A Washington ritual: Pentagon, Congress at odds over bases
Washington — The Pentagon thinks it has a winning argument for why Congress should allow a new round of military base closings. The case goes like this: The Army and Air Force have vastly more space for training and basing troops than they need, and trimming the surplus would save money better used to strengthen the military.
Congress, however, has its own logic: Closing bases can hurt local economies, which can cost votes in the next election. Besides, some lawmakers say, the Pentagon has cooked the books to justify its conclusions or at least has not finished doing the math.
Lawmakers are fiercely protective of bases in their district or state and generally prefer to ignore or dismiss any Pentagon push to close them. Nearly every year the Pentagon asks Congress for authority to convene a base-closing commission. The answer is always the same: not this year.
And probably not anytime soon, either.
In a little-noticed report to congressional leaders this month, the Pentagon offered a detailed analysis — the first of its kind in 12 years — that concludes the military will have an overall 22 percent excess of base capacity in 2019. The Army will have 33 percent surplus, the Air Force 32 percent and the Navy and Marine Corps a combined 7 percent, the report says.
Base capacity is the total amount of acreage or work space available to support military forces at places such as a training range, an air base, a weapons storage site or an office building.
“Spending resources on excess infrastructure does not make sense,” Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work wrote leaders of the relevant congressional committees on April 12. The letter was meant to support the Obama administration’s case for a bipartisan base-closing authority, known as a Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC). This mechanism, meant to take politics out of the process, was used during the 1990s and again in 2005, but not since.
The Pentagon has not said a lot publicly about its latest pitch to Congress for another commission, perhaps because it sees little chance of success.
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said Thursday that the House version of the bill that authorizes military spending for the coming budget year will stop the Pentagon’s base-closing campaign in its tracks. The bill will allow studies to answer the committee’s questions about excess base capacity, but nothing more.
In Thornberry’s view, the Pentagon is selling a half-baked argument.
“I’m not interested in sales brochures,” he said. “I’m interested in objective data that leads them to think there is too much infrastructure.”
The data is fairly clear, even if Thornberry doesn’t believe it is objective. It is derived from a type of study, called a parametric analysis, which the Pentagon had not done since 2004. The new analysis compares base capacity to the expected shape of the military in 2019, when the next BRAC would be held.
It found a big mismatch: 22 percent more base capacity than will be needed for the military that is envisioned for 2019. By that time the Army is scheduled to be even smaller than today, shrinking from about 475,000 active-duty soldiers to 450,000.
The study calculated the amount of surplus base capacity in the aggregate, not by individual bases. So it does not point to any particular bases as candidates for shuttering or downsizing. The study concluded that reducing the overall surplus by about 5 percent would produce savings of $2 billion a year. The savings would be partially offset by an estimated $7 billion in closure costs, including the expense of environmental cleanup, during the first six years.
Military commanders do not like to get drawn into the debate about base closings, but they recognize that surplus capacity has financial implications.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza, commander of the Army’s 1st Corps, headquartered at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, sees a national review of base capacity as a way to search for savings that could be used to improve “readiness,” or the combat preparedness, of his and other forces.
“I do think it’s viable to examine, base by base, where we have infrastructure … that perhaps is not being utilized properly,” he said in a telephone interview. “If done correctly, and if we do it honestly and openly, then perhaps it’s worthy of a discussion to look at our facilities and see where we could have some cost-saving measures.”
The Pentagon may have to wait at least another year before Congress is willing to open the door to base closings, but it has some limited authority to act on its own. The study sent to Congress hinted at this by stating that BRAC is the fairest approach to resolving the surplus problem.
“The alternative is incremental reductions” as the Pentagon cuts spending at military installations. Those spending cuts, it added, “will have an economic impact on local communities without giving them the ability to plan effectively for the change.”
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