DoD's BRAC wish hitting brick wall on Capitol Hill

Monday - 5/6/2013, 5:30am EDT

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

Download mp3

Undeterred by last year's united front of antipathy by lawmakers of both parties toward the idea of further base closures, Pentagon leaders over the last several weeks have again pressed their case for the need to consolidate stateside infrastructure, arguing that since the military is shrinking, its real estate footprint needs to follow suit.

So far, however, there appears to be no cracks in the congressional opposition to base realignment and closure (BRAC), which prevented DoD from moving forward a year ago with a reorganization of its U.S. bases.

The Pentagon's fiscal 2014 budget request asks for permission to conduct a BRAC round in 2015 and, unlike last year, DoD proposed money in its budget to pay for the up-front costs of the consolidation process. The Pentagon argues the military services already are paying to maintain more facilities and infrastructure than they need, and that the gap will only widen as military end strength draws down over the next several years.

John Conger, the acting deputy secretary of Defense for installations and environment, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that BRAC is the only reasonable way to solve that problem.

"As we cut down in force structure, it would be irresponsible of us not to try and propose ways to cut the tail as we cut the tooth. We have to look for a way to find this money," he said. "I respect the drama that goes on in communities as they prepare for BRAC. It is a difficult process, but it is a fair process. And one of the dynamics that led to BRAC in the first place was that when base closures were proposed, there was politics. What got closed and what did not get closed depended on who the chairman of the Armed Services Committee was. This was a way to take politics out of the process and put it into a 'You cannot edit this list' type of dynamic."

Memories of 2005

But over the last several weeks of annual budget hearings, DoD has been met with almost universal hostility on the topic of another BRAC. Closing military bases has never been politically popular, but most members aren't pointing to political difficulty, they're pointing to DoD's track record with the last BRAC round in 2005.

The Government Accountability Office found DoD's upfront costs to conduct the realignment were 67 percent higher than the department originally projected.

"Given the budget environment we are in, we simply cannot afford this type of endeavor right now," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.). "I have certainly heard assurances from the department that the new round will be better than the last round. However, I'm not sure I understand how the department can make those assurances, given that this is designed to act as an independent entity, free from the influence of the department. That is among the reasons that I certainly oppose a BRAC round."

John Conger, acting deputy secretary of Defense for installations and environment

The sentiment is bipartisan.

"I joined the majority of my colleagues in opposing this proposal last year, and I continue to believe that now is not the time to spend billions of dollars on another BRAC round, especially as the Department of Defense grounds combat aircraft and cancels ship deployments due to sequestration," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), the chairwoman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support.

Conger acknowledged DoD's cost estimates went awry in the 2005 round. But even though the process would be controlled by an independent panel and not the department itself, he said it's clear that the next round of BRAC would be far different from the last.

"BRAC 2015 will not look like BRAC 2005. BRAC 2005 was conducted, one, while force structure was growing; two, while budgets were growing; and three, under leadership which directed the use of the authority to accomplish transformative change, not just elimination of excess," he said. "Today, force structure is shrinking. The budget is shrinking. And we are firmly focused on reducing our future costs. That description characterizes the first four rounds of BRAC as well, and I can assert with confidence that a 2015 round will have far more in common with them than it would with the 2005 round."

Altogether, DoD estimated that previous rounds of BRAC have brought ongoing cost savings of $12 billion per year. The 2005 round alone, despite its shortcomings, is saving about $4 billion per year.

"If you're talking about $12 billion one time out of a very big budget, that's one thing. But if you are talking about $12 billion that happens every single year, that's like getting a new aircraft carrier every year or six submarines," Conger said. "And $2.5 billion might not seem like a lot of money in the budget, but if the alternative to doing a BRAC round was cutting a submarine, there might be some other folks who might have an issue with that. I'm using naval examples because they're big, but it's reflected across all of our spending areas."

Overseas bases being reduced

Still, lawmakers want DoD to focus on cutting costs in its base infrastructure overseas before it even thinks about closing stateside bases. The Senate Armed Services Committee made that point forcefully last month in a report that charged that basing costs in South Korea, Germany and Japan are rising, and that monetary and in-kind contributions from the host nations are subject to little oversight.

Katherine Hammack, assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment

But the military says it's already been consolidating infrastructure overseas, because unlike in the U.S., it doesn't need permission from Congress.

"In Europe, where we are reducing our force structure by 45 percent, we are systematically closing bases and we are consolidating," said Katherine Hammack, the assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment. "And Navy and Air Force are also looking at their infrastructure. The Office of the Secretary of Defense is also looking at what's already underway to see if there are additional opportunities. Now, anytime Army, Navy, or Air Force has property that is excess, the first thing you do is you go to the other federal agencies and you essentially say, 'Hey, does anybody need this?'"

Many of those interagency and interdepartmental real estate transfers already have happened overseas, but Hammack said in the continental U.S., it's not so easy to rationalize DoD's overall real estate footprint. The BRAC law restricts DoD's ability to even move military missions from one place to another, let alone dispose of facilities altogether.

"We are reducing our force structure size, and we've already announced that there are 21 locations that might have force structure reductions. And what that is going to do is create excess space," Hammack said. "Each brigade combat team takes up a little over a million square feet. So we are going to have holes. We are going to have empty buildings, and we are going to have places that we could move other units or other options into. And in order to consolidate our infrastructure, we need the authority. The Congress has told us 'You cannot close any of these facilities without our authority.'"

Air Force needs a trim

DoD officials say previous Defense authorization bills have restricted their ability to even analyze how much excess infrastructure the department might have, so the most recent study available was performed in 2004. At that time, the department estimated it had 24 percent more capacity than it needed. The 2005 BRAC round shaved that infrastructure by just 3.4 percent.

The amount of excess infrastructure varies by military service. The Marine Corps, for example, believes its bases already are just about right-sized. The Air Force is on the other end of the spectrum.

"BRAC 2005 did not result in major base reductions for Air Force, and since that time, we have reduced our force structure by more than 500 aircraft and nearly 8 percent of active duty military end strength," said Kathleen Ferguson, the acting assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and logistics. "We continue to spend money maintaining excess infrastructure that would be better spent on recapitalization and sustainment. Divestiture of excess property on a grander scale is a must."

RELATED STORIES:

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

Federal News Radio's Sequestration page

Federal News Radio's multimedia series on BRAC 2005: BRAC Impact