BRAC chair reflects on decisions, offers ideas for future

Monday - 5/9/2011, 3:30pm EDT

Anthony Principi, former Veterans Affairs Secretary and Chairman of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission

Click below to hear the interview on the Federal Drive

Download mp3

By Anthony Principi
Chairman
2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission

Our nation faces some tough decisions, and the Department of Defense faces some of its biggest funding challenges, as the President proposes that it will achieve savings of $400 billion over the next 10 years. This will place enormous pressure on the military services that will likely result in a serious cutback on missions and capabilities.

It is not inconceivable that as Congress and the administration debate the fiscal 2012 spending plan with an eye to the years that will follow, that there will be a need for another round of base realignments and closures. There is a hint of this with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's closure of the Joint Forces Command in Virginia. In announcing this decision, Secretary Gates also stated that he had "authorized each of the military departments to consider consolidation or closure of excess bases or other facilities, where appropriate."

Nearly six years ago, President George W. Bush asked me to serve as the chairman of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission - the first such "BRAC" since 9/11.

It was a bold decision - we were at war - but the President believed, as did Congress, that our military infrastructure was not in line with the needs of our armed forces.

As you know, the BRAC process created by Congress established clear criteria in law for the Department of Defense to first evaluate and then make recommendations for the realignment or closure of military installations.

The 2005 BRAC Commission, an independent body, then assessed DoD's recommendations to ensure they meet those criteria.

If the commission believed the Department of Defense had deviated substantially from the mandated criteria, we could make appropriate changes to the recommendation - as we did in 2005. The commission can also remove a base from DoD's list or, as we also did, add a military installation for closure or realignment.

In the end, Congress can either accept or reject the commission's final report. But, by law, neither the President nor Congress can pick and choose from the commission's recommendations to realign or close a military facility included in the report.

The law required the BRAC Commission to carefully weigh eight criteria, giving greatest weight to four on military value.

The commission also had to consider four other criteria not carrying the same weight as military value. These included the extent and timing of any new costs and/or savings, the economic impact on a community, the costs of environmental remediation, and the ability of a receiving community to support the added workload and the influx of personnel resulting from that realignment.

BRAC is a major undertaking, to be sure, but if done right it can be as open, deliberative, inclusive and non-partisan a process as any I have seen in my professional career.

On May 13, 2005, the BRAC Commission received a total of 190 recommendations from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that would, in effect, close or realign 837 military activities nationwide. Not only were the recommendations double in number from the previous BRAC round but they were greater than all previous BRACs combined.

Our work relied on data put forward by each of the services and that which we produced on our own.

In the space of four months the commission made 182 visits to 173 installations, conducted 20 regional hearings, 20 legislative and deliberative hearings, met with hundreds of community representatives and elected officials, and drafted its 338-page report to reach the President by the September 8, 2005 deadline mandated by law. Failure to meet that deadline would have made the commission recommendations null and void.

The commitment to transparency was clear - though, clearly, not everyone would agree with each of our recommendations.

One of the more difficult decisions we faced involved the Air National Guard. DoD had proposed to close or realign Air National Guard bases nationwide, and 37 of 42 Air Force proposals involved the Guard.

In all, some 23 Guard units stood to lose all their aircraft. Governors in those affected states feared not having the resources they would need in an emergency.

Several governors sued over the issue. It was a tense time, and understandably so - but the process worked, even if everyone involved wasn't happy with the outcome.

Key to the commission's work is the competence and dedication of its staff. We had to get it right - our men and women in uniform deserved no less, and the communities that housed and supported their duty stations deserved just as much.

That said, the BRAC process can be improved.

If asked by the president or Congress, I would recommend the following:

To start, DoD has to do a better job estimating the true cost of any closure or realignment. In 2005, Secretary Rumsfeld estimated total BRAC savings of $47.8 billion over 20 years. The commission estimated savings of $35.6 billion and, more likely, only $15 billion if DoD persisted in one accounting practice.

Second, the cost of base realignment actions (COBRA) accounting procedure, used by DoD as a basis of comparison among scenarios, should include cost estimates for environmental restoration not just "clean to current use" standards. In addition, COBRA or some other cost evaluation process should also include transportation and infrastructure costs and burden sharing with the federal government. To be avoided is the potential traffic gridlock anticipated in Virginia and Maryland - in particular, at Fort Belvoir in Virginia and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Even though these costs might well not be considered DoD costs and gaining communities have not, in the past, discussed these issues during the process for fear of losing the potential jobs, we know that these costs can well become a real issue during implementation.

Third, the Defense Department should complete its quadrennial defense review mandated by Congress to assess DoD strategies and policies before the next BRAC process begins - not after. Just one year after we completed our work on BRAC, DoD released the findings of their latest QDR. That report could have affected a number of commission recommendations.

Finally, each of the military services owes it to the local communities to more fully engage them in the early stages of review. Whether it is to bring expansion or closure, there is little reason to blindside anyone. And, while this inclusion may not alter the outcome, it is simply the prudent thing to do. History from each of the previous four BRAC rounds reveals that if a military facility was on any of the lists recommended by DoD there is about an 85 percent chance of it being on a future BRAC list.

L-R: Amy Morris, Anthony Principi, Tom Temin, May 9, 2011. (WFED photo)

Principi wrote this column as part of a Federal News Radio and WTOP in-depth series, BRAC Impact.