By Kristina Wong
The Pentagon is expected to propose another round of base closures in its 2016 budget that will be unveiled in February. This would likely set off another fight with members of Congress who fiercely oppose any such closures due to the economic impact on local communities.
“I believe that doing another BRAC round is simply good government,” John Conger, acting assistant secretary of Defense for energy, installations and environment, told The Hill.
BRAC, which stands for Base Realignment and Closure Commission, is the process by which the Pentagon closes bases in rounds. There have been five previous rounds, which officials say now saves $12 billion per year.
Conger did not announce any possible closures, but pointed to the need to do so.
“I will say that we’ve asked for a number of years in a row and [we] have maintained during those requests that it is important to reduce … excess infrastructure during these tough fiscal times as we’re reducing force structure. There are savings to be had that will ease the burden on the budget,” he said.
Conger said the Pentagon identified 24 percent of excess infrastructure back in 2004, and has since reduced 3.4 percent of that with the 2005 BRAC round.
He said that since that time, the number of troops has decreased significantly, requiring less infrastructure.
“All of those things point toward the need” for more closures, he said.
The Pentagon predicts it could save $2 billion by divesting just 5 percent of excess infrastructure, Conger said.
He acknowledged that savings from base closures cost money up front, but lead to savings in the future. He noted that the last BRAC round is now saving $4 billion per year.
Conger said he recognized that both Democrats and Republicans would be in staunch opposition, due to the impact a base closure would have on local communities in terms of jobs and income.
But, he said, “It took several years to get the last BRAC round authorized. People have to get comfortable with the idea.”
“As we conduct the conversation, and we continue to address Congress’ concerns that they raise, [they] will become more comfortable with the idea or at least less uncomfortable and may conclude that it is the right thing to do,” he added.
Conger said an initiative to close 15 European bases announced Thursday could pave the way for base closures within the U.S.
“When we first brought up the idea of another BRAC round … one of the things that [Congress] constantly raised was ‘You should look at installations overseas before you look at installations in the U.S.’
“And so we took that to heart,” he said, adding that the European Infrastructure Consolidation (EIC) “was structured like BRAC.”
Now, Pentagon staff who worked on the European initiative have experience in executing a BRAC-like process, he said.
And the Pentagon showed that even looking at a small subset of infrastructure in Europe, “significant savings” can be found, he said. The latest round of the EIC is expected to save $500 million annually beginning in early 2020s.
The European closures will see 1,100 host nation jobs eliminated, and Conger acknowledged that any base closures in the U.S. would have a similar fate.
He added that there are redevelopment plans that could mitigate those lost jobs.
“I respect anybody’s concern as to anxiety over their job. The Department has a responsibility to defend the nation and to defend the taxpayers’ dollars and to manage them responsibly,” he added.
“In that sense, if we can do the same job for less money, we do have to go and look at those kinds of things.”
He said that the need to close excess bases will become more apparent as the number of troops continues to decline.
“It will become more apparent as fewer people go out to restaurants in town, it affects the housing markets, it affects a whole host of things,” he said. “People in the local communities will feel that and they realize that having a half-empty base isn’t necessarily the best thing.”
“BRAC is not all about losing,” he said. “Some bases gain … some locations have growth when you’re in the middle of a BRAC round,” he said.