More military base closure?

Yet as defense dollars and missions drop, it is prudent to consider whether there are alternatives to another BRAC, because despite BRAC shortcomings, base closure does save taxpayer money. The savings from the last round, in 2005, will amount to $4 billion a year once closure costs are paid, and all BRAC closures and realignments have saved around $12 billion yearly. Even if future base reduction only save a small fraction of the total defense budget, that is still money that might go to more essential defense programs. While there will be job losses at closed bases, the good news for base closure supporters is that when closed bases convert to alternative uses, they generally create more jobs that existed on the base previously, though it takes time for those jobs to emerge.

But is another BRAC necessary to reduce surplus base capacity? Even without another round, the Defense Department does have limited authority to make reductions in its bases; it can reduce the civilian and military workforce on surplus bases, and bulldoze surplus base buildings. Thus, a first step to reducing base infrastructure would be for Congress to give DoD additional authority to allow the military, as it shrinks, to reduce base capacity proportionately, and to coordinate with state, local, and federal agencies, plus the private sector, to convert a certain percentage of base land to alternative use. Base reduction could begin as soon as the military finds guaranteed alternative activities to utilized closed base space. A quick way to accomplish this is through an expansion of the “Enhanced Use Lease” program that allows the base operating service to attract private and government users to build laboratories and proving grounds, for examples, at existing bases, without completely closing them. Or the military, with congressional authorization, can transfer base property to the neighboring city for redevelopment, as it did by converting Brooks Air Force Base to Brooks City Base, allowing San Antonio, Texas, to use it for development. The Air Force is experimenting with a program called “public-public, public-private” partnerships with local communities, encouraging sharing of libraries, schools, waste facilities, to share costs and thus reduce base operations expenses.

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Every surplus building that falls to military bulldozers, or is converted to non-military use, is a building that does not have to be heated, cooled, or painted. Every acre of surplus base land converted to civilian use is a potential source of new jobs. Every building shared with a non-military user reduces military costs. If the military disposes of even half of the estimated 25 percent surplus base capacity, it will not only save defense dollars but generate new tax revenue as new laboratories, health care facilities, and other enterprises move onto former base land.

Before 1977, when Congress made base closure almost impossible, the military had a decisive role in shutting down its excess bases. So rather than go through the bloody political fight to charter another BRAC, it is better return to the days before BRAC, when Congress trusted the armed forces to manage their own base structure, and to close, or convert, what it decides it no longer needs.

Sorenson is professor of International Security at the Air War College, and the author of two books on military base closure. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the Air War College, the United States Air Force, or the Department of Defense.