WASHINGTON — The US Congress' reluctance to close and consolidate military bases is standing in the way of the Defense Department's efficiency efforts, a senior Pentagon official said Monday.
Shedding surplus infrastructure could net the Defense Department as much as 25 percent savings in some missions, if only Congress would agree to it, said Jamie Morin, director for the Pentagon's Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation.
"So it's not a popular answer, but base realignment and closure is an important piece of this," said Morin, speaking on a panel of defense officials at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.
Despite Pentagon estimates that it could save billions of dollars, the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process is wildly unpopular on Capitol Hill. Congress has blocked the Pentagon's requests to close bases in recent years — last year through a defense policy bill provision — as lawmakers worry over the socioeconomic impacts of closing posts in their districts.
Indeed Morin suggested the key savings to be reaped by closures is in personnel, more so than the property ownership and maintenance costs.
"When I worked for the Air Force, our walking-around, rough-order estimate was it took 800 to 900 airmen to open a base, before you had any operational folks there," Morin said.
On March 3, Pentagon installations officials made their fifth request for another BRAC round before the House Appropriations Military Construction Subcommittee. Lawmakers expressed skepticism, invoking problems with the 2005 round, which was considered the largest, most complex and costliest since the first in 1988.
Pete Potochney, acting assistant secretary of defense for installations, estimated a base closing round in 2019 would save about $2 billion annually, and promised the process would be "efficiency focused" and designed to cut military costs.
"We are in a budget dilemma. We are making tough choices," Potochney said. "We need BRAC in order to make those choices a little bit easier, so that we're not spending money and resources better spent on our facilities that we do need and on readiness."
Miranda Ballentine, Air Force secretary for installations, environment and energy said the service is operating at 20 percent excess infrastructure capacity, with many "hollowed-out bases." Her counterpart in the Army, which has been undergoing manpower cuts, identified 40 million square feet of building space that could be shuttered.
"Well, the biggest challenges in drawdown is that they create empty spaces," said Katherine Hammock, assistant Army secretary for installations and environment. "And so we are still maintaining money to operate a base that should be 100 percent full and it might be 75 percent full or 50 percent full. So our base operating costs are the same, yet we've reduced the military manpower."
Speaking Monday, Morin said Pentagon officials are "not happy" with the 2005 round and said, "a future BRAC round would have a much different financial ramification — even though the 2005 BRAC round is now paying off for the department financially, it was a much smaller scale of closure and large scale realignment than the previous rounds, which yielded much larger financial savings earlier."
Acknowledging BRAC is "a difficult, political topic," Morin said the Defense Department is advocating it to "drive more combat capability out of each taxpayer dollar."
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.