A Better Way To Close American Bases

(POLITICO MAGAZINE 11 MAR 14) … Ret. Gen. Norton A. Schwartz and William F. Murdy

In an age of military belt-tightening, the Pentagon is wisely willing to scale back its base operations on U.S. territory. So why won’t Congress let it?

For the third year in a row, lawmakers appear uncharacteristically united in their opposition to the Defense Department’s request for another round of BRAC – the acronym for base realignment and closure – even though the process is based on a law Congress itself crafted back in 1990. The reason most lawmakers cite is that the last BRAC round, in 2005, was the costliest ever, not to mention a poor short-term investment: $35 billion in up-front implementation costs to save $4 billion annually in perpetuity.

But as the U.S. military becomes leaner, adapting to the realities of modern technology and geopolitics, we should continue to expect decreases in Army and Marine Corps end strength, the retirement of Air Force aircraft and the laying up of Navy cruisers. Given this downsizing, the cost of refurbishing existing bases and the limited resources expected to be available in the years ahead, we should question whether Congress’s opposition to the base cuts is prudent, or even defensible.

For one thing, BRAC 2005, which Congress approved at the time, was an anomaly: We were a nation fighting two wars with a ballooning defense budget, and the BRAC process became one of realignment – a building spree rather than cuts. Only 5 percent of U.S. base capacity – essentially acreage and buildings – was eliminated. In contrast, consider earlier iterations of the modern BRAC process that occurred as U.S. forces retrenched following the Cold War. The Defense Department estimates that in four BRAC rounds – 1988, 1991, 1993, 1995 – approximately 21 percent of the 1988 U.S. base capacity was eliminated. (Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci initiated the 1988 round before Congress passed its BRAC law in 1990.) These cuts made perfect sense given that from 1988 to 1995 the United States decreased worldwide active-duty end strength from 2.1 million troops to 1.5 million.

Today, as the Pentagon again shrinks its forces and asks for another BRAC in 2017, it admits the process would cost perhaps $6 billion up front. But it would also add $2 billion in perpetuity to the $16 billion in recurring savings from all previous BRAC rounds. The Defense Department claims excess capacity of about 20 percent, with the Air Force alone acknowledging 25 percent excess. These numbers are due mostly to obsolescence, improvements in operational efficiency, retirement of old systems and, perversely, the reorganization/consolidation actions that emerged from the 2005 BRAC round. The downsizing that’s already underway is, of course, reasonable given the Pentagon’s professed aim to prioritize weapons modernization, special operations and cyber security initiatives. If Congress fails to rein in the military’s rising personnel and benefits costs or reinstates the sequester’s spending caps, keeping excess bases up and running is also financially indefensible.

Gen. Norton A. Schwartz (Ret.) served as chief of staff for the U.S. Air Force from 2008-2012 and is president and CEO of Business Executives for National Security.

Think of it through a corporate lens: A board of directors expects executive management to rationalize holdings and infrastructure as the market demand transitions from manpower-intensive work to specialized technology-driven operations. This is the kind of restructuring, or “pivot,” the Pentagon is attempting – and rationalizing to Congress.

The Defense Department is not a business, but its financial management activities accord to the same principles that govern public companies. As the Pentagon struggles to meet the full financial statement audit Congress has mandated by late 2017, it will be important for Defense to ensure there are no material misstatements in its reporting on financing for “general property, plant and equipment assets … using an appropriate valuation basis that is in accordance with U.S. generally accepted accounting principles.” Then again, what is the valuation basis when the asset is obsolete, under-utilized or non-performing?

The Pentagon may act on its own, in particular instances, to shutter installations; Congress only needs be notified and given time to react. But would Congress, deadlocked on big issues like immigration and tax reform, do so? Better to have the commission stipulated by the BRAC law – a nine-person group appointed by the president with recommendations from Senate and House leaders – conduct an independent review of the Pentagon’s proposals, thereby buffering the process from the administration and individual members of Congress, both of whom would have to accept the commission’s decisions all or none.

There is no political upside to closing bases. But it is an act of political courage that at least three previous Congresses have been willing to sustain. The economy and the country survived; most affected communities prospered. And the U.S. armed forces continued to be the most formidable military in the history of the planet. The Pentagon is downsizing many thousands of personnel and hundreds of units of major equipment. But it needs Congress to let it scale back bases too.

Gen. Norton A. Schwartz (Ret.) served as chief of staff for the U.S. Air Force from 2008-2012 and is president and CEO of Business Executives for National Security. William F. Murdy is chairman of Comfort Systems USA and vice chairman of the board of directors for Business Executives for National Security.

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