September 20, 2017 Inside Defense, Justin Doubleday

This year’s defense policy bill is unlikely to include authorization for a new base realignment and closure round, after leaders on the Senate Armed Services Committee dropped an expected push for such a provision.

Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) and Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-RI) had drafted a provision authorizing a new BRAC round in 2019, but their amendment was left on the table after the Senate voted to limit floor debate on the defense policy bill last week. The chamber then passed the bill by an 89-8 vote on Sept. 18.

House and Senate authorizers will now go into conference to hash out differences between their respective bills.

Andrew Hunter, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says adding BRAC during conference negotiations is “technically feasible, but seems like a longshot.” McCain, Reed and House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-WA) all support BRAC, but House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) is among those who oppose it.

“It would require DOD to make that their top priority for the conference, and to put in a tremendous effort to get it added,” Hunter told Inside Defense. “While [Defense] Secretary [Jim] Mattis has certainly supported the need for BRAC, I’m not sure the department has put BRAC authority that high up on its list of priorities at this stage.”

Despite the failed push to include BRAC authorization in the Senate bill, “a lot of progress was made this year, and that is just as important to getting potential approval next year for the round in 2021,” MacKenzie Eaglen, a defense budget analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, told Inside Defense.

“Plenty of time and I think they were smart to take the longer view,” she said.

Lucian Niemeyer, the newly confirmed assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations and environment, is a strong BRAC proponent within the Pentagon, according to Eaglen. She thinks DOD is “more fully behind it and committed to pressuring the Hill until they get it.”

During a Sept. 5 Heritage Foundation event in Washington, Niemeyer tied a new BRAC round to the ongoing review of the National Defense Strategy.

“We’re also looking at a whole new realm, an era, of new technologies, new methods to warfare, emerging capabilities, fifth-generation weapon systems, and that really for us needs an updated basing strategy to meet an emerging, new national defense strategy,” he said.

The Pentagon is seeking authorization to begin preparing for a new BRAC round as part of its FY-18 budget, but it based the request off the Obama administration’s assessment that the military had about 22 percent excess capacity. Many Republican lawmakers and even Mattis himself questioned the efficacy of that assessment.

Lawmakers skeptical of the BRAC request also point to an unfulfilled requirement under the FY-16 National Defense Authorization Act for DOD to compare its infrastructure requirements against higher force levels from 2012. The Obama administration’s assessment is based off more recent, lower end-strength levels.

At the Heritage event, Niemeyer confirmed the Pentagon is now carrying out that requirement as it re-examines its excess infrastructure capacity.

“We’re in the process of working that package back to Congress,” he said.