The Senate Armed Services Committee appeared poised Thursday to mirror its House counterpart in rejecting the Defense Department’s repeated requests for another round of military base closures. But DoD maintains it needs to shed excess infrastructure one way or another, and keeping bases it doesn’t want is costing taxpayers billions of dollars each year.
The last time DoD analyzed its bases in 2004, it estimated it had 24 percent more infrastructure than it needed. Keeping those bases open was one matter during a period when money flowed relatively freely to the Pentagon, but DoD has argued that era is over. Under sequestration, the Pentagon is eliminating training for military members, deferring critical maintenance on weapons systems and facilities, cutting back contracts and furloughing most of its civilian employees.
The department says under those circumstances, paying to heat, cool and maintain mostly-vacant buildings isn’t the wisest move.
Lawmakers have been unmoved by the argument. In its version of the 2014 Defense authorization bill, the House Armed Services Committee voted to prohibit DoD from even studying another round of real estate divestitures through the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process.
The Senate is marking up its version of the bill in a closed session this week, but the subcommittee with jurisdiction over the issue passed similar language.
“I continue to believe, like many others, that we can’t afford the up-front cost of another BRAC, especially given the dramatically increased cost to implement the 2005 round of BRAC,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), the chairwoman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support.
Shrinking forces beget fewer installations
DoD officials almost universally have encountered a hostile reception to BRAC during the annual round of posture hearings on Capitol Hill, but they say ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. Defense Undersecretary Robert Hale, DoD’s comptroller, said the department needs to shed infrastructure, and times have changed a lot since the 2005 BRAC round. Most importantly, he said, the military is shrinking this time around, not growing, as it was when preparations for the 2005 round began in 2002.
“Congress constantly cites the high cost of the 2005 round, and I’ll give you that. It cost too much,” he said Thursday at the annual conference of the Association of Defense Communities, a group which represents state and local officials whose jurisdictions include military bases. “But that wasn’t what we normally do with BRAC rounds. We spent $35 billion on that little puppy, because we didn’t just close bases, we built a lot of new facilities. That’s not what we want to do with BRAC 2015.”
In lieu of closing stateside bases, lawmakers are fixated on what they believe to be excess infrastructure in geographic areas where there’s no chance of a voter backlash: in Europe, South Korea and other overseas sites. They’re currently considering a resolution that would tell DoD to further analyze its bases in foreign countries and proclaim that closing U.S. bases is “neither affordable nor feasible.”
DoD doesn’t need the explicit permission of Congress to restructure its basing infrastructure overseas. The department says it’s been using that free hand for the past several decades to do exactly what Congress now is demanding.
“Between 2007 and 2017, we are reducing our facility footprint in Europe by 51 percent and our operating budget by 57 percent so we have a facility infrastructure that’s aligned with our force structure,” said Katherine Hammack, the Army’s assistant secretary for installations, energy and environment. “We know how to do this. We know how to coordinate it. Our challenge [with stateside bases] is that we can’t manage our infrastructure the way you would in a business. Our board of directors hasn’t given us that authority.”
Overseas bases already smaller
The Office of the Secretary of Defense is leading a new study to determine if the military can cut its European bases further, but Hammack said the Army is taking similar measures in Korea, reducing its base infrastructure by 40 percent.
The Air Force tells a similar story, saying it’s cut its bases in Europe by 75 percent since 1992.
Kathleen Ferguson, the acting assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and logistics, said the service has not been able to divest much real estate at all back home since 2004, when it estimated 24 percent of its infrastructure was unneeded.
“If you look at BRAC 2005, it closed eight little locations. That was 0.8 percent of our [plant replacement value],” she said. “Since then, we’ve reduced our force structure by 500 aircraft and about 8 percent of our active duty end strength. We know we have excess capacity out there. We’re spending dollars to maintain unnecessary installations. Is this something the department likes to do? No, we never like to do a round of BRAC. But this is something we think is necessary for our nation as we go forward.”
Recognizing that BRAC authority is a longshot in the near-term, DoD officials say they are taking other near-term steps to try to manage their excess real estate in a less-costly way.
For example, Hammack said the Army is exploring new authority Congress granted it last year to develop intergovernmental agreements with state and local officials to provide services on military bases and make use of excess facilities on those bases.
“For instance, perhaps we need snow removal on our base and the city needs a place to put their snowplows during the summer when they’re not removing snow. In exchange for you not having to build a new building to house those vehicles, you could use our unused motorpool facilities in exchange for providing snow removal,” she said. “I think there are opportunities to put our excess infrastructure to use in some ways that could save money for the base and save money for the communities around them as well.”
Medical facilities getting a hard look
Also outside the BRAC process, Hale said DoD now is seriously examining the way its medical facilities are organized.
“We have remarkable degrees of under-utilization in some of our hospitals and clinics,” he said. “They haven’t been restructured in many years, medicine has been moving much more toward outpatient care and TRICARE is now so successful that many of the people who would have otherwise used the military treatment facilities are now using TRICARE. We have an ongoing study on this, but some of this will be painful, because we’re going to be talking about consolidating or even closing some military treatment facilities.”
But like bases in general, DoD would need Congress’ go-ahead to consolidate its hospitals, and officials say the bottom line is that it can’t do much in the way of achieving cost savings with its stateside facilities unless lawmakers relent on their BRAC opposition.
The Army’s Hammack made the case to local officials Thursday that another round of base closures, done smartly, could be a win-win for the cities and towns around military installations.
“If we have excess real estate and you have a business that’s looking for real estate, it only makes sense for us to come together,” she said. “Whether that’s land, buildings or utility systems, we have capabilities we no longer require that could be put to productive reuse. As we downsize, those facilities are not benefiting any of us. It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars to continue to operate a base that’s half full.”