Have no fear, BRAC moves to back burner

ISIS? The Russians? Iran? The Chinese? Invaders from Zeta Reticuli?

Nah. What the nation’s military communities fear more than anything is four letters: B-R-A-C.

The Pentagon describes Base Realignment and Closure as “the congressionally authorized process DoD has used to reorganize its base structure to more efficiently and effectively support our forces, increase operational readiness and facilitate new ways of doing business.”

BRAC got underway in 1988, with the Defense Authorization Amendments and Base Closure and Realignment Act. (Previously, it was illegal for the Pentagon to close a base without legislative approval.) The Congressional Research Service described the law’s key innovations as an “independent commission” with ultimate decision-making authority, and a “fast track, no-amendment vote” by the House and Senate.

The goal was to neuter logrolling, and it worked. Early results were encouraging, so two years later, the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Act established the procedures for subsequent rounds of right-sizing.

By 1995, four BRACs had reaped a total of 235 closings and realignments. Legislative careerists began to worry — maybe the process was working too well. Interest in new rounds waned. As Admiral David E. Jeremiah and Marine Corps General Richard D. Hearney lamented in a 2001 Los Angeles Times op-ed, “Every year the military begs to shut down obsolete facilities. Every year Congress says no.”

The most recent BRAC round, conducted in 2005, almost didn’t happen. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, lobbying for a leaner military, thundered that no “organization can say that it’s doing a good job with the taxpayers’ dollars if it’s maintaining some 20 percent to 25 percent excess capacity.” And libertarian defense analyst Charles V. Peña peskily observed that “U.S. military bases do not exist to support local economies. They exist to defend U.S. national security.”

But elections were on the line. Fedpols worried about vulnerable facilities in their home states and districts maneuvered to torpedo BRAC. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), desperate to “save” Ellsworth Air Force Base, griped that another round would be “premature” and “indiscriminate.” His colleague Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), worried about the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, whined about a “runaway train that threatens to derail our national security.”

Pro-BRAC forces prevailed, although approval in the Senate was a close call: 53-47. Nonetheless, many communities successfully convinced commissioners to remove their pork — er, essential components of our defense architecture — from the Pentagon’s target list. Naval Submarine Base New London slipped the noose. (Sen. Joe Lieberman: “It is cruel and unusual punishment that Connecticut does not deserve and our national security cannot afford.”) New Mexico’s Cannon Air Force Base survived. (Sen. Jeff Bingaman: “The Defense Department significantly underestimated the adverse effect on this community and this part of our state.”) Thune got his way, too — as did Snowe.

Most facilities weren’t so lucky. They got shuttered, or merged. The overall impact was massive — 765 closures and realignments. And the most sweeping BRAC round yet made a lot of people nervous. When, and where, might the ax fall again?

Last year, an Associated Press investigation found that states “with large military bases are filling what is traditionally the federal government’s role by picking up the tab for construction and repairs, saying they can’t afford not to. The number of states willing to spend taxpayer money to fix infrastructure in military facilities, and the scale of the projects, has increased steadily in the past five years. State officials argue the Pentagon keeps asking for base closings and they want to protect their bases and the revenue they bring in.”

They needn’t worry. In March, the Pentagon issued a report that listed the Army’s excess capacity at a stunning 33 percent, with the Air Force just a notch behind, at 32 percent. Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work reminded Capitol Hill that the Pentagon “has repeatedly testified” that “spending resources on excess infrastructure does not make sense,” and pressed Congress to “provide the Department authorization for another round of BRAC.”

But the trade publication Defense News dryly observed that “resource-sucking bases and activities represent jobs — and votes — back home.” The fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act has yet to be finalized, but it’s a near certainty that a BRAC go-ahead won’t be a part of the legislation.

According to the Government Accountability Office, the Pentagon “manages a global real-property portfolio consisting of more than 555,000 facilities worldwide.” It’s an thoroughly unmanageable empire, designed not for homeland defense, but domestic politics.

It’s been a decade since BRAC round No. 5. Don’t hold your breath waiting for No. 6.

Former Nevadan D. Dowd Muska ( writes about government, economics, and technology. He lives in Corrales, New Mexico. Follow him on Twitter @DowdMuska.

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