What the next round of American military base closures will look like
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For the first time in many years, there are more positive signals coming from Congress than negative ones with regard to another round of the military’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC). Without explicitly coming out for BRAC, recent comments by Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBudowsky: Would John McCain back impeachment? Sharice Davids to vote for Trump impeachment articles: 'The facts are uncontested' Ex-Rep. Scott Taylor to seek old Virginia seat MORE (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have given the impression that BRAC may be his next reform target. Moreover, Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: House passes compromise defense bill | Turkey sanctions advance in Senate over Trump objections | Top general says military won't be 'raping, burning and pillaging' after Trump pardons House passes defense bill to establish Space Force, paid family leave for federal workers Pentagon leaders: Trump clemencies won't affect military order and discipline MORE (D-Wash.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, has introduced his own version of the BRAC law that tries to fix problems from the 2005 round.

Combine that with a Republican president who has vowed to bring private sector values to the federal government — as closing facilities with excess capacity is a tried and true private sector approach — and this year has a better chance of seeing BRAC enacted than any in recent memory.

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So what would a BRAC round in 2021 actually look like? Setting aside the crystal ball on which bases are actually vulnerable, I think it is safe to make three broad predictions. First, there will be significant congressional reforms to the BRAC process. Second, the scope of the BRAC will be smaller than the 2005 round. Third, the services and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) will participate to varying degrees, proportional to their advocacy for the new round.

 

First, with regard to reforms, a new BRAC authorization would have to fix the problems Congress had with the 2005 round. A draft attempt at such an alternative has already been authored by Congressman Smith. His bill would focus on a longstanding criticism of the 2005 BRAC round — that it opportunistically leveraged BRAC to take many actions that didn’t save money and instead used the unique BRAC authorities to consolidate functions and expand infrastructure in targeted locations.

Smith’s bill, known as the Military Infrastructure Consolidation and Efficiency Act of 2017, directs priority for those recommendations that produce savings in five years. If Smith’s rule had been applied strictly in 2005, more than half of the recommendations would not have made the cut and the cost of the round would have been reduced by more than 80 percent.

Another reform that would be needed is a way to limit cost growth. Whether we’re talking about an aircraft carrier, a tactical fighter or a BRAC recommendation, there are few things that irritate Congress more than cost growth in a program. There will undoubtedly be restrictions on expansion of costs and scope of recommendations beyond the initial estimates, but Congress will need to make sure they don’t eliminate the flexibility to make practical corrections based on new information.

My second broad prediction is that this BRAC round will be explicitly limited in scope. While the Department of Defense has repeatedly testified that they expect the next BRAC round to reduce only five percent of its infrastructure, compared to the 22 percent excess documented in recent reports, I don’t think Congress will simply trust the Pentagon to limit itself.

Some of the concerns from Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, have focused on the need to preserve space for projected force growth. An explicit limit on the proposed reductions, whether by explicitly defining a larger force to accommodate or by capping the scope of proposed reductions, would go a long way to satisfying that concern.

A cap on the proposed cost — very similar to the Congressional approach taken on constraining the Defense Department’s plan to realign marines from Okinawa to Guam — would address both total size and likelihood of cost growth. Specifically, if the Pentagon and the BRAC commission could only make recommendations that within a specified cost cap, it would limit the number of very expensive recommendations proposed. Not only are those the recommendations that drive a higher total BRAC cost, but they are the ones most likely to experience excessive cost growth. An appetite suppressant on these recommendations, therefore, would have double the benefit.

This is essentially what happened with the European Infrastructure Consolidation effort, sometimes called Euro-BRAC, which the Pentagon ran between 2013 and 2015. There was a limited amount of money available in the program to pay for recommendations, and that drove the Defense Department away from some recommendations that had very high initial costs, even if they had fairly good projections for return on investment.

Finally, while the Army and Air Force have been strongly advocating a new BRAC round, the Navy has been tepid in support. The services will all participate, but the Navy and Marine Corps — which have assessed a much smaller amount of their infrastructure as excess — are likely to have fewer BRAC recommendations than either of their counterparts. This also occurred in Euro-BRAC, where the Navy did an excellent job of assessing its bases, but in the end did not recommend any for closure.

I also expect Joint Cross-Service Groups, overseen by the defense secretary, to forward some interesting recommendations. Defense Secretary James Mattis, in a memo earlier this year, expressed a desire to identify functions that no longer required individual service approaches. BRAC could give him the opportunity to implement some of the reforms he develops. Another example is data center consolidation. In Euro-BRAC, the data center recommendation was one of the best returns on investment. If BRAC were used to address this challenge in the United States, the prospective savings would be considerably higher.

In conclusion, while it’s still too hard to predict whether Congress will authorize a BRAC round this year, one thing is certain: if BRAC is passed, you can be sure it won’t look like the last one.

John Conger is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a senior advisor at Cassidy & Associates. He served as principal deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Defense during the Obama administration.


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