Panetta says Pentagon will drop base closure plans for fiscal year 2013

The Defense Department (DOD) is abandoning its push for wide-scale base closures in the continental United States, focusing instead on plans to draw down military installations overseas, Secretary Leon Panetta announced Monday.

"I had no illusions that [base closures] would be an easy sell politically, but we had a responsibility ... to put everything on the table," Panetta said in a speech at the annual conference of the Association of Defense Communities in Monterey, Calif. "It is now clear that there will not be a round of [closures] authorized in 2013."

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Beginning in 2005, previous base closures ordered by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) netted DOD roughly $8 billion in savings, according to Panetta. But each round proved to be a politically painful battle, the defense chief noted.

"I know from my own experience that there still is a great deal of frustration with the way that BRAC has been carried out in the past," Panetta said.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle were quick to pounce on DOD's most recent BRAC proposal, declaring it unacceptable the moment it hit Capitol Hill in January. Lawmakers feared additional base closures and the financial toll that would bring on local communities. 

Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) put out a joint statement calling the new BRAC round “dead on arrival.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) suggested there were plenty of overseas bases to close before getting to domestic ones, a sentiment echoed among several Senators at the time. 

In the end, DOD was not willing to take on Congress over base closure, with lawmakers already charged over partisan fights on spending and taxes. 

However, Pentagon officials will forge ahead with plans to shutter several U.S. bases overseas that will no longer be needed to accommodate the smaller total force DOD plans to have in the coming decade. 

The majority of those bases scheduled for closure will be in Europe, as U.S. forces begin to draw down their military footprint in that region. That presence will get smaller, as DOD's total force is expected to shrink significantly over the next decade. 

Maintaining unnecessary U.S. bases across the globe as the department sheds thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines from its payrolls is "the very definition of hollowing out the force," Panetta said during Monday's speech. 

As the Pentagon stares down the barrel of a $500 billion budget cut passed by Congress under last year's debt-ceiling deal, and possibly an additional $500 billion in automatic cuts under sequestration, it would have been "irresponsible" to not consider cutting back U.S. military installations around the world, Panetta said.

"I felt that it was an important debate to have, and it is a debate we must continue," Panetta said. "Now may not be the time for BRAC as our economy recovers, but sooner or later, one way or another, [DOD] is going to need to take a hard look at its basing infrastructure as we seek to reduce our overhead costs." 

On sequestration, Panetta reiterated DOD's claims that the looming automatic cut is "a mindless, indiscriminate formula" to lower the federal debt, after the so-called congressional supercommittee failed to trim $1.2 trillion from the federal budget. 

"Congress must find a solution to avert this fiscal disaster," Panetta said. "At some point they are going to have to find the strength and the will ... to do the right thing."