By Phil Coyle
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta surprised many Pentagon observers when he announced on January 26, 2012, that he would pursue possibly two base realignment and closure rounds, one in 2013 and another in 2015, as part of his long-range strategy to further bring down DoD costs. Familiarly known as BRAC, the Pentagon last made a proposal for Base Realignment and Closure in early 2005, led by Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, which the Congress authorized in the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Act of 1990 as amended by the 2005 Defense Authorization Act.
The President’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget released on February 13, 2012, requests “the authority for DoD to commence two additional rounds of BRAC and to establish an independent Commission that will provide an objective, thorough, and non-partisan review and analysis of DoD’s recommendations.”
If the new proposal is approved by Congress, one or two new BRAC rounds would be added to the five BRACs conducted in 1988, 1991, 1993, 1995, and 2005.
Consistent with the Budget Control Act, President Obama’s Fiscal 2013 budget request to Congress aims to rein in the Pentagon budget by making $259 billion in cuts to the Military Departments over the next five years, and $487 billion in cuts over the next 10. While cuts have been proposed to achieve savings in the first five years, cuts to achieve the full $487 billion ten-year target have not. Thus a new BRAC round would be an important part of longer-term savings.
In effect, the BRAC proposal addresses the threat of another $500 to 600 billion in automatic, across-the-board sequestration cuts. Panetta’s announcement should focus Congress on avoiding sequestration. Panetta is warning Members of Congress that BRAC is the lesser of two evils compared to sequestration.
Without full cooperation from Congress, there is very little time available for a new BRAC round as soon as 2013. The DoD must implement a call for data for all its installations, and then analyze that data to decide which to close or realign, and then decide on the criteria it wishes to put forward to retain or realign bases, and must submit detailed base-by-base, and State-by-State proposals to Congress and to the next BRAC Commission. While the DoD has the authority for a new BRAC under existing law, generally Congress takes affirmative action to revise existing law before authorizing a new BRAC. All this takes time, and is not likely to happen in an election year.
In fact, the actions resulting from the 2005 BRAC have only recently been completed. It can take the better part of a decade to implement a BRAC round. New construction must be completed to house functions that are being consolidated, and environmental cleanup and community re-development projects can take even longer.
But while the implementation of a BRAC round can take years, once the Pentagon has made its recommendations for realignment and closure to a BRAC Commission, the decisions on what will close, and what will not, can happen surprisingly fast. The 2005 BRAC Commission received its recommendations from the DoD on May 13, 2005, and submitted its recommendations to President George W. Bush on September 8, 2005, a little less than four months. President Bush wasted no time in forwarding the Commission’s recommendations to the Congress on September 15, 2005.
How much a future BRAC round might save is debatable. In many instances the costs to implement the 2005 BRAC ran far above those estimated, and the savings also were less. So net-net, some communities affected adversely by the 2005 BRAC argued that their bases should never have been closed. Complicating all this, it has been nearly impossible for affected communities to obtain reliable cost and savings data. For example, the cost to close Fort Monmouth in New Jersey, originally estimated by the US Army to be $789 million, rose to nearly two billion, specifically, $1,856,761,000, or more than a billion dollars more than first estimated. Overall, the cost for the 2005 BRAC rose from about $22 billion to nearly $35 billion, or more than a half.
Nevertheless the Government Accountability Office reported in 2001 that the DoD had realized $15.5 billion in net cumulative savings through 2001 from the first four BRAC rounds, and would realize another $6.1B per year thereafter. (“Military Base Closures, DoD’s Updated Net Savings Estimate Remains Substantial,” GAO -01-971, July 31, 2001.)
When asked if the Pentagon’s new Fiscal 2013 budget priorities document had assumed any savings from the proposed new BRAC rounds, Secretary Panetta responded that the Pentagon did not want to tie any savings to the proposed new BRAC rounds because the Congress would still need to authorize those rounds. “…if we had put numbers in there and then Congress didn’t do it, it would have undermined our whole budget,” he explained.
