The Pentagon thinks it has a winning argument for why Congress should allow a new round of military base closings. The case goes like this: The Army and Air Force have vastly more space for training and basing troops than they need, and trimming the surplus would save money better used to strengthen the military.
Congress, however, has its own logic: Closing bases can hurt local economies, which can cost votes in the next election. Besides, some lawmakers say, the Pentagon has cooked the books to justify its conclusions or at least has not finished doing the math.
Lawmakers are fiercely protective of bases in their district or state and generally prefer to ignore or dismiss any Pentagon push to close them. Nearly every year, the Pentagon asks Congress for authority to convene a base-closing commission. The answer is always the same: not this year.
And probably not any time soon, either.
In a little-noticed report to congressional leaders this month, the Pentagon offered a detailed analysis — the first of its kind in 12 years — that concludes the military will have an overall 22 percent excess of base capacity in 2019. The Army will have 33 percent surplus, the Air Force 32 percent, and the Navy and Marine Corps a combined 7 percent, the report says.
Base capacity is the total amount of acreage or work space available to support military forces at places such as a training range, an air base, a weapons storage site or an office building.
“Spending resources on excess infrastructure does not make sense,” Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work wrote leaders of the relevant congressional committees April 12. The letter was meant to support the Obama administration’s case for a bipartisan base-closing authority, known as a Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC). This mechanism, meant to take politics out of the process, was used during the 1990s and again in 2005, but not since.
The Pentagon has not said a lot publicly about its latest pitch to Congress for another commission, perhaps because it sees little chance of success.
Yet Rep. Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, is pointing to the study as he renews a bid to allow the Defense Department to carry out a BRAC. He’s been making that argument for the past four years, urging Congress to let the Defense Department cut spending on facilities so it can put more money into training and operations.
“Rather than waste money on excess infrastructure, we need to locate potential efficiencies and ensure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely to enhance the military’s capacity to meet our current and future national security challenges,” Smith of Bellevue said when the Pentagon published its infrastructure capacity study.
$2 billion How much money the Pentagon says it can save every year by closing 5 percent of its facilities.
His Republican counterpart, committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said last week the House’s version of the bill that authorizes military spending for the coming budget year will stop the Pentagon’s base-closing campaign in its tracks. The bill unveiled Monday will allow studies to answer the committee’s questions about excess base capacity, but rejects the Pentagon’s plea for another round of closures in 2019.
In Thornberry’s view, the Pentagon is selling a half-baked argument.
“I’m not interested in sales brochures,” he said as the committee had sought but didn’t receive a Pentagon analysis of the force structure in 2012. “I’m interested in objective data that leads them to think there is too much infrastructure.”
The data is fairly clear, even if Thornberry doesn’t believe it is objective. It is derived from a type of study, called a parametric analysis, which the Pentagon had not done since 2004. The new analysis compares base capacity to the expected shape of the military in 2019, when the next BRAC would be held.
It found a big mismatch: 22 percent more base capacity than will be needed for the military that is envisioned for 2019. By that time, the Army is scheduled to be even smaller than today, shrinking from about 475,000 active-duty soldiers to 450,000.
The study calculated the amount of surplus base capacity in the aggregate, not by individual bases. So it does not point to any particular bases as candidates for shuttering or downsizing. The study concluded that reducing the overall surplus by about 5 percent would produce savings of $2 billion a year. The savings would be partially offset by an estimated $7 billion in closure costs, including the expense of environmental cleanup, during the first six years.
Smith, since 2014, has submitted amendments to the annual defense budget that would make a BRAC possible. He’s been trying to counter arguments that the Pentagon over-promises when it describes potential costs savings in base closures.
Rather than waste money on excess infrastructure, we need to locate potential efficiencies and ensure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.
Rep. Adam Smith
A 2012 audit of the last BRAC showed that the Defense Department promised to cut spending by $36 billion over time, but produced only $10 billion in savings from its 2005 reorganization. That study undercut arguments for base closures that had been forming since the Pentagon began reducing its headcount in 2011. It showed that the Defense Department spent far more on construction than it planned.
This time, Smith plans to submit to the defense budget amendments that allow a round of base closures in 2019. He’s including a provision that would give Congress an additional check on the process. His plan would compel the Defense Department to seek approval for any cost over-runs that might unfold during base realignments.
Democratic Rep. Denny Heck, whose Olympia-centered district includes Joint Base Lewis-McChord, is open to considering a round of base closures. He thinks the military facilities in his district would fare well in a BRAC because of their location on the Pacific Rim and the Pentagon’s re-emphasis on collaborations with Asian allies.
“JBLM is recognized for being strategically important for the long term,” he said. “And while I think there is more support for this process from my colleagues, in this Congress it will still be difficult to make much progress.”
Military commanders do not like to get drawn into the debate about base closings, but they recognize that surplus capacity has financial implications.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza, commander of the Army’s I Corps headquartered at JBLM, sees a national review of base capacity as a way to search for savings that could be used to improve “readiness,” or the combat preparedness, of his and other forces.
“I do think it’s viable to examine, base by base, where we have infrastructure ... that perhaps is not being utilized properly,” he said. “If done correctly, and if we do it honestly and openly, then perhaps it’s worthy of a discussion to look at our facilities and see where we could have some cost-saving measures.”
The Pentagon may have to wait at least another year before Congress is willing to open the door to base closings, but it has some limited authority to act on its own. The study sent to Congress hinted at this by stating that BRAC is the fairest approach to resolving the surplus problem.
“The alternative is incremental reductions” as the Pentagon cuts spending at military installations. Those spending cuts, it added, “will have an economic impact on local communities without giving them the ability to plan effectively for the change.”