This Is What Defense Consolidation without BRAC Looks Like

For the past few months, nearly thirty communities around the country have been anxiously awaiting an announcement from the Pentagon concerning the military bases that would be affected by the planned drawdown of 40,000 active-duty Army personnel, plus another 17,000 or so civilian employees. Local news outlets have been filling in the details as they become available. Some communities, including Leesville, Louisiana (Fort Polk), and northern New York (Fort Drum) are breathing a “sigh of relief.” Others, in Georgia (Fort Benning) and Alaska (Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson), are crying foul.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) seems especially peeved. “I am demanding answers from the Department of Defense on how they are justifying these troop cuts in Georgia,” Isakson said. And, in the meantime, he plans to block the nomination of a “new congressional liaison for the Department of Defense in light of the Department’s failure to give Congress a heads up before these cuts were made public.”

This is what defense consolidation looks like without the formality and relative transparency of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process.

I am in the midst of a major research project studying the effects of military spending cuts on local communities. With the help of my excellent research assistant, Connor Ryan, I am looking at some familiar cases, such as San Francisco’s Presidio and Monterey’s Fort Ord, and some that are more obscure (e.g. Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s Pease AFB). I’m also writing about some bases closed before BRAC (e.g. Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia; the Springfield Arsenal in Massachusetts; and Dow AFB in Bangor, Maine), and some facilities that were privately owned and operated, but that grew primarily by supplying products to the military (including the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia; and DuPont’s Eleutherian Mills in Wilmington, Delaware). The project aims to go beyond studying the economic effects predicted and observed by economists (e.g. here and here), but to also get a feel for the history of each place, what it built, or how it fit into the nation’s defenses, and, ultimately, each facility’s denouement. To oversimplify: “How’s it goin’?”

My preliminary conclusions, after having visited about half of the places that I plan to study (and I will visit all of them), is 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. In other words, the resources once directed toward the military do eventually find their way to more productive uses.

All that said, communities that have grown dependent upon defense dollars are understandably anxious whenever major realignments are in the offing. Change can be (and often is) difficult, and transitions are precisely that. But it gets better.

Which seems to argue on behalf of another BRAC round. Or several. 91 percent of National Journal’s “security insiders” say we need one. A bipartisan defense reform consensus wants one. And three successive SecDefs – Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel, and now Ashton Carter – have called on Congress to authorize another round of base closures under BRAC. Congress, so far, has refused.

As a practical matter, then, we are back to about where we were in the early 1970s, when a major personnel-intensive land war was drawing to a close, and the U.S. military was getting smaller. Congress effectively blocked any base closures in the late-1970s, and finite defense dollars were misallocated to excess base capacity, which, in turn, contributed to a hollow force. The defense build-up of the early 1980s relieved the hollow force problem. Eventually, five BRAC rounds (in 1988, 1991, 1993, 1995 and 2005) dealt with the excess base problem. 

Writing in 2007, in his introduction to David Sorenson’s book Military Base Closures, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower, Reserve Affairs, Installations, and Logistics, Lawrence J. Korb (now at the Center for American Progress), described the rationale behind BRAC: 

Bases had been closed since the end of World War II, but the process was uneven and often hints of political favoritism clouded base closure policy….Congress created BRAC to do two things: create a process that would determine what bases might be excess and close them, and, in addition, remove political considerations from the procedure. 

The politicization of defense realignment was not an idle concern. Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn reportedly advised new members against bringing a military base into their districts because then the President couldn’t hold its closure over their heads. Rayburn’s protege, Lyndon Johnson, was suspected of doing precisely that when he sought to close facilities in states that had voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964, including Brookley AFB in Mobile, Alabama. Similarly, Richard Nixon’s critics speculated that his proposal to close Otis and Westover AFBs, both in Massachusetts, was a form of retribution. Massachusetts, you will recall, was the only state (plus DC) to vote for George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election. 

BRAC didn’t remove politics from the base closure process entirely, of course. No reform could do that. Bill Clinton, for example, was accused of circumventing BRAC with his “privatization-in-place” proposal for Kelly and McClellan AFBs. Both bases had wound up on the BRAC commission’s recommended closure list in 1995, and he wanted to shore up support in Texas and California before his 1996 reelection. But perhaps the other examples from that earlier pre-BRAC period, combined with the uncertainty in advance of today’s announcement, and the seemingly arbitrary way in which these decisions were made and communicated, might convince BRAC opponents that it is better than the alternative.