Commentary

First Step in Base Closings

By Charles V. Peña
This article appeared in Investor’s Business Daily, June 9, 2005.

The Defense Department recently announced its recommendations for Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC. Thirty-three major military bases are slated for closure and more than 100 other smaller installations (some staffed with as few as three people) would be downsized or shut down. While many communities are lamenting the potential loss of jobs as a result of a base closing, the reality is that this round of BRAC could have — and should have — gone further. Like the proverbial joke about the demise of 1,000 lawyers at the bottom of the sea, it’s just a good start.

One of the rationales for the previous four rounds of BRAC (in 1988, 1991, 1993, and 1995) was that the U.S. military has excess base capacity and by closing or realigning those bases the Defense Department would save money. The Defense Department estimates that this round of BRAC would yield $48.8 billion of savings over the next 20 years. But $2.4 billion annually is less than 1 percent of current military spending (DoD’s budget for this fiscal year is nearly $500 billion including military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan). So this round of BRAC is not mainly about cutting costs. One reason the proposed BRAC will not result in significant savings is that the Pentagon’s recommendations take into account the Global Posture Review that calls for bringing home 70,000 U.S. troops now stationed overseas over the next decade. As a result, more base capacity is being retained to house those troops upon their return.

But the United States does not need an active duty military of 1.4 million soldiers to defend the country against traditional nation-state military threats. With the demise of the Soviet Union, there is no threat to U.S. security in Europe, and North Korea hardly qualifies as a threat when military capabilities are compared. The United States. outspends North Korea 80-to-1, and the U.S. military is the most modern and well-equipped in the world compared to North Korean forces that have older Chinese and former Soviet equipment. The same is true of other so-called rogue state threats.

The combined economies of the European countries are healthy and strong enough for Europeans to pay for their own security requirements. In 2003, the European Union’s gross domestic product was $11.6 trillion and U.S. GDP was $10.9 trillion, but America spent 3.5 percent of its GDP on defense compared to only 1.5 percent for the Europeans. They can afford to pay for their own defense.

The North Korean threat to South Korea remains real, but — like the Europeans — the South Koreans can afford to foot the bill for their own defense. North Korea is one of the last bastions of a failed, centrally planned economy. Its GDP in 2003 was $22.9 billion with defense spending of $5.2 billion (22.7 percent of GDP). By comparison, South Korea’s GDP was $855.3 billion (more that 37 times that of the North) with $14.5 billion for defense (almost three times the North and only 1.7 percent of GDP). South Korea has both the economic advantage and capacity to defend itself.

The real threat facing the United States. is the al Qaeda terrorist network and the spreading radical Islamist extremism it inspires. Large-scale conventional military operations will be the exception rather than the rule in the war against al Qaeda. In fact, special forces — not regular units — will play the greater role in finding and destroying al Qaeda. Maintaining a large military is not necessary for the war on terrorism.

It’s worth remembering that the large U.S. military was not an effective deterrent against 19 suicide hijackers on September 11. The hard truth is that most of the war on terrorism — fought in 60 or more countries, many of them friends and allies of the United States — will be waged through unprecedented international intelligence and law enforcement cooperation, not with a large military armed with expensive tanks, planes, and ships.

The current round of BRAC should be viewed as a step in the right direction, but it does not go far enough. Rather than maintaining base capacity to accommodate the troops to be brought home over the next 10 years, truly substantial cost savings could be realized if instead the U.S. military was significantly downsized — to reflect the changed 21st century threat environment and the ability of our allies to provide for their own defense. Such an overdue change in America’s security strategy would further reduce the need for domestic base capacity.

Charles V. Peña is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.