With the odds dim that Congress will allow the Army to shrink its footprint of bases in line with its shrinking force, the service is implementing one of the few alternatives it has to a base realignment and closure (BRAC) round: moving soldiers and civilians out of its oldest buildings and shuttering them.
Lt. Gen. David Halverson, the commander of Army Installation Management Command has just signed an execution order telling base commanders to consolidate their personnel into the newest buildings they have and do everything they can to clear out of older, half-empty facilities. The measures are being undertaken mostly to save scarce maintenance dollars, partially because older buildings tend to be more costly to run. Some, officials said, will be placed in a long-term mothball status, others will be tagged for eventual demolition.
“But it takes money to do demolition, and that’s part of our challenge,” Katherine Hammack, the assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and the environment told reporters last week. “We don’t want to demo something that’s still in functional condition, we want to demo the failing structures. But when you have reduced funding you can’t even do that, so you’re going to have abandoned buildings that are of no use to anyone that are still standing up.”
Army leaders say the savings they’ll get will be paltry compared to closing installations altogether, but they want to at least ensure that base commanders don’t move troops into the older facilities, forcing them to pay to heat and cool facilities that are mostly unoccupied. Also, the Army estimates it would cost $30 billion to restore all the facilities it owns to good condition, so it’s trying to focus its sustainment money on the ones its smaller force will truly need.
“People have a tendency just to expand into whatever buildings they have, but we’ve already lost 80,000 soldiers,” Halverson said. “We need to get them into facilities that optimize the space we have and not have to invest as much in the lower-quality. That’s a new initiative that we’ll be pushing pretty hard this year.”
The Army has already estimated that it has – depending on the type of facility in question – about 18 percent more installation space than it can use. But that figure is based on an active duty force of 490,000 soldiers. Funding cuts will force the Army to shrink to 450,000 by 2018 and perhaps 420,000 if the Budget Control Act isn’t altered in some way.
The Army has already made decisions about which bases will be impacted by the force structure reductions, and a “back-of-the-envelope” calculation shows an active duty force of 450,000 would leave the service with 21 percent excess infrastructure, Paul Cramer, the deputy assistant secretary of the Army for installations, housing, and partnerships told me.
“And it’s only going to get worse as the Army declines in force structure,” he said.
But Andy Napoli, the Army’s point man on BRAC told me the cost of running installations barely budges as a result of having fewer soldiers on them.
“The cost of running our bases is relatively fixed and relatively inflexible to changes in their population,” he said. “That’s because over the years we’ve kind of standardized our garrison structure in terms of the services we provide: they’re basically like small cities. The cost of having security guards to protect the place, having utility systems, snow removal, public works, all of those services still have to be done. If you look at the cost of running an installation, most if it is in the base operations support account and some of it is facility sustainment, modernization and restoration. It’s basically buildings and people. We’ve already reduced our force structure by 20 percent, and the cost of running our bases has not declined anywhere near that. The only way you can truly get after that is you have to close a few bases and realign the missions to the bases with higher military value. That gives you permanent savings, and the magnitude of savings you’d get with just a few bases would dwarf any amount of demolition we could do at all of our bases.”
Still, absent BRAC authorization, the Army says it’s pushing to conserve as many of its facility sustainment dollars as it can.
The service’s own 2016 budget underfunded its building maintenance needs, but still would have been a plus-up from 2015 and would have let the service begin to dig out of a backlog of deferred maintenance that’s been building since sequestration hit in 2013 and has now reached $3 billion. That won’t happen as long as the government remains under a continuing resolution, which caps spending at 2015 levels.