Local boosterism is the second worst way to prioritize defense spending.
American military bases are not job-creation programs. While they strengthen the economies of local communities, that benefit comes in a distant second to their real purpose: defending the United States and its allies.
Anything that might deflect funding from the military’s core mission needs hard scrutiny. That goes for Joint Base Lewis-McChord as much as for installations far from the South Sound. If money spent training, equipping or maintaining JBLM troops also supports jobs and businesses in Pierce County, great. But the overriding imperative must always be national security.
Unfortunately, national security has little to do with the sharp cutbacks now being contemplated for JBLM. Those potential cuts are driven by the worst way to prioritize funding: robot arithmetic.
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The robot is the legislative travesty known as sequestration. Sequestration is the spawn of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which dictated years of automatic, across-the-board cuts in defense and other spending if Congress couldn’t come up with an intelligent plan to curtail excessive spending.
The intelligent plan never materialized, so the autopilot took over. Unless the humans in Congress come up with a real plan, the autopilot will carve hundreds of billions of dollars out of the Defense Department through 2021.
The Army may have to cut its troops from 510,000 to 420,000 by 2020. Depending on how the pain is allocated, Pierce and Thurston counties could be hurt severely.
The Pentagon has already shrunk JBLM by 5,000 soldiers and civilians; another 11,000 could be lost. Under the worst case, nearly $1 billion a year could be siphoned out of the South Sound economy, triggering a local recession.
Even this might be justified if JBLM were obsolete military real estate. It’s anything but. As U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, has pointed out, it is the largest base in the West that integrates massive Army, Air Force and Navy forces (the latter in Bremerton). Its C-17s can carry personnel and equipment anywhere in the world.
JBLM is ideally located to project military strength throughout the Pacific and Indian Ocean – the focal point of American strategy in the 21st century.
Sequestration exists because Congress’ Republicans and Democrats have been incapable of reaching common ground on major national issues. Its members have also routinely ducked hard decisions on priorities inside the defense budget.
For example, considerable money might be saved in a rational way with another round of base closings. In recent years, base closures have been handled by an expert commission whose decisions have been shielded to a degree from pork barrel politics. The idea isn’t popular, in part because many members fear the ax might fall on genuinely obsolete bases in their districts.
In the past, the Pentagon has tended to increase forces at JBLM while reconfiguring bases across the nation.
The South Sound need not fear a process that is truly driven by national security considerations. But military decimations driven by political cowardice and the dead hand of sequestration ought to leave the entire nation worried.