By William Hartung
The Army’s decision to implement long-planned cuts in its end strength has sparked consternation on Capitol Hill. Many members in states that stand to lose personnel are swearing that their local base needs to maintain its current levels or the defense of the nation will suffer.
The reality is not as dire as the opponents of reductions in base personnel would have us believe. Of the 30 installations that will receive significant reductions in on-base military personnel, only four will have reductions that equal 10 percent or more of their current numbers. Two bases will have substantial cuts: Fort Benning, Georgia, 29 percent; and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska, 59 percent.
The Congressional reaction to proposed personnel reductions doesn’t bode well for what really needs to be done: close unnecessary bases altogether and free up resources for other, more urgent priorities. The Pentagon estimates that 25 percent of its domestic infrastructure is beyond what it needs. The Pentagon claims that getting rid of just 5 percent of its current facilities could save $2 billion per year. This may seem like small change compared to the Pentagon’s half trillion dollar-plus budget, but it could go a long way towards meeting other national needs. And streamlining the Pentagon needs to start somewhere.
A proven process exists for taking the politics out of the base closing process – Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC). Under BRAC, an independent panel generates a list of proposed closures, in consultation with the services, and Congress votes up or down on the whole list. This limits pork barrel politicking on behalf of specific facilities, and gives a measure of assurance that the bases that are closed are truly in excess of current needs.
Opponents of a new BRAC round point to what happened in 2005, when a BRAC cost so much up front that it took over a decade of savings to break even. But the Pentagon points out that the 2005 round was more about “realignment” than closure, hence the limited savings. It pledges that this round will truly focus on closures, with savings mounting more quickly.
It is also important to note that base closings offer economic opportunities as well as risks. A study by the Pentagon’s Office of Economic Adjustment (OEA). looked at 73 facilities that suffered significant military personnel reductions in prior BRAC rounds found that local communities eventually created 128,000 jobs to replace 129,000 defense civilian personnel lost. New activities at closed bases included industrial and office parks, municipal and general aviation airports, and educational institutions. These kinds of activities will have significant ripple effects that should grow over time, putting impacted communities on an even stronger footing.
This is not to say that losing a base is a walk in the park. While some communities bounced back in four years or so, others took up to 20 years to replace the military employment lost when a local base closed. One key element in the most successful examples was advance planning by state and local government and community leaders, often with funding and technical assistance from the OEA.
The OEA has summed up the problem as follows: “Communities can recover effectively from base closures and realignments that provide long-term economic opportunities. Base closure does not have to be a local crisis.” Christopher Preble of the Cato Institute has noted a similar phenomenon in the first phase of a detailed research study he is conducting on the issue of base closings, noting that “communities do adapt and recover, some more quickly than others, and many emerge after the transition period with a robust and more diversified economic base.”
Members of Congress who care about spending defense dollars effectively need to put aside parochial concerns and join the Pentagon in supporting a new BRAC round. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, recently told a group of reporters that “[t]he notion that this [a new BRAC round] was completely unacceptable, which existed about a year ago, is not there anymore amongst my fellow members.” Let’s hope the tide in Congress turns quickly enough to authorize a BRAC round in the FY 2017 budget. It is a good move for the U.S. military, the Pentagon, and the taxpayers.
Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.