The next few months could decide whether the Defense Department gets another base closing round in the next decade, according to a new analysis from a conservative think tank warning military officials not to dismiss the potential looming impact on budgets and readiness.
Officials from the Heritage Foundation, whose policy priorities have helped influence President Donald Trump’s administration, have in the past supported a new base closing round to cut back on excess military infrastructure and more efficiently spend annual defense funding.
In the analysis released this week, author Frederico Bartels — policy analyst for defense budgeting at the foundation — said a Pentagon report on the issue being compiled now represents “the best chance for the Department of Defense to make the case for a new round of BRAC” in years, and perhaps the last realistic chance to advance the idea for the near future.
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“I think it’s the last chance of the Trump administration to make an argument for this,” he said in an interview with Military Times. “Even if he gets re-elected next year, I think it will be hard to go back and make the case if they’re unsuccessful this time.”
The military convened six base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commissions between 1988 and 2005, shutting down dozens of military installations and turning over that land to state and local municipalities.
The process has always been fraught with political turmoil, as lawmakers protest any loss of jobs, military personnel and resulting economic benefits in their districts. But the 2005 BRAC round was particularly controversial, as defense officials consolidated numerous service locations into joint bases and massively rearranged force structure in an attempt to modernize the military.
As a result, cost saving projections from that process were significantly below past rounds, and members of Congress have strongly opposed any attempts at another round since then.
In the fiscal 2019 national defense authorization act, lawmakers did include language for a new military infrastructure capacity report — due next February — where defense officials can make the case for the need for additional closures. Similar Pentagon reports in the last few years have shown excess capacity of between 19 and 22 percent.
Bartels said Pentagon leaders have repeatedly supported the idea of another round in recent years, but have done a poor job selling lawmakers on the idea.
“The department needs to make the case for a new round of BRAC based on two key tenets: potential savings and the National Defense Strategy,” he wrote. “A new BRAC round could save $2 billion by reducing unneeded infrastructure. Additionally, a new round of BRAC would permit the department to assess its infrastructure against the threats outlined by the National Defense Strategy, providing a holistic look at all of the infrastructure.”
He warns that naming specific locations will only exacerbate political tensions on the issue, and said defense officials also need to publicly acknowledge problems with the 2005 base realignment round to win back congressional support.
And Bartels argues that the Trump administration must do more to push the issue. Defense officials requested a base closing round as part of their annual budget for six consecutive years before the Trump White House dropped the idea in their fiscal 2019 and 2020 budget plans.
The Pentagon is threatening to start closing down unneeded military bases unilaterally if Congress continues to refuse to launch a new Base Closure and Realignment Commission.
If officials fail to request one next spring, or if the planned infrastructure report is delayed by several months, the department risks pushing the idea back at minimum an entire extra budget cycle and likely several more years down the road. Even if approved, the new BRAC round is likely to take several years of research and debate before any recommendations are made.
“I think there is still support for this in Congress,” Bartels said. “I think there are enough people that are about good stewardship of government funds that this can move ahead, if (defense officials) make the right argument. At least, I hope those lawmakers still exist.”
The full analysis is available on the Heritage Foundation’s website.