In order to stay under the budget caps Congress approved late last year, the Pentagon’s budget staff had to make some unpleasant decisions about spending for military bases, officials said Wednesday. Military construction and money for base upkeep both took significant hits.
Defense officials say the building of the 2015 budget request was all about setting priorities, and they freely acknowledge that military facilities got the short end of the stick.
The proposal DoD submitted to Congress last week includes a 33 percent reduction in military construction spending, compared to what lawmakers approved for 2014. Funding for basic upkeep of the buildings the military already owns and operates took a similar dive.
“There’s no mistaking the fact that we’re accepting risk in our facilities,” John Conger, the acting assistant secretary of Defense for installations and environment, told the House Appropriations Committee.
But, he said, DoD decided it needed to preserve as much funding as it could for other priorities, such as military training.
“It is cheaper to sustain a building than it is to repair it, and it’s cheaper to repair it than it is to replace it. We have a facility model that tries to say how much money is required to try to sustain our buildings, and we had to make decisions about what we’re going to do as far as preventative maintenance,” he said. “That’s our highest risk, because it’s going to lead to repair requirements, and at some point it’s going to mean requirements for new facilities.”
The military services say much of the work they need to do to keep their facilities in good repair simply won’t get done.
Worst comes first
Under the funding levels Congress passed for 2014, the Army said it would be able to pay for about 80 percent of its facility sustainment needs. That would drop to about 60 percent under the 2015 budget.
“The focus is going to be on things that impact life, health and safety,” said Katherine Hammack, the assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment. “In our military construction accounts, we’re focused on fixing things that are already failing, moving out of temporary structures that we’ve been in for too long and that are also failing. We’re focused right now on what are the most failing infrastructure requirements.”
The congressional appropriators who will set DoD’s final funding levels for 2015 are not happy about the facilities impacts of the department’s proposed budget, particularly the members who are most involved in controlling the purse strings of the military construction accounts.
“If we were to adopt this level of funding, you’d be in a position of just patching the potholes and fixing the roof,” said Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs. “Not likely. I’ll bet we’ll be able to help you beyond that.”
But DoD installations officials who testified Wednesday argued that if appropriators do decide to “help” the department with its facilities shortfalls, the money would have to come from other priorities in DoD’s budget, which is capped in current law at $496 billion under the Ryan-Murray budget agreement.
They said Congress also could do a lot to help DoD make better use of its facilities spending by letting it dispose of the approximately one-fifth of the base infrastructure it no longer needs nor wants. The Pentagon wants legislators to authorize a new round of base realignments and closures (BRAC) in 2017.
But just like in the past few years, the reception on Capitol Hill has been frosty so far.
“We have too much infrastructure,” Conger said. “And moreover, the resources that are going to infrastructure we don’t need could be going to warfighters that do need the money. The training reductions that have occurred over the past couple years are critical. They are far more critical than funding excess infrastructure.”
Another plea for BRAC
Most of the military services do not have an exact estimate for how much extra base infrastructure they’re currently paying for, but DoD’s last detailed examination in 2004 found that the services had 20 percent more than they needed. And the BRAC round that followed in 2005 was more about moving facilities to new locations than closing them down.
“BRAC 2005 directed the Air Force to close only eight minor installations,” said Kathleen Ferguson, the acting assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and logistics. “Since then, we’ve reduced our force structure by more than 500 aircraft and reduced our active duty end strength by nearly 8 percent. Additionally, the Air Force has outlined plans in our 2015 submission to reduce our size even further. Even though we have not done an updated capacity analysis, we intuitively know we have a lot of excess capacity.”
The Army, on the other hand, has begun a study of its basing needs, in conjunction with its existing plans to draw down to 490,000 soldiers.
Hammack said the initial results show the Army has at least 18 percent more base structure than it needs. If the Army shrinks even further, as the 2015 budget calls for, the gap between the bases it has and the bases it needs will continue to grow.
“The bottom line is, we have reduced funding from Congress, and we simply do not have the money to operate buildings that are empty,” she said. “If we mothball them and shut off the utilities, then the building degrades. Then it becomes of no use to the Army, it becomes of no use to the private sector, it’s no longer a value to anyone. BRAC puts a base in productive use in the community versus having it sit idle and empty. Right now, we can’t reduce anything. We can’t reduce our manning without notification to Congress. We can’t reduce our manning, we can’t reduce our square footage, we can’t reduce our boundaries, so we’re kind of tied up in knots.”
The most common objection raised by members of Congress who oppose another BRAC round is the DoD’s unimpressive track record on cost savings under the last round of base shakeups, conducted in 2005.
The Government Accountability Office found in a 2013 study that DoD had lowballed the price tag of implementing that BRAC round, and costs escalated by 86 percent by the time the entire project was completed.
Line-by-line review of 2005 BRAC
The Pentagon has said repeatedly that the 2005 BRAC initiative, which took place during a period of growing Defense budgets, was not about saving money. Instead, it was mainly focused on “transformational” changes to the Defense Department’s real estate footprint.
But Conger said he directed his staff to undertake a line-by-line review of the 2005 BRAC process as part of one more salvo in DoD’s argument for another BRAC.
The conclusions, he said, were that the 2005 round involved two “parallel BRACs.”
“The first one was about transformation. The recommendations were expensive, and they didn’t have payback,” he said. “The ‘transformation BRAC’ cost $29 billion and only resulted in $1 billion in annual savings. But the other half of the 2005 BRAC was focused on saving money. Those recommendations paid back in less than seven years, and they yielded recurring savings of more than $3 billion a year. When we’re trying to use BRAC to save money, we do it. That’s the kind of round we’re seeking to conduct now.”