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Roll Call

Could More Base Closures Be on the Way?

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Senate Armed Services Chairman Levin said, “At a time when the Pentagon and the entire federal government face enormous fiscal challenges, the questionable projects and lack of oversight identified in this review are simply unacceptable.”

When the Pentagon last year asked Congress to initiate a base closure process, powerful lawmakers such as Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told the military it needed to look for cuts in Europe before lawmakers would consider cuts at home.

Now that two brigades have been removed from Europe — eliminated from the force entirely — the military again is arguing that a base realignment and closure process is needed in 2015.

“We’ve been shedding infrastructure in Europe for several years and consolidating that infrastructure and are undertaking a review of our European footprint this year,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the Senate panel on April 17. “But we also need to look at our domestic footprint.”

Congress isn’t likely to make politically painful cuts in fiscal 2014, especially when there are other areas of the military budget that lack powerful constituencies to defend them, and some lawmakers are not convinced that the Department of Defense has done enough overseas.

“I would suggest in the process both of assessing sequestration in the short term and long term and in the BRAC process that a significant component of the department’s assessment should include consideration of the degree to which we can reduce our footprint overseas, reduce our bases overseas, reduce our manpower overseas,” Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said during the Senate hearing.

Few lawmakers want to lose the jobs associated with their bases during a fragile economic recovery or invest in environmental cleanup at those bases at a time when the military is slashing training and other operations and likely furloughing civilians as a result of congressionally mandated across-the-board cuts.

In recent hearings, lawmakers questioned why defense officials were suggesting a BRAC process when they haven’t done analysis to indicate its necessity. Of course, those lawmakers neglected to note that Congress, in the fiscal 2013 defense authorization law (PL 112-239), restricted the military’s ability to do such an analysis, a senior congressional aide noted.

Nonetheless, Hagel asserted the need is fairly obvious.

“When you look at the infrastructure required as we are bringing down our troops, reducing 100,000, we’re unwinding from two wars,” Hagel said. “We’re reducing responsibilities, commitments around the world. ... That’s also gonna require less inventory and infrastructure.”

Near the height of the military’s post-9/11 buildup, in 2005, the military concluded it had about 24 percent more infrastructure than it needed. With the force now shrinking, that figure is only growing.

Pentagon Comptroller Robert F. Hale said a new BRAC process could cost about $2.4 billion over three years, a figure that prompted additional pushback on Capitol Hill.

“Now is not the time to spend billions of dollars on another BRAC round, especially as the Department of Defense grounds combat aircraft and cancels ship deployments due to sequestration,” said New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support.

Hale insisted that while the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission emphasized realignment, which required in some cases building new facilities, a new BRAC “will be much more focused on closing. And therefore the costs will be lower and the savings quicker.”

Hale said all previous BRAC rounds collectively save the Pentagon about $12 billion annually.

Avoiding Political Pain

But Congress isn’t going to take politically perilous steps, such as base closures or personnel pay and benefits reductions, until the military gets serious about all aspects of its budget, especially those cuts that come without political costs, according to senior congressional aides and experts.

Retired Gen. Arnold Punaro argues that as long as the military is speaking with a “forked tongue,” it will get nowhere with the BRAC.

He said, for example, that the military decried across-the-board cuts in fiscal 2013 and threatened furloughs for more than 180,000 civilians.

Now, the military says it is working to find ways to save to avoid large numbers of furloughs.

“One day the force is going to hell in a hand basket and then the next they can go to Syria,” he said. “You can’t one day say one thing and then another day say another thing.”

Punaro said Congress won’t support a BRAC until the military takes steps to reduce its bloated flag officer billets and other wasteful spending. He noted that the Joint Chiefs of Staff has added 1,000 workers to its office in the past two years.

“And yet they are saying everyone needs to tighten their belts?” Punaro said.

The Senate Armed Services panel issued a report in April that found that overseas construction projects lack congressional or Pentagon oversight and that allied contributions to overseas bases fail to keep up with rising U.S. costs.

“At a time when the Pentagon and the entire federal government face enormous fiscal challenges, the questionable projects and lack of oversight identified in this review are simply unacceptable,” Levin said. “Every dollar spent on unnecessary or unsustainable projects is a dollar unavailable to care for our troops and their families, to maintain and modernize equipment, and to pay for necessary investments in base infrastructure.”

But a congressionally mandated independent study by the Rand Corp. released last month found that further significant reductions to overseas basing likely would require a reassessment of U.S. strategic judgments.

Punaro argued that both Congress and the Pentagon make valid arguments for cuts and that both are culpable in the current economic pressure the military faces.

“In the end, everything has to be on the table,” Punaro said regarding a BRAC. “If I’m Congress, why should I bite bullets that the Pentagon itself doesn’t want to bite?”

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