DoD is backing McCain’s BRAC amendment, Thornberry open to BRAC

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas).

The Defense Department is trying to convince Congress that closing excess capacity bases isn’t just a budget issue and it’s willing to make some concessions to do it.

DoD is throwing its support behind an amendment introduced by  Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-R.I.), said Lucian Niemeyer, assistant secretary of defense for Energy, Installations and Environment said Sept. 5 at a Heritage Foundation event in Washington.

The amendment gives Congress more power over the BRAC process than the traditional BRAC process, which DoD asked for in June.

The amendment also requires the total upfront costs of  Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) to be under $5 billion. Each closure DoD recommends would have to pay for itself within 10 years, and the overall list of closures would have to achieve a net savings within seven years.

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Niemeyer said he wanted cost oversight in BRAC when he worked in Congress as a staffer.

“My charge was that if we are even going to look at another authorization we had to update the law, not change if fundamentally, but update it in order to put more cost controls, greater transparency and a little bit more accountability in the process,” Niemeyer said.

Now that he is on the other side, Niemeyer said he’s working within the department to see to what degree the McCain-Reed amendment controls can be carried out.

At this point, three of the “big four” lawmakers heading the Armed Services Committees have already signed on to some form of BRAC for 2021.

Now DoD has to convince House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and other members of Congress to approve the 2021 BRAC in this congressional session, but Center for Strategic and International Studies senior fellow Andrew Hunter said that may not be a deal breaker.

“It is not my sense that Chairman Thornberry is that opposed to BRAC that he would literally walk away from the [defense authorization bill],” Hunter said. “I wouldn’t see this being a bill killer.”

Thornberry said Wednesday that he is open to another BRAC round, but he wants it done right.

“I’ll definitely look at it,” Thornberry said during the Defense News Conference Sept. 6 in Arlington, Virginia. “I’ve got some basic questions. How much is it going to cost? If you’re going to have another BRAC what size is your Army? What size is your Navy? How much wiggle room do you want to leave for contingencies that may happen?”

Thornberry pointed to the 2005 BRAC as a failure, one full of cost overruns that DoD is just starting to make up.

But DoD says this round of BRAC will be more like the BRAC of the 1990s, which was considered a successful money saver.

Meanwhile, DoD is trying to frame the BRAC debate around not just budget and efficiency, but also readiness.

“You go back to Sec. Mattis’ three priorities when he took over as secretary of defense. He wants to address readiness concerns immediately, he wants to increase military capabilities and he wants to enhance lethality,” Niemeyer said. “From my perspective, working for him, the BRAC process offers us the opportunity to address readiness by providing our forces the best possible ranges and installations for them to be stationed at.”

Niemeyer said it will give DoD an opportunity to consider exactly where to add new capabilities and force structure.

“Most of all it allows us to quickly and effectively enhance the lethality of our forces by coming up with ideal stationing opportunities for combined arms,” Niemeyer said. “For us it’s not just a matter of finding efficiencies, it’s a matter of improving the military value and the effectiveness and lethality of our military forces.”

At this point the military does not even have the authority from Congress to study the effects of another round of BRAC. However, the department estimates there is about 22 percent excess installation capacity and thinks it can save $2 billion a year by closing some bases.

Niemeyer said it’s hard for DoD to do an analysis without creating hysteria about what bases might close.

“Until with get an authorization there will be no analysis … the notion that there is a list of base closures running around the Department of Defense is absolutely false,” Niemeyer said.

Niemeyer said it is trying to update some of its numbers on BRAC based on 2012 data and is in the process of getting that to Congress.

Niemeyer said DoD needs to look at where it can station its forces so they can perform more effectively, closer to their homes and families. Spreading them out at unneeded bases may not be the best use of their placement.

“I think you’re starting to see a growing swell of support for what BRAC can do for an opportunity for those bases that feel that they have a significant contribution to national security,” Niemeyer said.

House Armed Services Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) also introduced a provision supporting BRAC.