Backing BRAC

Defense still believes in the base realignment and closure process.

Congressional resistance to the base closure and realignment process appears to have worn down Pentagon officials, at least for the moment. “I understand that now is not the time for a [new] BRAC round,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said during an Association of Defense Communities conference in Monterey, Calif., in early August. 

That doesn’t mean Panetta and other Defense Department officials, including Dorothy Robyn, deputy undersecretary of Defense for installations and environment, are giving up in the long term. “It’s an important debate we have to have, and frankly, it’s not going away,” Panetta told the defense communities audience.  

The Pentagon is facing $487 billion in cuts over 10 years under the 2011 Budget Control Act, and $600 billion more if sequestration goes into effect on Jan. 2, 2013. Defense might be able to achieve those reductions without BRAC, but “the reality is that the department is going to need to take a hard look at what we do in terms of supportive infrastructure,” said Panetta, who requested two additional rounds of BRAC as part of Defense’s fiscal 2013 budget. “If I’m taking the force structure down and then maintaining large infrastructure costs, then the money that ought to be going to training, for assistance . . . for our soldiers is going to maintain the infrastructure.” 

BRAC was designed to prevent parochial political interests from getting in the way of closing excess military installations. Defense officials who oversee it admit that closures and realignments can either devastate local communities or spur economic growth, depending upon the process used and the triggers for implementation. 

In July, for instance, Defense’s Office of Economic Adjustment announced $180 million in funding to expand Route 1 in Northern Virginia to accommodate traffic headed toward Fort Belvoir, where the military and civilian workforce has doubled as part of a realignment following the 2005 BRAC. The highway project is the first installment in a $300 million program for improvements associated with medical facilities. 

Robyn told Government Executive that whether or not BRAC ultimately creates jobs or tears apart communities depends on how property and other resources Defense no longer needs are repurposed.  

During BRAC closures and realignments in 1988 and 1991, Defense was unprepared to engage communities that would lose military and civilian jobs that served as their backbone, she says. 

“It was completely unmindful of job creation,” Robyn says. Communities targeted by base closings took an average of 53 months to come up with a reuse plan. Military bases do not pay property taxes, so plans to redevelop once the services relocate are vital, she notes. Local officials must mull the best use for the land: Is there funding to build a school and pay teacher salaries, or to build an airport?

During the most recent rounds of BRAC—in 1993 and 2005—communities began thinking about these questions earlier. In 1993, the OEA decided to give BRAC-targeted property to local communities at a discount through economic development conveyances. In order to be granted one, communities and military departments must prove reuse would lead to job creation and seek fair market value for the property. Conveyances remain “the most important mechanism” available to communities in the BRAC process, Robyn says. 

Policymakers would do well to remember this history, lest it repeat itself. Earlier this year, Robyn told lawmakers that the messy and harmful early BRAC scenes could come back to haunt military communities if the department were to decide to close bases under existing, non-BRAC authorities that don’t require congressional sign off.  

“If we act outside the BRAC process, the department is severely constrained in what it can do to help local communities,” she warned. Robyn and other Defense officials decline to say whether this remains an open threat heading into what is slated to be a long lame duck session closing out the fiscal 2013 budget. They also remain vague on whether they will request closures during the fiscal 2014 budget process.

Even when BRAC is undertaken with communities’ interests in mind, it’s not always clear how much the process benefits the Pentagon’s bottom line. 

The 2005 BRAC presents a big public relations challenge for Defense. When it’s finally complete, the department will be looking at a $35 billion price tag. Officials initially estimated it would cost $21 billion to implement that round of closures and realignments, and projected overall savings of $36 billion over two decades. The Government Accountability Office now says Defense will save about $10 billion during that time. 

These figures are largely responsible for lawmakers’ skepticism about further rounds. Robyn insists the 2005 closures were outliers; those realignments were driven by the urgency of bolstering the military’s capabilities during two wars. Next time around, BRAC will be focused on cost savings, she says. 

“It could be 15 or 20 years before we make back in savings all that we spent up front in 2005,” says Todd Harrison, a senior fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. The right time for BRAC, he says, is when the budget starts to increase. “Going into a down budget cycle, why would we want to spend that money up front?” he asks.

But Winslow T. Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight, agrees with Defense officials that shedding excess capacity should be central to the department’s efforts to generate savings and enhance efficiency. A return to BRAC is inevitable because of the fiscal climate, not in spite of it, he says. “It will come up again and they have to find a way to make it happen,” Wheeler says. “Your infrastructure has to be sized for your force. Good political leadership can make a BRAC closure a plus, not a minus, in terms of economics. Certainly in Congress we don’t have the kind of political leadership that points that out to communities.”

Defense officials could pick up the slack, by continuing to share stories of community expansion and job creation. A new round of BRAC might not be on Defense’s immediate agenda, but base closures and realignments remain a big issue for military communities nationwide and for those charged with watching the budget. On both the job creation and budget fronts, Robyn says: “We won’t start to see the payback until later.”