By Steven Beardsley
Over the past decade the Department of Defense has closed numerous facilities in Europe, like this one in Darmstadt, Germany, and reduced the number of troops on the continent. After a recent announcement of installation closures, the Pentagon may request another round of the Base Realignment and Closure process.
But experts say that while the Pentagon has removed a major hurdle to domestic base closures, it still faces an uphill battle convincing a new, Republican-controlled Congress.
“I think [the changes in Europe] will help some in terms of persuading Congress to give BRAC authority,” former Department of Defense comptroller Robert Hale said, referring to the Base Realignment and Closure process. “It was a reason in the past to deny BRAC authority. But I have to be candid and say I don’t think it will be enough.”
The Pentagon has requested BRAC authority from Congress in each of the past three annual budgets, pointing to tighter finances. The DOD says it is well over capacity in infrastructure and that future maintenance costs would push the budget above its current spending caps.
Congress, always wary of how closures will affect its members’ constituencies, has refused each time, telling the department to cut spending instead.
In a January 2014 funding bill, legislators required a military review of all installations in Europe.
The results announced this month include plans to close 15 installations and reshuffle several units, moves that would save an estimated $500 million after upfront expenses. That follows another series of cuts announced in May, which total $60 million in estimated annual savings.
Days after the latest announcement, acting DOD installations director John Conger indicated the department would again push for BRAC in its next defense funding request.
Ray DuBois, former DOD installations director during the 2005 BRAC and current analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the European cuts should give DOD new leverage, although some in Congress may have envisioned broader changes, with some units returning stateside. But troop levels in Europe are expected to remain at roughly 67,000, partly due to escalating tensions with Russia over Ukraine.
Plain politics, and the mood of the new Congress, will determine whether it will agree on a BRAC at some point, DuBois said.
“Whether or not this Congress, which just convened, is inclined to give this president and the next secretary of defense, Ashton Carter, a domestic BRAC is still doubtful,” he said. “But there’s no question that without a European realignment plan, and execution, there would be no appetite to do it.”
New leadership at the armed services committees, the starting point for every defense budget, will likely play a major role in the issue. Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee has been a vocal opponent of BRAC over several years as a committee member. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has assumed chairmanship of the Senate committee, has had less to say about BRAC, focusing instead on national security policy regarding Iraq, Syria and Ukraine.
As defense funding gets squeezed beginning in fiscal 2016, when sequestration budget caps return, many say the committees will no longer be able to avoid the issue.
Advocates of a BRAC say domestic closures could free $2 billion to $3 billion in annual funding, although only after several years of upfront costs. Opponents counter that those expenses — estimated at $1.6 billion annually for five years — are ill-advised at a time of strapped budgets. They also point to the last round of BRAC, in 2005, which cost more than $36 billion, considerably higher than planned.
DuBois and others say the 2005 BRAC was inflated by new military construction piggy-backed onto the total. Hale said the long-term money saved is worth any upfront investment, considering the budget challenges in years ahead.
“I think it recognizes you need to spend a modest amount now to save a good amount later,” Hale said.
A future BRAC would begin in 2017 at the earliest, according to past defense requests.
There may be budding support for the base closure process among some military communities. The specter of sequestration and planned manpower reductions across the services, particularly in the Army, are creating uncertainty, said Tim Ford, CEO of the lobbying group American Defense Communities, which represents more than 250 towns, cities and states that have nearby military installations or units.
Member communities know something is coming but feel they can’t do anything about it until the details become clearer, he said. A BRAC process allows members to offer input, defend their interests and plan ahead for the worst-case scenario.
“I think where our communities are right now is we need to figure out a better way to manage this,” Ford said. “BRAC gives us a better way to follow this, give our input, understand it better.”
Ford said the planned cuts in Europe only add to the sense that BRAC is inevitable in the near future, if not this session. He believes that as Senate Armed Services chairman, McCain, in particular, will give the issue a practical look as the budget process moves ahead.
“We don’t want BRAC,” Ford said. “In an ideal situation, we wouldn’t face any of this. We wouldn’t face sequestration. But we live in the reality Congress created, and that reality is cuts are occurring.”