A second round of base closures would be much more productive in saving money for the Defense Department, if the Pentagon can convince Congress to bite the bullet on base realignment and closures (BRAC).
Another round of BRAC would have a bigger financial payoff than the ones implemented by the department in 2005, said Jamie Morin, director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, during a March 7 speech.
“The department is not happy with what happened in the 2005 BRAC round in terms of cost take-out. We rebalanced the force in some useful ways, but we think a future BRAC round would have much different financial ramifications,” Morin said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “We just need to move forward on this to enable a whole bunch of cost takeout to drive more combat capability out of each taxpayer dollar.”
Morin said it’s not the physical maintenance of the bases that is so detrimental to the budget, but rather the extra personnel on a base that does the maintenance.
An average base needs 800 to 900 people in it before you get to operational employees, Morin said.
“As you shrink down the operational forces, as we get higher and higher technology and the capital gets more expensive because it’s more and more advanced, we are operating with a constant physical infrastructure with a lot of overhead to maintain it,” Morin said.
Basically, Morin is saying DoD is paying for all these people to maintain a lot of bases for a shrinking operational force, with an operating force that needs more expensive equipment. It would be better to just have the equipment in a smaller number of bases and cut those extra maintenance personnel.
Congress has been hounding DoD to cut personnel, but in other areas like headquarters staff. BRAC turns into a third rail topic for Congress, especially around election time, even if it means saving money and cutting staff.
The 2016 defense authorization act had a provision specifically forbidding BRAC that year.
Experts say Congress is wary of BRAC because it offends their parochial interests. Closing a base in a lawmaker’s district takes away jobs and may affect the economy negatively; that’s never something a lawmaker wants to report to his constituents.
But the five rounds of BRAC in the past ended up saving DoD about $5 billion a year.
DoD officials told Congress another round of BRAC could save billions more a year.
That comes at a time when DoD is trying to squeeze every penny it can get in anticipation of the return of sequestration in 2018.
Right now, DoD has projected spending over the five year future years defense plan is $100 billion more than the sequestration caps for that time period.
“We see the biggest risk in this budget not so much as the choices that we made to meet the short term budget reductions in this budget deal … the greater risk is the $100 billion,” DoD Comptroller Mike McCord said.
By planning as if there are no sequestration caps is a big bet for DoD, some experts said.
“There’s $104.5 billion in deficits between the current [sequestration] caps and the [future years defense plan],” Blakeley said Feb. 1 in Washington. “What this means is over the long term the Pentagon is still hoping for more money, hoping for sequester relief in the out-years, but their plans are going to be a lot more difficult to execute if they don’t get it. This is a continuation of the shift we’ve seen where you just push the spending to the out-years, push it a little further out, hope for some miracles. Maybe you get a couple minor miracles, but you’re still stacking the deck after the [sequestration] caps and putting a lot of your major spending there.”
Morin said there are other ways DoD can save money without BRAC. Specifically, Morin said the department needs to identify and divest programs that are not working.
Morin said it is important for DoD to take risks that are able to maintain its deterrent posture for the long run.
In order to do that DoD needs a portfolio approach where you do not expect every program to come to fruition.
“We need to have a risk profile where we do some exotic work that may only have a coin flip or a 20 percent chance of turning into a military capability, but if you don’t do several of those you’re going to be locked in purely incremental improvement,” Morin said.
That’s one area where Congress is listening.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said in January he is focusing on experimentation and prototyping for his next iteration of Defense acquisition reforms.
And that includes building a culture within the Defense Department that is OK with small failures.
Experimentation “encourages innovative thinking, not just in developing the technology, but in how you use it. It helps ensure there is mature technology before you start production so that you don’t have those unexpected surprises. It reduces the odds that you are going to spend a lot of money on a program of record that you then have to cancel and have it all wasted,” Thornberry said.