Military communities on BRAC: Let’s get on with it

If Congress has any allies in its persistent opposition to another round of base closures, you might think they would be the state and local officials who represent military bases.

If so, you would be wrong. The Association of Defense Communities recently surveyed its membership, asking whether they’d prefer another BRAC round to the current hand-wringing about when or if the military will realign its stateside infrastructure. Of those surveyed, 91 percent said they’d prefer another BRAC, while 8.6 percent prefer the status quo.

The overwhelming lopsidedness of that poll is likely one factor behind an op-ed ADC President Tim Ford penned last week, noting that while BRAC can be a painful process, the alternative in the face of decline defense budgets is “death by a thousand cuts” and the “hollowing out of bases and economic ruin for our communities.”

“[BRAC] doesn’t solve every problem but begins to answer tough questions about where we are headed,” Ford wrote. “Instead of planning for the base of the future and paving a pathway to get there, we are letting the inertia of political indecision guide our strategy.”

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In both the House and Senate versions of the annual defense authorization bill, lawmakers explicitly forbade another BRAC round. The House version, however, would order DoD to conduct a complete inventory of its infrastructure and compare it with the military’s real-world mission needs — a possible precursor to an eventual BRAC.

And in the same survey, 86 percent of ADC members said they thought Congress would finally OK another BRAC within the next five years.

But speaking last week at ADC’s annual conference, John Conger, the acting assistant secretary for energy, installations and environment, sounded less optimistic.

“I totally understand and respect any individual member of Congress’ concern about the political risk inherent in BRAC,” he said. “But we’ve been playing a little bit of whack-a-mole over the past few years: Congress comes up with a reason they don’t want another BRAC, then we resolve it, and then we go to the next issue.”

“At first, it was that we hadn’t budgeted for the up-front costs of BRAC, so we did that. Then it was that we needed to close bases overseas first, so we did a two-year European Infrastructure Consolidation and saved more than half a billion dollars a year. The newest one is that we didn’t like the 2005 BRAC because it cost too much money.

That’s probably fair, but when you look at the actual recommendations from the 2005 BRAC round, half of them were never designed to save money, they were designed to do things you can only do in a BRAC round, like consolidating our investigative services and the Defense Health Agency. That half of the recommendations made up $29 billion of the $35 billion in up-front costs.”

In this year’s posture hearings, lawmakers also raised the issue of whether it was wise to eliminate excess infrastructure just because the military currently is shrinking, because it will surely begin to grow again some day.

Conger is not impressed by that argument either, saying the military has plenty of capacity to grow its forces without the need for new real estate.

“We have the ability to grow at our current locations if we wanted to grow again, but even if we needed to reopen a base, we’d be able to afford that with the savings we’d get from another BRAC round, he said”

MacKenzie Eaglen, who studies defense as a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said that even during the large buildups following Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. military only actually grew by 4 percent, while excess base capacity is currently estimated at approximately 20 percent.

“So the argument about ‘What if we grow the force again’ is dead, dead, dead on arrival for anyone who actually knows what they’re talking about,” she said. “Under no conceivable scenario short of full mobilization will that argument ever pass the laugh test.”

But Eaglen also agreed with the consensus in the ADC poll. Despite recent opposition in Congress, BRAC is no longer the third rail it once was. She said presidential candidates she is currently advising have all come to that conclusion, as have senior military leaders.

“There’s a whole ‘I support the troops’ argument behind doing this, because the status quo is hurting everybody. BRAC is not a non-starter, because sure, there are losers. But there are also big winners,” she said. “Fort Hood and Fort Bragg are not going away. These are thriving defense communities and they’re probably not at risk, and politicians recognize that. This is not going to be like the 1990s where we had four successive rounds and a lot of closures. There will be one round, maybe two.”
Robert Hale, DoD’s former comptroller and chief financial officer agreed that large, established bases would probably not be at risk from a BRAC round in the current environment because of the consolidation DoD already performed in the 1990s.

“We’ve got too many small depots, particularly in the Army,” he said. “We also have some significant underutilization in military hospitals that probably can only be corrected by some consolidation. So most of it would be support areas, and incidentally that would also help reduce the civilian workforce, which Congress is also interested in. We need a BRAC, and I think we’ll eventually get a BRAC. My experience with Congress on these kinds of things is that persistence is the key. You have to keep asking. It’s ‘No, no, no, no … oh, OK.’”

This article is part of Federal News Radio’s weekly Inside the Reporter’s Notebook feature. Read more from this week’s Notebook.

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