A new BRAC round would boost readiness, save billions

When the House Armed Services Committee marked up the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) earlier this month, it rejected virtually all of the Pentagon’s proposals for saving money, from compensation reform, to eliminating outmoded weapons systems, to initiating a new Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round.

Taken on the merits, the least controversial of these should have been the call for a new BRAC process.  The last four Secretaries of Defense, representing both parties, have requested authority to get rid of excess defense infrastructure, only to be rebuffed by Congress.  Members have been more concerned with preserving bases in their states or districts than in allowing the Pentagon to make rational decisions on how best to allocate resources.  At a time when Congressional leaders have been screaming from the rooftops about the need for adequate funds for training and equipping our armed forces, this short-term thinking has to stop.

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As former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Fluornoy has noted, “The inability to shed or realign facilities hangs like an albatross around the Department’s neck, consuming billions of dollars that could have otherwise gone to readiness or modernization.”

The savings can be considerable.  The last five BRAC rounds have generated almost $12 billion in annual recurring savings at the Pentagon.  A new round could save billions more.

Critics of the proposal for a new round of base closings point to the 2005 round, which by some estimates cost up to $35 billion, a sum that will take years to recoup via ongoing annual savings.  But in some respects the 2005 effort was a BRAC in name only.  Much of the funding was devoted to building new replacement facilities and otherwise “transforming” the Pentagon’s infrastructure.  The parts of the 2005 round that focused solely on efficiencies and closures cost $6 billion, with a recurring annual savings of $3 billion.  In other words, the initial investment in closures paid off in just two years time.

The key to yielding savings from a new base closing round will be to make sure that it focuses on closures and efficiencies, not building new facilities.  An idea developed by HASC ranking member Adam Smith (D-WA) would do just that.  Under Smith's approach, the Pentagon would have to justify any closure or realignment by providing credible estimates of savings generated. Decisions to close or realign bases would be grounded in an attempt to match infrastructure needs with the future capabilities required to defend the nation.  And key members of Congress would have meaningful input into the process of selecting what bases to close. Unfortunately, Smith's plan will not be considered as an amendment on the House floor this week, but hopefully it will be taken up as the legislative process continues through the spring and fall.

The process of a new round of base closings would be far from abrupt.  It would not begin until February 2017, over two and one-half years from now, and one month into the first term of a new presidential administration.  This would give communities that might see their local base downsized or closed ample time to make plans for alternative economic activities.  These efforts would in effect provide a “Plan B” that would ease the transition from a local base closure, should such a closure occur.

There is strong evidence to suggest that communities that experience base closures can bounce back, creating as many or more new jobs as existed at the local military facility that was shut down.  A Pentagon study of 73 base readjustment cases between 1988 and 2005 found that the impacted communities were able to create a total of 128,000 new jobs, virtually the same number as the 129,000 jobs lost through base closures.  The key to accelerating these kinds of transitions is to start the planning process early, not wait until a closure is imminent.

It is time for Congress to take a forward-looking step that puts aside traditional pork barrel politics and opts instead for spending discipline and strategic planning.  The President should consider vetoing any bill that doesn't allow for a BRAC process. Given the likely constraints on Pentagon spending in the coming period, it is urgent that the Congress authorize a new round of base closures this year.

Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.