By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
For the past three years, officials at the Pentagon have asked Congress for permission to take stock of how many of the military’s vast network of installations across the country have become obsolete and ought to be shrunk or shuttered. The Defense Department, by far the nation’s largest and costliest bureaucracy, estimates that it could operate far more efficiently and save billions of dollars each year by shedding at least 20 percent of its real estate.
Yet, year after year, the nearly unanimous response from lawmakers has been: Don’t even think about it. They have barred the Pentagon from carrying out a detailed assessment of its properties, because closing useless bases would mean lost jobs and revenue in home districts.
Under pressure from lawmakers, the Air Force has spread its fleet of aircraft across the country to justify keeping the lights on at bases that outlived their use years ago. A stark example is the Air Force base in Grand Forks, N.D., a once strategically important hub for bombers during the Cold War. Currently, it’s home to 11 drones.
The Army has hundreds of buildings across the country that are only nominally open for business. In 2013, a senior Army official, testifying before Congress, said she had recently been on a base with 800 buildings, where only 300 were occupied. Last summer, when thousands of unaccompanied Central American migrant children were detained entering the country, many were temporarily housed at military bases, an odd arrangement that drew attention to how much space the Pentagon had to spare.
The Obama administration in its 2016 budget requested $534 billion for the Pentagon, a funding level that would untether the Defense Department from automatic spending cuts known as sequestration and usher in an era of increased spending, even as the uniformed force is pared down. While Republicans on Capitol Hill are expected to block many of the key initiatives the White House put forward in its proposed budget, there appears to be bipartisan support for giving the Pentagon a bigger budget, as it tackles challenges that include the bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Russia’s expansionist moves and the proliferation of cyberattacks.
As the military emerges from an era of protracted ground wars, it should not only be allowed to consolidate and shut down outmoded installations; it should be encouraged to do so. Congress has authorized five rounds of a process known as Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, since 1988, to align the Defense Department’s real estate holdings more closely with its current priorities. The Pentagon has some 562,000 facilities worldwide, which collectively take up 24.7 million acres, or nearly the size of Virginia.
The first four rounds of BRAC were sequenced a few years apart. The most recent one, in 2005, was done amid a military buildup, as the Pentagon was fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That consolidation process, which included building new facilities, ended up costing $35 billion, having run wildly off budget. But in the end, it still resulted in savings of nearly $4 billion dollars per year, according to the Pentagon.
“BRAC is the single biggest way to achieve efficiencies in the Department of Defense,” said Robert Hale, who served as the Pentagon comptroller until last year. “Congress has been unwilling to provide the necessary authorization, and it is in the interest of the taxpayer that they do.”
Last year, Representative Adam Smith, a Democrat of Washington State, was promptly shot down by his colleagues on the House Armed Services Committee when he introduced legislation that would have authorized a new BRAC. “I think it’s parochialism that stops folks from wanting to do it,” Mr. Smith said in an interview. “We all have our interests, but one ought to be what’s in the best interest of the Department of Defense.”
Members of Congress are unlikely to budge on the issue this year. While the Pentagon remains barred from conducting a meaningful assessment of its unused space, the Government Accountability Office is not.
The comptroller general of the United States, Gene Dodaro, should commission a study that maps out the most glaring waste in the Defense Department’s installations. That study would go a long way toward clearly identifying the worst examples of inefficiency and the lawmakers who have put their political interests ahead of good stewardship of public money.