The Pentagon has renewed a push to shut down military bases, telling Congress the military “must stop wasting money” on excess infrastructure it doesn’t need and cash that would be better spent on readiness and modernizing weapons.
A Defense Department report estimated, based on projected 2019 force levels, the Air Force has 32 percent excess infrastructure alone and the military has 22 percent more space overall than it needs.
“In the face of increasing demands on the defense budget and a highly uncertain global security environment, the Department of Defense must stop wasting money on unnecessary infrastructure,” said the Pentagon report recently sent to key members of Congress.
The report found the Army had the most excess space, estimated at 33 percent. The Defense Logistics Agency had 12 percent excess capacity, and the Navy had the least with 7 percent.
‘Wholesale closures’ of bases
Base closures would likely focus on “clean kills” or the “wholesale closures of bases and facilities” that are underused, according to Todd Harrison, director of budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
A future base realignment and closure process, also called BRAC, “almost certainly means a reduction in personnel – primarily civilian personnel,” he said in an email.
“What makes this such a politically difficult issue is the jobs affected,” Harrison added. “Excess bases are a significant waste of taxpayer dollars in the defense budget, on the order of roughly $2 billion annually. But this waste creates jobs that support local communities, and members of Congress don’t want to see cuts in their districts.”
Still, defense analysts said, a round of base closures is unlikely in the midst of a contentious presidential election year. It will likely be left for the next administration to grapple with, Harrison said.
But with global hot spots flaring and the specter of sequestration or automatic defense spending caps returning, pressure may be growing on legislators to authorize a new round to free up dollars for more pressing needs.
Pentagon estimates place a new round of base closures at a cost of $7 billion with savings estimated at $2 billion a year. Five previous rounds between 1988 and 2005 save $12.5 billion a year, Defense Department estimates claim.
In 2005, the last time a BRAC happened, Wright-Patterson netted 1,100 jobs primarily from the relocation of the 711th Human Performance Wing — and the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine — from Texas to the Ohio base. The region also lost about 400 jobs when a Defense Finance and Accounting Services location shut down in Kettering.
In the last round, Springfield Air National Guard Base lost a squadron of F-16s that trained pilots but gained a new role remotely flying drones on overseas missions.
Wright-Patterson is a large, complex base with acres of available land that could put it in contention to gain missions, “but it’s still a roll of the dice and it’s still uncertain,” said Michael Gessel, Dayton Development Coalition vice president of federal programs in Washington, D.C.
It could be at risk to lose missions as well, he said.
State lawmakers set aside $5 million meant to primarily protect Wright-Patterson, the largest single-site employer in Ohio with more than 27,000 employees. At least part of the money was intended to pay for base infrastructure needs.
The Ohio Federal-Military Jobs Commission this year urged the state to hire a czar to oversee efforts to bolster Ohio military bases to withstand the scrutiny of a BRAC.
Repeated messages Monday and Tuesday left for a spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, for comment on the Pentgon’s BRAC request went unanswered. Turner’s congressional district covers Wright-Patterson and the congressman is a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
In a statement a year ago, Turner emphasized a need for the state legislation because federal rules prohibit states spending on base infrastructure during a BRAC process. “It’s a game that must be completed before BRAC commences and that’s why it’s so important that this be done now,” he said then.
BRAC not ‘bad news’?
There’s uncertainty what a push for base closures would mean for Wright-Patterson and Ohio.
A round of base shutdowns may not be “bad news” for Wright-Patterson, which could gain potentially jobs, said Loren B. Thompson, a senior defense analyst with the Lexington Institute in Virginia and a defense industry consultant.
“If there actually is a new round of base closures, I would worry more about Air National Guard sites in Ohio than Wright-Patterson,” he said in an email, adding excess capacity at Air National Guard bases was estimated at 24 percent by 2019.
“The big activities at Wright-Patt are weapons development and intelligence, both of which are likely to get robust funding for the remainder of the decade,” he added.
House lawmakers Tuesday released a legislative provision in proposed fiscal year 2017 defense bill to prohibit a BRAC, Gessel said. But that wouldn’t preclude a BRAC in 2019 with follow-on legislation, he said.
MacKenzie Eaglen, an American Enterprise Institute defense analyst, said members of Congress are “strongly inclined to inaction” toward shutting down military bases. Legislators have pushed back on the on the Pentagon analysis based on assumptions of the size of U.S. military forces projected in 2019, she said.
“That alone is enough to invalidate the usefulness of the study this year and possibly longer,” she wrote in an email.