Closing old military bases will help our defense —  and our communities
© Greg Nash

It’s been 12 years since the last U.S. military base was closed in the United States. Base realignment and closure, or BRAC, is the Pentagon’s most expedient and efficient tool to generate recurring annual savings, despite congressional claims to the contrary. All other efforts, like reducing the number of generals or consolidating information technology, create comparative pocket change for the Pentagon.

The first four rounds of base closures save the military $7 billion dollars every year. The most recent fifth cycle in 2005 generates an additional $4 billion in annual savings, though its implementation costs nearly $35 billion, which is far too much. The 2005 program was indisputably mismanaged.

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Thankfully, the next round of BRAC will assuredly focus on base closures rather than realignments, which are expensive and provide minimal savings. Outright closures accounted for 17 percent of the costs of the 2005 round, yet generate 75 percent of its annual savings. Results come when Congress has the courage to retire bases rather than repurpose them.

 

Avoiding base realignment and doing nothing — Congress’ preferred fallback over the course of this past decade — is just as powerful of a choice. This approach results in “death by a thousand cuts” to military communities across America left uncertain about their future.

Representatives of these communities are practically begging for Congress to take action, even if it means their own neighborhood installation might close: better to know now and begin to move on than be strung along. Abusing taxpayer dollars to support wasting assets or rusting eye sores that are not maintained does not make constituents feel better. It only serves politicians.

When facilities close, tens of thousands of civilian positions become redundant. Four base closure rounds in the 1990s were the primary reason the active duty force and civilian workforces fell roughly in tandem — as they should.

But the opposite has been true since the post-9/11 buildup peak. As troop numbers have contracted, the number of defense civilians who support them has only been growing. That is directly linked to the lack of BRAC. Base closures offer the only meaningful path to trim the nearly 800,000-strong workforce of Pentagon civilians.

While it is understandable to be concerned about employment, Congress needs to remember that nearly all communities recover well from closures. Bergstrom Air Base was turned into a thriving airport. More than 150 businesses now exist on the waterfront that was once the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Army bases have been turned into national parks and university campuses.

As lawmakers look to reverse the military’s drawdown, they would be wise to right-size the bloated defense civilian workforce and unlock the economic potential of communities affected by base realignment and closure.

By refusing to consider it altogether, Congress is also hurting the military’s strategic posture abroad. The military’s forward presence is designed to reassure friends and deter bad actors from harmful action, such as stealing sovereign territory by force. While Russia was consolidating its gains in Crimea, America’s conventional presence abroad was shrinking as the Pentagon reduced the number of faces and bases overseas due to the absence of a BRAC at home and the need to trim expenditures.

In Europe, the U.S. Army alone has closed 116 of the 242 bases it operated in 2003, representing nearly half of its regional capacity. While the U.S. Air Force closed 26 of the 82 bases it operated on the continent over the same period, the number of airmen stationed in Europe has diminished by 62 percent since the end of the Cold War.

The U.S. Navy shuttered 58 percent of their forward bases in the North Atlantic since 2003, leaving the service with just 18 forward stations of all sizes in Europe. Congressional action — or rather, lack thereof — has thus deprived the military of the presence they need to fully deter nations like Russia and Iran.

Sure, the military will need facilities to expand into as it grows. But base closures are not mutually exclusive with this objective. In 2016, the Pentagon estimated that the Army and the Air Force each have about 33 percent more infrastructure than needed, nearly all of them in the United States. A new round of closures would cost $7 billion upfront and generate $2 billion in annual savings each year thereafter. These savings can then be reinvested into readiness and combat power.  

The impacts to force growth would be minimal. Consider the Army, which currently fields 58 brigade combat teams. If the Army has 33 percent excess capacity, it could theoretically base an additional 19 brigades in the United States. Yet, a recent and comprehensive proposal for a new base closure round in 2021, introduced by Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainSenate Dems tell Trump: Don't meet with Putin one-on-one McConnell: Senate to confirm Kavanaugh by Oct. 1 Overnight Defense: Fears rise over Trump-Putin summit | McCain presses Trump to hold Putin 'accountable' for hacking | Pentagon does damage control after NATO meet MORE (R-Ariz.) and Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedSenate Dems tell Trump: Don't meet with Putin one-on-one Schumer: Trump should cancel meeting with Putin Senate votes to support NATO ahead of Trump summit MORE (D-R.I.), calls for adding two brigade combat teams, for a total force of 60.

This is in line with the force structure proposed in a smart McCain white paper and the expanded $640 defense billion topline proposed in the Senate’s defense authorization bill. There is no reason beyond stubbornness to maintain bases for 17 brigades that even defense hawks believe the Army does not need.

In their recent statement urging representatives to oppose base realignment and closure, the House Armed Services Committee claims that “once you give up a base or capability… it is incredibly expensive to replace.” Yet lawmakers are now looking to rebuild the forward-deployed capability of the military in an admission that it has shrunk to unacceptable levels. This can’t happen again.

A new round of base realignment and closure in the spirit of the plan introduced by McCain and Reed is the best way to prepare the military — and defense communities at home — for the uncertain strategic challenges of the future.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. She worked previously in the U.S. House of Representatives, in the U.S. Senate, and at the U.S. Department of Defense.


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