The conventional wisdom that there won’t be another Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round is dangerously short-sighted. First, significant force structure and basing decisions are already occurring even without a formal BRAC round, what I call a “Shadow BRAC.”
Second, there is a much greater chance that President Barack Obama’s request for a BRAC round in 2017 will be passed than most expect.
The US military is engaging in the biggest drawdown since the post-Cold War era of the 1990s. The Army is shrinking from 570,000 soldiers to less than 450,000. The Air Force has cut 500 aircraft since the 2005 BRAC round, and the fiscal 2015 presidential budget proposes reducing that total by another 488 aircraft, creating the smallest force since the inception of the independent Air Force in 1947.
Whether your local base loses its aircraft due to a decision by the Pentagon or a BRAC commission, the base is just as empty.
The Department of Defense has substantial authority to close and realign military installations under 10 U.S.C. § 2687. That federal statute’s restrictions involve closure or realignment of bases only if the action would affect certain thresholds of civilian personnel. That’s why the Army can transfer 3,000 plus soldiers without worrying about the statute.
Further, the Pentagon is using the law more aggressively these days. In 2011, it claimed that it could eliminate the Joint Forces Command (most of whose nearly 6,000 employees lived in the Norfolk, Va., area) because it was not a closure or realignment action. Rather, senior officials called the action a “disestablishment,” and therefore not restricted by the statute.
In any event, the statute has a “national security/military emergency” exception.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel alluded to his executive authority to take actions affecting infrastructure in testimony on the fiscal 2015 budget before the Senate Armed Services Committee. In his prepared statement, he warned that if Congress continues to deny BRAC authority while cutting the defense budget, “we will have to consider every tool at our disposal to reduce infrastructure.”
Defense insiders instantly understood the significance and the scope of that threat.
BRAC authority is useful to DoD, and a spokesman described it as the “preferred method” of reducing infrastructure. It allows the secretary to omit certain procedural requirements, and it ensures that any closure or realignment must receive a congressional vote within a certain time limit.
In today’s era of gridlock, that is no small guarantee.
Even as many House and Senate Armed Services committee members vow to block a BRAC round, other members are quietly indicating possible support for a 2017 BRAC round. Here are some of the reasons Congress might ultimately approve new BRAC authority.
Last year, DoD was not prepared to make a strong case for BRAC. The budget was much larger and the need for major cuts was less serious. Also, Hagel had just been confirmed in late February and had little time to coordinate a major effort.
This year, the budget situation is much worse. Even historically sacred cows such as military compensation and support for base commissaries and child development centers are on the block. It is hard to argue that installations should be immune when major weapons systems are being canceled. DoD estimates another BRAC round would cost $6 billion up front, but will result in annual savings of $2 billion afterward.
To the secretary’s credit, DoD also is much better prepared to make this argument in the spring congressional hearings. DoD has undertaken a broad “capacity analysis” that will provide more current and credible figures for excess capacity in infrastructure. DoD has also cut substantial overseas military force structure and infrastructure, and it is reducing headquarters staff and civilian personnel.
Perhaps the best reason a BRAC might happen is timing. Unstable world affairs may make it easier to support the secretary. Also, budget procedures may allow House members to avoid a BRAC vote on a defense bill emerging from a conference committee (containing BRAC authority added through a Senate floor amendment) until after the fall elections. Finally, either party could be overseeing a 2017 BRAC round, so a vote now (as opposed to a vote for a 2015 BRAC round sought for the last two years) is not as partisan.
As one who has worked on BRAC matters from both sides, I can state that there is no ideal method for cutting military infrastructure. Whether with formal BRAC authority or an expanded “Shadow BRAC,” however, we are about to see major reductions in the number and robustness of domestic military installations. ■
Barry Rhoads is co-chairman of Cassidy & Associates and served as deputy general counsel to the first independent Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission in 1991.