Smart bases may be a smart idea, but can the military afford them?

Industry has some ideas for the Defense Department on how it might be able to spare a few pennies and make its bases run more smoothly, but finding an ear in the Pentagon or in Congress is proving hard.

Smart bases might be the wave of the future. They offer ways for military installations to use new technologies and big data collection to better the lives of service members and possibly save money in the long run.

But military infrastructure budgets are paltry at best and nothing is signaling a change anytime soon.

“Some good examples [of smart bases] are Fort Stewart and Kings Bay in Georgia … who use their excess land capacity to install solar panels that give them an independent power source,” said Ted Johnson, defense and national security research manager at the Deloitte Center for Government Insights.

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Solar panels give the bases an independent power source that can be tapped in case of an emergency, Johnson said. The energy the bases don’t use is sold back to the power company.

Other bases getting smarter include Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, which uses autonomous vehicles to move injured service members from the rehabilitation clinic to the hospital for their appointments, Johnson said.

Other bases use sensors that distinguish between base workers and residents to manage traffic congestion.

Johnson said the best application for smart bases at this point, however, is in energy.

“Energy is the perfect place to start both from a security standpoint and from an economic one. What the military will have to do is sell companies on the prospect of providing upfront investment of initial cost for the deployment of these technologies,” Johnson said. “That will be where the military will balk, on installing wireless antennas and buying things in bulk because of how much they cost.”

Johnson said cost sharing models may be the way government and industry can work together. By entering into a contract for services or if companies pay for the installations up front and then the military pays them a part of the savings, DoD might be able to bring bases further into the future.

But Johnson admits smart base initiatives are mostly on the fringes. One prospect area for smart bases is in the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, a DoD hub aimed at courting tech savvy companies.

Johnson said the relationships formed there may open DoD’s mind to some tech installations. Johnson is hopeful the increased funds for DoD might go to some investments in installations, especially considering Defense Secretary James Mattis wants to streamline some of the Pentagon’s business practices.

Still, finding allies in Congress or DoD may be hard for smart base advocates. Military bases have long been one of the first funds to take a hit in hard times and they are now feeling the effects.

Almost 19 percent of military bases are in failing condition, according to DoD.

The Pentagon’s 2016 budget asked for only enough facility sustainment, restoration and modernization funds to cover 81 percent of its actual maintenance needs for existing facilities. The 2017 budget request of $7.5 billion would cover just 74 percent of the annual maintenance bill.

“We have over 52,000 buildings in poor or failing condition right now,” said Katherine Hammack, the assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment. “The majority of our facilities budget is focused on combatant commander requirements and new missions, which for us means cyber and unmanned aircraft. What it doesn’t get after is the significant number of buildings out there that are already failing.”

While that doesn’t rule out smart base investments, it may be a harder sell when military services just want to get their installations into stable condition.

Some technologies might be able to help with that, but others may have to wait until installations accounts are more flush.

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