Five successive Secretaries of Defense have asked Congress for permission to reduce excess and unnecessary military bases. The fairest and most transparent way to make such cuts is through another Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round. So far, however, the SecDefs' requests have gone unanswered. For their sake, but mostly for the sake of the men and women serving in our armed forces, I want one, too. All I want for Christmas is a BRAC.
According to the Pentagon's latest estimates, the military as a whole has 19 percent excess base capacity. If it helps to visualize the nature of the problem, nearly 1 in every 5 facilities that DoD operates are superfluous to U.S. national security, or their functions could be consolidated into other facilities elsewhere. This is important because requiring the military to carry so much overhead necessarily compels the services to divert resources away from more important things -- from salaries and benefits for military personnel, to maintenance and upkeep for their equipment, and even to the purchase of new gear.
As Secretary of Defense James Mattis said in congressional testimony earlier this year:
Of all the efficiency measures the Department has undertaken over the years, BRAC is one of the most successful and significant – we forecast that a properly focused base closure effort will generate $2 billion or more annually – enough to buy 300 Apache attack helicopters, 120 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, or four Virginia-class submarines.
There are two leading arguments against a BRAC, but neither is very convincing. The first envisions a vastly larger military -- especially a larger Army -- and concludes that a BRAC at this time would be premature because it would deny some hypothetical future military the land and other facilities it needs in order to train and operate effectively.
But BRAC rounds don't eliminate every square inch of infrastructure not deemed essential in the present-day; they merely grant the Pentagon the authority to more efficiently allocate scarce resources, and respond to changing circumstances. Each of the past five BRAC rounds have cut an average of about 5 percent excess capacity. The military will always retain a surplus as a hedge against future contingencies.
What's more, the latest estimate was constructed around the force structure from 2012, when the U.S. military was engaged in major operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given other pressures on the defense budget, and federal spending in general, it seems highly unlikely that the military will grow back to 2012 levels. But in the extreme scenario in which the military's needs are dramatically greater than at any time in the recent past, I'm confident that the federal government could obtain what it needs. After all, the U.S. military was tiny for most of our history, and yet we somehow managed to find new locations for bases when they were truly needed for the nation's security (e.g., World War II).
The second argument against BRAC has less to do with the military's requirements, and is more about the impact of base closures on local communities. For the Pentagon, BRAC is like a shiny package wrapped with a bow under the Christmas tree. For locals, BRAC is a lump of coal in the stocking.
Except that we shouldn't look at BRAC in this way. To be sure, base closures are disruptive to communities that have grown dependent upon the economic activity that a base generates. A few places have struggled to adapt after their local base closed and the troops moved away. But the actual experiences of defense communities reveal a more complex, and ultimately more optimistic, reality. Most communities are able to find more productive uses for properties previously trapped behind fences and barbed wire. Most are able to attract new businesses, from a diverse array of industries. Some have taken pride in granting the public access to newly open space. The array of uses for former bases is practically limitless (see, for example, Atlanta, Georgia; Austin, Texas; Brunswick, Maine; Glenview, Illinois; and Philadephia, Pennsylvania). A future BRAC round could be less disruptive than in the past if affected communities plan well, take account of lessons learned elsewhere, and apply some best practices to ease the transition.
As Secretary Mattis practically pleaded in a cover letter to the most recent report:
every unnecessary facility we maintain requires us to cut capabilities elsewhere. I must be able to eliminate excess infrastructure in order to shift resources to readiness and modernization.
If Congress doesn't grant his wish, perhaps Secretary Mattis will climb onto Santa Claus's lap, and whisper his desires into the jolly old elf's ear -- but I hope, for both men's sake, it doesn't come to that.