Facing billions in facility backlogs, DoD looks to new pilot for ‘livable communities’

Defense officials want to demonstrate a new demolition and consolidation concept at five bases over the next three years.

A lot of DoD facilities — from barracks to office buildings — are in pretty bad shape, and because of consistent maintenance shortfalls, things are generally getting worse. So as part of a new strategy for its bases, the department is trying a new approach, seeking permission from Congress to test a series of pilot projects that would demolish old buildings and consolidate the people who live and work in them into “livable communities.”

In a legislative proposal the department sent to Capitol Hill last week, officials asked to demonstrate the new demolition and consolidation ideas at five locations over the next three years, spending up to $25 million at each site. It would be one of the first large tests of the new Resilient and Healthy Defense Communities strategy the department announced in February.

“We’re working on three lines of effort to guide our infrastructure investments: adopting human centered requirements, optimizing our footprint, and transforming our portfolio management,” Brendan Owens the assistant secretary of Defense for energy, installations, and environment told the House Armed Services Committee this week. “The strategy will ensure that our spaces are healthy, safe, functional, resilient and enhance the quality of life and readiness of our service members, their families and the civilian workforce. Together, our efforts will drive changes across the Defense infrastructure enterprise and ensure that it is managed as a strategic asset to promote the well-being of our total force.”

As to the pilot program specifically, the basic idea is to use military construction funding to tear down smaller older buildings that have fallen into disrepair, and move their residents or employees into newer, larger facilities, built with modern standards and that cost a lot less to maintain.

Legal barriers

While that might sound fairly straightforward, Defense officials say that under existing law, it’s actually very hard to achieve, mainly because of how DoD’s budget is allocated and the Defense budgeting system’s strict controls over different colors of money.

As of now, for any military services to conduct that kind of facility realignment, they’d need to plan military construction (MILCON) funding to build the new facilities in one budget year, and then move the new tenants in once it’s done. But funding for the demolition of the old buildings would have to come separately, likely several years later, because MILCON money can’t be used to fund demolition projects.

Instead, that funding would have to come from operation and maintenance (O&M) funding — an extremely broad category that receives intense competition for immediate priorities each year.

Demolition already a large tool

That’s not to say demolition isn’t happening. Installation officials say it’s often the best way to solve the problem of older facilities becoming too expensive to maintain.

Ravi Chaudhary, the assistant secretary of the Air Force said his service is already increasing its demolition budget to help reduce its $46 billion backlog in facility maintenance.

“We’re going to get after this by reducing our inventory, and using privatization to reduce the denominator,” he said. “Privatization allows us to reduce that backlog, but we’re also roughly quadrupling our demolition spending from roughly $30 million a year to about $140 to 160 million per year [over the next five years].”

But as of now, those backlogs are growing across the services. That’s partly because of chronic underfunding in DoD’s facility sustainment, restoration and modernization (FSRM) accounts. The Pentagon’s current goal is to fund those accounts to 90% of the level that its models say is needed to keep facilities from deteriorating, but the military services routinely fall short of even that goal.

There is one large exception this year, however: military barracks, sometimes called “unaccompanied housing.” In the wake of a scathing GAO report on barracks conditions last year, each service is now funding barracks maintenance to 100% of their models’ funding requirement.

“The Army recognizes that we have a sizeable backlog of deferred maintenance needs for hundreds of thousands of buildings,” said Rachel Jacobson, the assistant secretary of the Army for energy, installations and environment. “This deferred maintenance, which emerged over the course of many years, has serious repercussions … Simply put, any increase in our inventory of poor and failing barracks for any reason is unacceptable and must be reversed. And barracks that are in good condition must stay that way. That is why the Army is requesting 100% of the funding required for barracks sustainment. We are also taking a number of steps to improve the soldier experience and new and renovated barracks, both in living spaces and communal areas.”

But even if the services manage to keep their barracks from degrading any further, across their broader portfolios, officials say they simply have more facilities than they can afford to maintain, and the issues aren’t limited to housing.

In the Marine Corps, for example, each building that houses division and battalion headquarters commands are now rated as in “poor” or “failing” condition.

“The majority of our infrastructure, whether barracks, utilities or public shipyards, is not in the shape it should be. As an institution, we have allowed these assets to degrade over time; we have accumulated and deferred significant risk and allowed the risk to accumulate and compound,” said Meredith Berger, the assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment. “And the adversary always has a say, whether we’re talking about kinetics and components or water. We’ve seen increased external impacts that reduce our ability to be resilient and respond — with the emergent and urgent frequently overtaking the enduring importance in a constrained funding environment. No matter what the cause, the cost is readiness, and our sailors and Marines shoulder the consequences.”

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