Defense Secretary Leon Panetta

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

Defense gives up on another BRAC round, for now

Secretary says base closures will be critical to future of a slimmer Defense Department.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday there will be no new base realignment and closures in 2013, despite his push for them earlier in the year, according to Federal News Radio.

Speaking at the annual conference for the Association of Defense Communities in Carmel, Calif., Panetta said he still supports a new round of BRAC, but understands the political realities that make it difficult for lawmakers to back the Obama administration’s January request.

"It's no surprise,” he said of Congress’ inaction. “I didn't put any money on it. I was asked by some of my budgeteers whether we should put a dollar sign in the budget for BRAC, and I told them not to waste their time. We had to put it forward, have to make the argument. But I understand why it's so tough [for Congress]. But it's an important debate we have to have, and frankly, it's not going away."

The Defense Department included two rounds of BRAC in its 2013 budget proposal as part of an ongoing effort to slash its annual spending, but Congress -- always reluctant to fight over which members’ districts will be subject to the closures -- did not authorize any closures or realignments.

Panetta said he will continue to push for BRAC approval in upcoming years, claiming a slimmed down military has to be accompanied by a streamlined infrastructure.

“The reality is that the department is going to need to take a hard look at what we do in terms of supportive infrastructure,” he said. “If I'm taking the force structure down and still maintaining large infrastructure costs, then the money that ought to be going to training our soldiers is going to extra infrastructure. It's the very definition of hollowing-out the force."

Panetta promoted the role of the Office of Economic Adjustment to assist in areas where base closures depress local economies.

“I can assure you,” he told the Defense Communities audience, “that OEA will be there to do everything possible to assist and deal with the impact of what we will have because of a smaller defense budget.”

The office also helps with base expansion, and Panetta announced it will provide $40 million to a Bethesda, Md., project, as the Walter Reed Military Medical Center’s new suburban Washington location strives to become more commuter friendly. The grant will go toward a pedestrian underpass, connecting the Medical Center Metro stop to the hospital itself.

“This money will help ensure wounded warriors and their families are able to access the new facility, reduce congestion and increase safety around the base, and lessen the impact on the surrounding community,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said in a statement.