of Army facility experts will meet for a full week to go further and ask what actually belongs on a military base in the first place. Once they’ve answered that question, Hammack has told them to come up with a long-range plan for how they’d rearrange the Army’s on-base services so that at least some of them are provided by private operators outside the fence-line.

“I think we have an opportunity to reset ourselves for the future, taking a look at new technologies, new requirements, current affordability,” she said. “I don’t think the 1800s model is something we should have in this century.”

There are some smatterings of success stories across the country in which military bases have managed to integrate themselves into their surrounding communities in ways that benefited both. The most famous is the “Monterey Model,” in which the Army and Navy combined many of their core basing functions in the area of Monterey, California, and essentially closed down their public works departments via intergovernmental service agreements that let the city handle functions like water and sewer.

But Hammack said the Army is looking at other examples like Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, where the installation commander effectively shrunk the 38,000-acre base’s footprint and cut its operating costs even without congressional authority to divest real estate.

There, officials tightened the base’s fence-line into a smaller perimeter that protects key military facilities while leaving some of the base’s property outside the security gates. While the Army continues to own the land outside the fence, it’s entered into enhanced use lease agreements with private developers to build and operate facilities at their own expense through a 418-acre project of hotels, offices and restaurants called Redstone Gateway.

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