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Is it Time for Another BRAC?

By   /  November 25, 2014  /  No Comments

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Bastogne Soldiers get hero's welcomeThe conclusion of the Cold War and budget crunches of the 1980’s and early-1990’s led the U.S. government to drastically shrink the size of the U.S. military.  However, decreasing numbers could only save the government so much money.  With a smaller military, there seemed less of a justification for the immense numbers of bases across the world whose upkeep also depleted a fair size of the military’s budget.  Out of this political environment came the congressionally mandated Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commissions of the 1990’s, in order to “provide an objective, non-partisan, and independent review and analysis of the list of military installation recommendations issued by the Department of Defense (DoD)” based on criteria issued by Congress. [1]

While a BRAC in 1988 led to 17 recommended base closures, the BRACs of 1991 (28 base closures), 1993 (33 base closures), and 1995 (32 base closures) symbolize the BRACs that sowed the most fear in the hearts of communities and politicians as they awaited news if their local bases were slated for closure.  The loss of a military base to a community means the loss of jobs, the loss of a reliable consumer base, and the loss of a tax base, among many other injuries. The last BRAC of 2005, which did involve base closures (22 recommended), centered more on saving money through realigning the military to make it more efficient given the troop increases and focus on newer and non-traditional capabilities in order to support operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other Post-9/11 contingency areas. [2]

The current U.S. military seems to be in a similar situation to the U.S. military of the immediate Post-Cold War as the cessation (or soon-to-be cessation) of major operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and budget shortfalls do not make the military of the current size viable.  Therefore, the question presents itself:  Is the military in desperate need of another BRAC?

The Army appears to be the service that could symbolize the argument for a BRAC. As the largest service, it is especially feeling the brunt of the reduction of forces since it saw the greatest increase in numbers after 9/11 and was so heavily relied on in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Force size will be at 490,000 at the start of FY2016 and could precipitously decline to 420,000 by FY2019.  The Army’s current budget of approximately $120 billion will diminish by $9 billion in FY2016, with more reductions surely expected in the future. This reduction alone will lead to a “significant degradation” to the force in the near-term in regards to training, as the Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Odierno recently commented. [3] This could also have detrimental effects long-term as modernization through technology, which allows for a smaller Army to be as effective as, if not more than, a bigger army, also suffers cutbacks.  If a downsized Army is unable to absorb this loss of capability with technology, the force is left less effective force as compared to a force with a higher troop strength. [4] The lingering effects of sequestration and a possible sequestration in FY2016 also place stress on the Army’s wavering fiscal outlook.  As Secretary of Defense Hagel recently attested, the DoD has 24 percent in excess facilities, “costing us billions of dollars every year, money that could otherwise be invested in maintaining our military’s edge.” [5]

Title 10, Section 2687 of the U.S. Code provides the DoD with the rules for what it can and cannot do in regards to base closures and realignments without BRAC legislation, and what the BRAC process consists of. [6] The section spells out very clearly that there is very little the DoD can do for a major stationing effort without congressionally mandated BRAC legislation.  For instance, the section states that without such legislation, the DoD cannot close a base employing at least 300 civilians, nor shrink a base by reducing 1,000 or 50 percent of civilian employees. With such rules, the DoD is incapable of initiating major basing efficiency efforts without Congress authorizing a BRAC.

However, the current political environment does not lend itself to relying on such congressional foresight. The House and Senate recently threw out a BRAC request from DoD in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. [7] It will take time to see if a Republican-controlled Congress will react differently to a seeming need to reduce military installations, especially as communities that rely on these installations and infrastructure represent constituents who just put these politicians in power.  There are other factors that may work against having another BRAC. For instance, once installations are shuttered and the property sold to private citizens, there is no getting that land back, especially as the U.S. population increases and areas that for many reasons are best for housing military bases are devoured by population growth.  The history of the U.S. military is replete with fluctuations in size in order to adapt to threats to the U.S.  Simply because the military is shrinking now does not mean that it will not increase in the future. [8] When there is such an increase, bases will be needed to house and train them. The historical fluidity of military size is especially prescient now as, despite the current reduction of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the growing demands of other contingencies across the world, be it to shore up Eastern European allies from Russian aggression or to defeat a terrorist state bent on conquering wide swathes of the Middle East as currently being seen in Syria/Iraq, have military leaders reassessing downsizing. [9]

While a BRAC may help ensure that, in an era of reduced budgets, the military is freed from devoting much-needed resources to installations and infrastructure that are in excess of what the current force need, there are long-term concerns, such as adequate basing for a future larger military, that must be properly analyzed before closing or even realigning bases.  Additionally, a BRAC may end up costing more money than initially thought as when the 2005 BRAC ended up costing $35.1 billion instead of the expected $21 billion. [9] As a result, the U.S. will not save money on that endeavor until 2018.  But in the end, the U.S. will save money, money that can be used for additional military or other government concerns.  So, while a BRAC may appear optimal to a cash-strapped military, burdened by excess property it must pay to upkeep, Congress would be wise in working with the DoD in starting analysis to see if any major installation closing and realignment efforts should be taken to ensure the U.S. military, despite budget constraints, can continue in its mission of defending the U.S., its citizens, and interests, from all threats, foreign and domestic.

Photo Courtesy of The U.S. Army (License)


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