Another question for the Administration and Congress, is the timing of studies of the number of US bases needed overseas. The domestic 2005 BRAC Commission was paired with the Overseas Basing Commission. But the results from that latter Commission came too late for the 2005 BRAC Commission. If the 2005 BRAC Commission had known before it began its work what the Overseas Basing Commission would conclude, arguably the 2005 BRAC Commission might have recommended closing even more domestic US bases. Accordingly the Administration and the Congress might well call for a thorough study of US bases overseas before beginning BRAC rounds in 2013 and 2015. But deliberations on overseas bases could take many months, delaying the proposed new BRAC rounds.
In announcing the proposed new BRAC rounds, Secretary Panetta acknowledged the close tie between overseas bases and domestic US bases, noting “As a result of all this, we will also need to look at facilities infrastructure, balancing the overseas forward presence requirements with basing requirements back home.”
Can another BRAC be avoided?
The cuts proposed by the Pentagon in the President’s Budget for FY-2013, suggest that another BRAC may be unavoidable. Over the next five years, the Army is proposing to cut its active forces by about 72,000 from the current level of 562,000 to 490,000, and the Marine Corps by about 20,000 from 202,000 to 182,000. The Army is planning to eliminate two heavy armor brigades in Europe in 2013 and 2014, and cut at least eight brigade combat teams overall. The Air Force is proposing to eliminate seven tactical air squadrons and to retire 200 aircraft in FY-2013 and nearly 300 aircraft over the next five years, including 123 fighter aircraft and 133 mobility aircraft. The Air Force notes that these reductions will have direct impact in 33 States and affect additional units in all 54 States and Territories. The US Navy will retire seven older cruisers and two amphibious ships and delay the purchase of a dozen or more other ships.
As Pentagon officials added up all these changes, they must have realized that for all practical purposes another BRAC is inevitable.
Long Memories in Congress
Many Members of Congress still have a sour taste in their mouths from the last BRAC in 2005. Seeing bases closed or consolidated is never easy for affected communities, and Members of Congress can be under considerable pressure from their constituents to do something to stop it. However, the basic construct for BRAC is designed to make it more difficult for individual Members of Congress to prevent needed efficiency and consolidation.
The bases and communities that gain can see fabulous new construction projects completed, giving new life and new missions to the winning bases. The Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland was a big winner in 2005, as was the Air Force Research Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio.
But communities that lose functions or see them closed can see jobs lost, supporting businesses shuttered, people move out of the area, and serious impact on the local economy.
Thus a question relative to the newly proposed BRAC will remain unanswered until we see what happens next. Do too many Members of Congress still have long memories about the difficulties that the 2005 BRAC caused for them and for their constituents? Will these Members try to block another BRAC so soon?
The 2005 BRAC itself was contentious enough that the Commission Chairman, and the other eight Commission members, were never confirmed by the US Senate, causing President George W. Bush to give them recess appointments, always contentious for the Senate.
Still, there may be no better solution. As Secretary Panetta explained in his January 26 press conference, “The best approach to reducing that infrastructure politically on Capitol Hill has been to work through the BRAC process and to develop an approach whereby, you know, we would submit recommendations , the commission would look at those recommendations and then make a complete presentation to the Congress, and it would be voted up or down with one vote.”
“I’ve been through BRAC,” Panetta said. “I know its weaknesses and its failings. Obviously we will continue to work to make sure it’s done effectively and that we achieve the savings we hope to achieve from the process.“
“But I have to tell you,” the Secretary concluded, “ there is no more effective process to make it happen than using the BRAC process.”
Will the Congress agree that they want further base consolidation, either overseas or in the US? And will they agree to this in an election year?
Recognizing the political realities, the 2005 Base Commission recommended that if there were to be a future BRAC, that it not be until 2015, and then every eight years thereafter.
Stay tuned; it’s going to be an interesting year.
Phil Coyle is the Senior Science Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Previously, he was Associate Director for National Security and International Affairs at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Barack Obama.