The election of a businessman with a focus on cutting waste to the White House. Growing concern in Congress that military readiness has reached critically low levels. And the military pleading once again to be able to get rid of some of its excess infrastructure.
Combined, these three factors point to 2017 being the first year in many in which base realignment and closures could actually happen, after several years of BRAC being one of those automatic, dead-on-arrival propositions. That’s because they equate to lost jobs back home for savings that take years to realize.
And analysts warned that while they’re more optimistic this year than in the past that closures could occur, it’s far from a done deal and could be derailed by political fighting or a lack of commitment to the cause from President Trump.
The Pentagon released a report in March that said the Defense Department has 22 percent excess infrastructure. It asked in its fiscal 2017 budget request for $4 million to begin the planning for another round of BRAC in 2019, which Congress denied. This month, top officers reignited the plea before the House Armed Services Committee, and key lawmakers have brought the issue of base closures back into the spotlight.
Dakota Wood, a senior research fellow for defense with the Heritage Foundation, said “the stars have aligned” to see serious progress on a new round of base realignment and closure this year, especially given Trump’s background in business.
“Whether it’s commercial business, like a hotel or a golf course, or military infrastructure, you’re still spending money on facilities,” Wood said. “If you were running a business and had warehouses or offices or some part of the business that you were putting money against and that asset wasn’t generating some kind of return for you, that’s just wasted money.”
For a base closure request to be successful, the president must expend a “significant amount” of political capital, said Philip Lohaus, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. While Trump’s rhetoric has targeted waste in large military aircraft contracts, it’s unclear if he will be willing to make calls supporting a BRAC once he understands more about the impact base closures have on a local community.
“When they negotiate with Congress, Congress is going to say, ‘This is going to result in X jobs lost in my district.’ I think that’s going to be a very powerful message to an administration that ran on keeping jobs in America and maintaining jobs,” Lohaus said.
Some of the key lawmakers who head the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have signaled that they are open to at least considering another BRAC. Sens. John McCain and Jack Reed said at a hearing that they want to discuss it with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee who introduced a bill in January to allow a BRAC, said the tide is changing, but “the question is, is the tide changing enough?”
“Does the Trump administration make that request? If they do, through Secretary Mattis and the Pentagon and they put in their budget request, the same thing President Obama did, I think that will give it an enormous amount of momentum, certainly with Republican majority,” Smith told the Washington Examiner.
In terms of the odds of Congress reaching a BRAC deal this year, Smith said he’d “put it at 50/50.”
Despite signaling from the White House and Capitol Hill that officials are open to talking about this efficiency, Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he’s not overly optimistic the momentum will carry because lawmakers voted just months ago in December to forbid the department from doing any more research into another BRAC round for fiscal 2017.
Still, Cancian said he expects the conversation to continue on Capitol Hill and for relevant committees to hold hearings on the topic.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, stressed he’ll need to see updated data from the Pentagon on what facilities need to close before he can get on board with another BRAC.
“There’s still a lot of bitterness left over from the last BRAC,” he told the Washington Examiner, noting that the last effort in 2005 saw the Pentagon try to close at least two facilities that later had to be reopened.
The last BRAC in 2005 cost more than expected up front and yielded savings much slower than anyone expected. That round of base closures included both a “transformation” BRAC, which cost $29 billion and saves about $1 billion annually, and an “efficiency” BRAC, which cost $6 billion up front and saves $3 billion every year.
A transformation BRAC allows for long-term planning and restructuring that would not be possible outside of a BRAC, while an efficiency round of closures is designed to yield quick savings.
A new BRAC would only be the latter kind of base closures and would cost $7 billion over a six-year implementation period, then save about $2 billion a year after that, according to the Pentagon’s report. Officials have promised it won’t repeat the mistakes made in 2005.
The 2005 BRAC is now saving about $4 billion a year. Combined with past rounds of base closures in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995, the department is saving about $12 billion a year from base closure initiatives, according to the Pentagon’s report.
The Pentagon declined to comment on any upcoming BRAC request.
The Army and Air Force have the most excess capacity, according to the March report, at 33 percent and 32 percent, respectively.
The Navy has only about 7 percent excess infrastructure, so would likely not see major impacts from another BRAC, if it’s approved. The Defense Logistics Agency has about 12 percent excess infrastructure.
The Navy’s vice chief, Adm. Bill Moran, told the Senate on Feb. 8 that the service would like to undergo a “micro-BRAC” to demolish some unneeded buildings without the bureaucracy of a full BRAC. And the Marine Corps’ No. 2 officer, assistant commandant Gen. Glenn Walters, said the service is “fine right where we are.”
Thornberry said this report relies on data from 2004 and doesn’t look at various force structures, something he previously asked for. He’s still on the fence about whether he’ll ask the Pentagon for an updated report in the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.
“We’re looking at options,” he said. “There are members who are interested in another round of BRAC. I’m interested to see what they come up with and how they would structure it, what sort of parameters.
“I wouldn’t foreclose anything, but on the other hand, it’s not going to be a repeat of 2005, and it’s got to be based on real data, not guesstimates,” he said.
The Air Force said it does not have a pre-selected list of installations that could be closed. The Army said the BRAC would eliminate about 4 or 5 percent of the service’s 21 percent excess infrastructure. But the March report does break down which types of infrastructure are in the most excess. In the Army, it’s reserve training bases and test and evaluation labs. In the Air Force, it’s space operations and classroom facilities.
To move forward on a BRAC, Congress will ask the military for a list of what it would like to close and why, which will be sent to an independent commission to come up with a final list that is either approved or rejected by a vote on Capitol Hill, Wood said. While the Pentagon needs an official go-ahead from Congress to begin work on the list, since doing so will use some time and resources, Wood said people in the services who manage facilities have clearly already given some thought as to what could go.
Wood said that, with strong support in both the House and Senate, legislation allowing the Pentagon to begin exploring another BRAC could come in the fiscal 2017 funding supplemental the administration will send over soon.
Cancian, however, said he expects any BRAC language to wait until the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act because the authorizers have already denied any progress on base closures for fiscal 2017. Putting it in the supplemental would require authorizers to go back and reauthorize the work.