Teaching Congress about the Benefits of Base Closures

I spent the latter part of last week on a too-short trip to Alicante, Spain, to present some of my latest work on the reuse of former defense facilities in the United States. The occasion was a conference on “Defence Heritage” – the third since 2012 – hosted by the Wessex Institute (.pdf) in which scholars from more than a dozen countries shared their findings about how various defense installations around the world have been repurposed for everything from recreational parks to educational institutions to centers of business and enterprise.

This sort of research is sorely needed as Congress appears poised to deny the Pentagon’s request to close unneeded or excess bases. It is the fifth time that Congress has told the military that it must carry surplus infrastructure, and continue to misallocate resources where they aren’t needed, in order to protect narrow parochial interests in a handful of congressional districts that might house an endangered facility.

In a cover letter to a new Pentagon report that provides ample justification for the need to close bases, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work explained:

Under current fiscal restraints, local communities will experience economic impacts regardless of a congressional decision regarding BRAC authorization. This has the harmful and unintended consequence of forcing the Military Departments to consider cuts at all installations, without regard to military value. A better alternative is to close or realign installations with the lowest military value. Without BRAC, local communities’ ability to plan and adapt to these changes is less robust and offers fewer protections than under BRAC law.

Work is almost certainly correct. But in my latest post at The National Interest’s The Skeptics, I urge him “and other advocates for another BRAC round” not to “limit themselves to green-eyeshade talk of cost savings and greater efficiency. They must also show how former defense sites don’t all become vast, barren wastelands devoid of jobs and people.”

It obviously isn’t enough to stress the potential savings, even though the savings are substantial. The DoD report estimates that the five BRAC rounds, plus the consolidation of bases in Europe, have generated annual recurring savings of $12.5 billion, and that a new BRAC round would save an additional $2 billion per year, after a six-year implementation period. A GAO study conducted in 2002 concluded that “BRAC savings are real and substantial and are related to cost reduction in key operational areas.”

Members of Congress who are uninterested in such facts, and who remain adamantly opposed to any base closures, anywhere, should consider what has actually happened to many of the bases dealt with during the five BRAC rounds, and the hundreds of other bases closed in the 1950s and 60s, before there was a BRAC. 

They don’t have to go far. They could start by speaking with the Association of Defense Communities and the Pentagon’s Office of Economic Adjustment, who keep track of these stories.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) could visit Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas. He probably has, many times. The closure of Bergstrom Air Force Base was a thinly disguised blessing for a city that had struggled for years to find an alternative for its inadequate regional airport. Austin-Bergstrom today services millions of passengers, and has won awards for its design and customer service.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Chair of the Senate Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, might stop by the former Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, during one of her trips home. One of the very first bases closed under the BRAC process, the sprawling site still hosts several massive runways, and the 157th Air Refueling Wing of the Air National Guard. But the base has chiefly been reborn as the Pease International Tradeport, which is now home to over 250 businesses that employ more than 10,000 people.

And both would benefit from a visit to the former Brunswick Naval Air Station in my home state of Maine. They used to launch P-3 submarine-hunting airplanes (pictured), now they host dozens of businesses, including 28 start-ups in a new business incubator, TechPlace, that opened 14 months ago. 

It’s particularly lovely in the summer time, if you don’t mind all the tourists. If they go, Thornberry and Ayotte should talk to some of the people who are responsible for its rapid turnaround, including Steve Levesque, the Executive Director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority (MRRA), who contributed a chapter in this forthcoming volume on the renovation and reuse of former military sites, and Jeffrey Jordan, the MRRA’s Deputy Director, who I interviewed in 2014. I’m sure they’d be happy to show HASC and SASC members around Brunswick Landing.