Panetta throws in the towel on 2013 base closures

Tuesday - 8/7/2012, 5:17am EDT

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

Download mp3

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta officially gave up hope Monday on a 2013 round of base shutdowns, at the same time acknowledging he never had much hope to begin with.

In its 2013 budget proposal, the DoD told Congress it wanted authority to conduct two more rounds of base realignment and closures — commonly known as BRAC. Officials argued that they need to shrink the footprint of U.S. bases to match a shrinking military force — part of a new defense strategy developed to prepare for planned cuts worth $487 billion over ten years.

But the pitch got a frosty reception on Capitol Hill this year. The House passed a 2013 Defense authorization bill that did not approve another BRAC round. The full Senate has yet to pass its authorization bill, but BRAC was a no-go in the Senate Armed Services Committee as well.

"It's now clear that there will not be a round of BRAC authorized in 2013," Panetta said. "It's no surprise. I didn't put any money on it. I was asked by some of my budgeters whether we should put a dollar sign in the budget for BRAC, and I told them not to waste their time. We had to put it forward, have to make the argument. But I understand why it's so tough [for Congress]. But it's an important debate we have to have, and frankly, it's not going away."

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (Photo: DoD)

Panetta said eventhough the DoD wasn't counting on BRAC to meet the budget savings targets it is required to achieve under the Budget Control Act, base closures are going to have to come sooner or later.

Later is more likely though.

"I understand that now is not the time for another BRAC round, especially when our economy is struggling to recover," he said. "But the reality is that the department is going to need to take a hard look at what we do in terms of supportive infrastructure. If I'm taking the force structure down and still maintaining large infrastructure costs, then the money that ought to be going to training our soldiers is going to extra infrastructure. It's the very definition of hollowing-out the force."

Panetta made his remarks at the annual conference of the Association of Defense Communities, which represents local governments and other organizations with a significant military presence. The conference was held in Carmel, Calif., near where Panetta lives and in the district he represented as a congressman in the early 1990s.

Panetta was on the losing end of a BRAC decision in 1991 when the base closing commission included Fort Ord on its shutdown list. He and local leaders fought the closing of the Army base, which he recalled was responsible for 25 percent of the local economy, but lost in the end.

"We had to face the reality of what took place. We sat around a table and said, Okay, now what?' Everybody agreed the important thing was to move on and develop an effective reuse for that base," he said. "We had a hell of a lot of people that offered proposals. Some people wanted it to be Disneyland on the central coast or a new prison."

In the end, part of the base became home to a new campus of the California State University system, though much of the old post still is occupied by deteriorating buildings and sites that need cleanup. Panetta said the DoD needs to address those responsibilities at bases across the country that were closed in prior BRAC rounds.

But he promised the Defense Communities audience that despite budget cuts, the DoD would continue to spend money through its Office of Economic Adjustment (OEA) to help communities that have been hurt by closed bases or defense industry layoffs, or conversely, to help communities whose local infrastructure is being strained by an influx of military personnel because of realignments.

The DoD saved Monday's speech to announce two new OEA grants totaling $45.7 million to Lakewood, Wash., and Montgomery County, Md. Local governments will use the money to improve their transportation infrastructure to accommodate a surge of military personnel following the realignment of military medical facilities at Washington state's Joint Base Lewis-McChord and the newly-combined Walter Reed-Bethesda hospitals in D.C.'s Maryland suburbs.

While DoD waits for the congressional authority it says it needs for another round of BRAC, Panetta said he's telling the department to find ways to save money on the base infrastructure it now has.

He said Monterey has shown one way forward via shared services between local governments and its remaining military installation, the Presidio of Monterey. The military base and the local city government decided to create joint public services for everything from child care and fire protection to broadband connectivity and roadway maintenance.

"This approach has allowed both DoD and the city of Monterey to provide the services we need for our forces and at the same time achieve significant savings."

Panetta said he wants the DoD to treat the Presidio experience as a pilot program and copy it elsewhere throughout the country.

RELATED STORIES:

Congress pushes back against another round of BRAC

GOP plan cuts fed pay, workforce to save DoD from sequestration

2005 BRAC cost 67 percent more than DoD's original estimates, GAO finds