DoD pegs excess base capacity at 22 percent

In a new report to Congress, the Defense Department says its “conservative” estimates show that it is paying to maintain 22 percent more military base infrastructure than it can put to practical use.

The top-line figure was calculated from 32 different measures of what the military deems as “infrastructure.” They include, for instance, how many aircraft the military owns compared to how many hangars it maintains and the number of Army battalions compared with the total acreage of that service’s training ranges. And between the military services, the excess capacity estimates vary widely.

The Army has 33 percent more stateside infrastructure than it needs, according to the report. Similarly, the Air Force has an excess of 32 percent. But the Navy and Marine Corps have just 7 percent extra, and facilities managed by the Defense Logistics Agency have 12 percent.

“As Department of Defense leadership has repeatedly testified, spending resources on excess infrastructure does not make sense,” Deputy Defense secretary Robert Work wrote in a memo accompanying the report. “We urge Congress to provide the department with authorization for another round of base realignment and closure (BRAC).”

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Although the Pentagon has asked unsuccessfully for another BRAC round in its last five consecutive budgets, citing the need to rid itself of excess real estate each time, department officials said the newly-delivered report to Congress was the first high-level “parametric” analysis of its actual real estate needs since 2004.

The document is only a partial response to a mandate Congress passed in the annual Defense authorization bill last December, which ordered the department to deliver a detailed analysis comparing its real estate assets against a military that would be large enough to deal with “probable threats” to national security. The new analysis does not attempt to project future threats and whether the military might need to grow in response.

In releasing an interim version of its capacity study now. which assumes the military will remain at about the same size it is now for the next three years, the department had hoped to influence deliberations on this year’s National Defense Authorization Act and gain permission for another BRAC. The House Armed Services Committees will begin marking up this year’s bill this week and the Senate will follow suit next month.

But DoD’s figures proved unpersuasive to either side of the BRAC debate.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, discounted the conclusions because they assumed the military will remain at its current size in 2019, the year the proposed BRAC process would actually begin.

“In envisioning a military far smaller than anyone thinks is wise, the report fails to comply with the law as badly as it fails to justify a BRAC round,” Thornberry said in a written statement.” No one believes that the current military force structure is adequate to meet the threats we face. Assessing our capacity based on an inadequate force structure makes no sense. It would lock in a future where our stressed military becomes permanently gutted.”

The language of DoD’s report anticipated such arguments, since department officials have been hearing variations on the same theme for several years.

The authors point out that the current estimate of 22 percent excess capacity is likely a very conservative one, because it uses the same assumptions as in previous BRAC rounds, which used 1989 as the baseline for how many facilities DoD needs compared to the military missions it’s expected to perform. For consistency’s sake, DoD assumed the military’s infrastructure was entirely right-sized in proportion to its forces in 1989, even though it would end up closing dozens of bases throughout the 1990s without a proportional cutback in end strength.

They also argued that even if Congress approved another BRAC round, the independent commission that would recommend the closure of individual bases would only wind up shaving a few percentage points from the department’s excess infrastructure, at least if the previous five rounds are any guide.

“Historically, BRAC has reduced plant replacement value by an average of 5 percent. This is because BRAC is not designed to eliminate all excess,” the report said. “The focus of every BRAC round is to reduce excess where needed in balance with the need to have room for changed missions, tactics, and technology while enhancing military value and achieving recurring savings. Individual closure decisions weigh the unique characteristics and military value of infrastructure compared to the specific requirements of forces and functions.”

Even prior to the issuance of the report, military installation officials have attempted to argue that the costs of maintaining excess facilities were crowding out the very personnel and readiness concerns members of Congress say they are most concerned about.

The Army, for instance, estimates it is spending about $500 million per year to maintain facilities that it no longer needs. Katherine Hammack, the assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment, told a Senate hearing last week that the 2005 round — the most expensive one so far — has already resulted in savings of about $1 billion per year.

“BRAC is a proven, cost-effective means to reduce excess infrastructure. And without a BRAC, the Army continues to spend scarce resources to maintain unneeded or underutilized facilities and infrastructure, thus hurting our highest military value bases,” Hammack said.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who chairs the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on readiness, said she would disallow another round of BRAC in the portion of the Defense bill her panel will mark up a few weeks from now, partially because closing bases would require some up-front expenses.

“We do not have the room in our budget in the next few years to afford many of the fundamental readiness investments that are right before us,” she said. “Also, our military is currently sized based on artificial budget caps instead of being sized to protect our national security interests … there’s a significant and dangerous gap between the military we have and the military we need. Many of us are hopeful that regardless of the outcome of this coming election, we’ll have a Defense budget that’s proportional to the growing threats we face. We might need many of the bases that DoD may currently want to close.”

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee and one of only a few members of Congress who has consistently agreed with DoD’s advocacy for another BRAC round, said the new report bolstered the argument for closing bases, but concurred with Thornberry that DoD has not yet met its mandate to compare its basing needs against future military threats.

“Disposing of excess infrastructure through a transparent, independent and deliberative process frees up funds to strengthen our military in many other ways,” Smith said. “This study contributes substantially to our understanding of the value that another BRAC process would afford.”