Panel: New Round of Base Closures Possible with Law Change
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent
WASHINGTON — A panel of men with extensive experience in previous base realignment and closure (BRAC) rounds believe it is possible that Congress this year finally will authorize a new round to let the Defense Department dispose of the nearly one-fourth of its facilities that it considers excess.
But the panelists participating in “A Discussion on BRAC: Responsibly Adjusting DoD’s Infrastructure to Meet Current and Future Needs” Sept. 5 at the Heritage Foundation said the law covering BRAC would have to be changed to address lawmakers’ concerns about the impact of the up-front costs at a time of intense budget pressure and about the quality of the analysis on what really is unneeded infrastructure.
The push from defense leaders for a BRAC is fueled by a recent Pentagon report that found 22 percent of its base infrastructure was excess. All of that apparently is in Army and Air Force installations, as the Navy Department reported no excess Navy or Marine Corps facilities after five previous BRAC rounds.
“We believe the department is a good place to request a new round of base realignment and closure and to carry it out,” said Lucian Niemeyer, the assistant defense secretary for Energy, Installations and Environment. “We’re looking for the ability for cost saving and to make the military more effective.”
Niemeyer, who worked on BRAC as an Air Force officer and a congressional committee staffer and would oversee the process in the Pentagon, suggested that congressional resistance to BRAC would fade “if members talk to their communities” that are becoming worried about the economic effect of under-utilized bases after a decade of force structure reductions.
“I think there is growing recognition that BRAC has more opportunity for gain than loss among communities that see underused facilities,” Niemeyer told a Heritage Foundation session.
Despite the Pentagon’s report of 22 percent excess infrastructure, Niemeyer said it cannot make a detailed analysis of which bases are underused until it gets an authorization. And, he said, “the idea that there is a list of base closures running around the Department of Defense is absolutely false.”
Andrew Hunter, who worked on previous BRACs as a congressional aide and now is director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, acknowledged that “BRAC is hard. It is never popular” in Congress. But, he added, “there is real hope this year that they might be able to get there.”
Anthony Principi, who also worked BRAC issues as a Senate aide and chaired the last BRAC commission in 2005, saw pressure growing for a BRAC because “of the force structure changes that have taken place, reductions in end strength in the Army, in combat air wings, changes in technology and how that affects” the need for bases.
“There is a BRAC ongoing, a sort of a stealth BRAC,” Principi said. He noted that while the military is limited by law in actually closing bases, it “has been forced by budgetary restraints to move people. That has resulted in a lot of nearly vacant bases, empty buildings that you still have to heat. That is money that could be better spent in enhancing our defense establishment.”
Niemeyer said that while no member of Congress likes to lose a base and the jobs it brings, the value of a BRAC process to communities around a base “is immeasurable,” because the law “allows communities to quickly redevelop that property” and to receive funding to assist in transition.
For BRAC to be authorized, Hunter said, “there has to be a champion, someone in Congress who is highly respected ... who is willing to push it forward.” This year that role is being filled by Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain and ranking Democrat Jack Reed.
He also noted the strong advocacy for BRAC from House Armed Services top Democrat Adam Smith, although House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry has been cool to the idea.
Niemeyer and Hunter urged changes in the BRAC law to impose limits on the early cost of closing or realigning bases, to alleviate the concerns by defense hawks over already constrained defense spending. Niemeyer said the Pentagon is working on that. The two also suggested an outside auditor, perhaps the Governmental Accountability Office, to evaluate the military’s analysis of excess and the cost-versus-savings balance on closure.