An updated analysis the Defense Department has just sent to Congress estimates its military bases have collectively 19 percent more capacity than they need, even assuming the military was larger than it is today.
The report is an update to a similar document the Pentagon provided to Capitol Hill in April 2016 as part of its ongoing campaign to persuade lawmakers that another round of base realignments and closures is necessary. In that report, DoD pegged its total excess infrastructure figure at about 22 percent.
The difference is accounted for by a directive from Congress that told the military to compare its facility needs against the force structure that existed as of 2012, prior to the military drawdown of the last several years and when the armed services had about 100,000 more active-duty troops than are serving today.
But department officials argued strenuously that in either case, the military is paying far more than it should be to maintain and operate facilities it does not need, and that in many instances, its facility footprint is a poor fit for the wars it actually fights.
“An updated defense strategy must be supported by an updated basing strategy,” Defense Secretary James Mattis wrote in a letter accompanying the report. “Since the last BRAC round, we have developed new methods of warfare, new technologies, and expanded needs for warfighter training that require us to assess the military value and effectiveness of our domestic military infrastructure. In addition, every unnecessary facility we maintain requires us to cut capabilities elsewhere. I must be able to eliminate excess infrastructure in order to shift resources to readiness and modernization.”
The report does not cite any individual bases or facilities that should be closed. Defense officials said that level of analysis is only appropriate to conduct after a BRAC round has actually been authorized, and besides that, would only serve to cause unnecessary angst for local communities, the fates of whose bases would only be decided after an independent BRAC commission evaluates DoD’s closure recommendations and Congress votes yes or no on a final closure list.
But the 19 percent tally is an aggregation of the military departments’ own calculations of the facility space they own and operate compared to their 2012 force structure, using 32 different metrics of what counts as “infrastructure.” For one of the metrics, for instance, the Army compared its total acreage available to train and house maneuver battalions with the size and number of those battalions in its formations.
Formulations like that led the services to conclude that the Army has the most excess infrastructure of any of the military services based on the military as it was in 2012: 29 percent. The Air Force is a close second, at 28 percent. The Navy and Marine Corps are in far better shape, with just 6 percent excess capacity, but the Defense Logistics Agency stands at 13 percent — actually a percentage point higher than last year’s estimate.
And the figures DoD provided to Congress in the new report are likely conservative estimates.
That’s because, for the sake of consistency and like all of its other prior infrastructure estimates, the department used the facility-to-force structure ratios the military services had in 1989 as a baseline, assuming for the sake of argument that its infrastructure footprint and its force levels were perfectly aligned with one another in that year.
Put another way, the figure DoD is now reporting to Congress means the military currently has 19 percent more excess capacity than it had at the end of the Cold War, not 19 percent more than it can meaningfully use today.
In his letter, Mattis sought to reassure Congress that he would only move forward with a BRAC process if he was able to certify that doing so would generate savings for each of the military departments, adding that he wants to “incorporate an updated national defense strategy into a more detailed installation-by-installation capacity analysis that can only occur within a congressionally authorized BRAC round.”
The more detailed report goes on to point out that none of the BRAC rounds Congress has authorized in the past have eliminated all of DoD’s excess capacity, because the BRAC process is not designed to do that. The five past BRAC rounds have each shaved the military’s excess facility capacity by about 5 percent.
Officials also appeared to go out of their way to diffuse arguments by members of Congress who have argued that it is unwise to relinquish military bases because they might be needed again if the nation returns to a “full mobilization” wartime footing at some point in the future.
They pointed to an internal study, conducted in 1999, that they said formed the basis of DoD’s views: bases should only be abandoned and completely turned over to civilian use in cases where they could be “reconstituted” into military facilities during wartime emergencies. In cases where that wouldn’t be possible, the department has tended to hold onto the real estate, even as it decommissions the facilities inside the gates.
“BRAC rounds retain ‘difficult to reconstitute’ assets, and experience and the 1999 report have shown that it is actually more cost-effective to rebuild capacity versus continually maintaining unnecessary assets,” the report said. “Absent BRAC, the department’s infrastructure remains in a status quo configuration that prevents more effective and joint use of its assets. Similar to the commercial industry, businesses often close down older and lower performing factories or buildings in favor of relocating to, and modernizing, new or more cost-effective locations.”
DoD has been pleading with Congress for another base closure round for five straight years, a request that has been routinely denied.
There appeared to be some cracks in Capitol Hill’s routine opposition earlier this year, when Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, floated a measure that would have devised a closure process similar to BRAC, but giving Congress more control over closures and omitting the independent commission. But that proposal did not even come up for a vote during that chamber’s deliberations on the annual defense authorization bill.
On the House side, opposition to base closures among defense committee leaders remains steadfast, with the exception of House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who has long been an advocate for another BRAC round.
“This report shows that the case for authorizing a new BRAC process is extremely strong, even if we plan to substantially increase the size of the military,” Smith said Tuesday. “We are wasting taxpayer money to maintain buildings and facilities that the military does not need while we drain away funds for readiness and weaponry that could keep our service members safe and our country secure.”
Each week, Defense Reporter Jared Serbu speaks one-on-one and in depth with the people responsible for managing the inner workings of the federal government's largest department, and those who know it best. Subscribe to the latest episode on PodcastOne or iTunes.