Army spends $500 million per year on vacant facilities

Monday - 3/31/2014, 4:01am EDT

Jared Serbu reports.

Download mp3

The Army says its early analyses of its excess base infrastructure show it is wasting at least a half billion dollars per year on facilities it no longer uses nor needs. And that figure that is certain to climb as the service gets smaller in the coming years.

Over the course of several consecutive annual budget submissions, the Defense Department has put front-and-center its need to reduce its excess infrastructure through another round of base realignments and closures.

Lawmakers hostile to BRAC placed language in prior years' Defense authorization bills that banned DoD from even studying or planning for a potential infrastructure consolidation, leaving the department short on data to make its case.

That language was left out of this year's bill though, and the Army is the first service to begin an analysis of its excess capacity. The Army says among its United States bases, preliminary results show it has anywhere between 12 and 28 percent more than it needs, depending on the type of facility.

"We call it the empty facilities tax," Army Secretary John McHugh told the House Appropriations Committee Thursday. "You have to maintain buildings to a certain level even though you're not using them."

End strength totals the real driver

In Europe, the tally of unused facilities is anywhere between 10 and 15 percent. The Army already has begun the process of closing bases there, because it does not need Congressional approval to do so.

Following the 2005 BRAC round, which mostly moved forces to other locations rather than completely closing bases, 80 percent of the Army's troops now are stationed in the United States.

The $500 million figure is based on the current state of the Army's downsizing effort as it draws down from an end strength of 570,000 soldiers. The service's ultimate size remains uncertain with potential sequestration still on the horizon in 2016 and thereafter, but McHugh said one way or another, the Army will continue to shrink, and its number of unused stateside buildings will grow.

"We're already scheduled to come down to 490,000 by the end of '15 and then from 440,000 to 450,000. So just by definition, as fewer troops are in those buildings, more and more space will become excess," he said. "We want to minimize that, but we will always stay within the law. We have prerogatives of certain things we can do with respect to structure that the Congress has provided us, and as we go forward, we'll try to use those. But an ultimate BRAC, which is the most efficient way in which we wisely spend taxpayers' dollars and which we receive the most savings is, in our judgment, the most sensible path to take. But we need your authorization to do that."

McHugh did not specify the legal "prerogatives" the Army would consider using in the absence of a Congressionally-authorized BRAC round, but the Army so far has not moved on its own to close any excess infrastructure.

Instead, it is in the process of reorganizing its brigade combat teams. It announced last year that it would eliminate 10 of its 45 brigades in order to reduce the number of headquarters units and consolidate force elements into the brigades that remain. The service already began that process, which is expected to yield even more unused office space.

"Without a BRAC what we do is create more excess rather than fewer. We keep facilities, but there are no people in them," he said. "There is no use for those facilities, and yet we still have to maintain them. The process that we're going through right now of drawing down forces, of creating more vacancies in our facilities actually will drive that $500 million up. A BRAC would allow us to go about it in a far more sensible way, would allow us to make rational decisions so that we can concentrate our facility excess and to a great extent as possible get it off the books, saving us rather than costing us money."

5,000 could be involuntarily separated

McHugh acknowledged a new BRAC round would require initial spending to cover the costs of closing excess facilities, but he said each of the prior rounds of closures had yielded at least a 7.7 percent return on investment, including the 2005 round in which DoD vastly underestimated the up-front costs of the project.

Because sequestration still hasn't been resolved beyond fiscal 2016, the Army doesn't know precisely how much facility support it will need, because it doesn't know how large a force it will be able to afford. The budget plan it sent to Capitol Hill last month would pay for a force of between 440,000 and 450,000 soldiers, but the sequestration caps in current law would limit it to 420,000 soldiers.