Pentagon planners have a new pitch to lawmakers skeptical of a fresh round of base closings: We promise we'll save money this time.
In recent years, White House and defense officials repeatedly have broached the idea of launching another base closing process to dump excess military facility space.
And most lawmakers repeatedly and angrily have rejected the idea, calling the process divisive and costly.
But that perception is the fault of the last base realignment and closing process, according to John Conger, acting assistant secretary of defense for installations.
He told members of the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday that the much-reviled 2005 round had many recommendations "not designed to save any money" and was more about rebalancing the force than cutting costs. He also said defense officials are focused on not taking that approach again.
"We look at the next round as an efficiency-driven one," Conger said. "In such a budget environment as we have today, it only makes sense to avoid spending money on excess."
Officials estimate that the military's U.S. footprint is at least 25 percent bigger than it needs to be, given the force's shrinking personnel levels. Trimming infrastructure by just 5 percent, they say, could save about $2 billion annually in reduced upkeep costs.
But the department estimated similar excess capacity in 2004, when the last Base Realignment and Closure ([BRAC)] round was approved. It reduced the military infrastructure by less than 3.5 percent and ended up costing more than $35 billion to achieve roughly $4 billion in future annual savings.
Lawmakers repeatedly have said that the Defense Department cannot afford similarly high up-front costs again, given the pressures on the defense budget. They've also been reluctant to sign on to shifting military personnel and jobs out of their own districts, a proposal in the past that has caused significant local economic problems in some communities.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., said the current BRAC authority — written more than 25 years ago — is too archaic for the future needs of the force.
He suggested lawmakers may be amenable to a review of segments of facility use — a review of military housing and privatization options, for example — instead of a full base closing round.
Last year, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, offered similar revisions to the BRAC process, including a shorter timeframe for realizing savings and more flexibility for Congress to respond to the recommendations.
But Conger said defense officials oppose those ideas, and instead remain confident that a base closing round, done right, still can be a success.
"When we want to save money with BRAC, we do," he said.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.