February 28, 2017
President Trump, the White House has announced, will announce the general outlines of his budget tomorrow: $54 billion more for the military, and an offsetting $54 billion less for everything else, except entitlements, which are not to be touched. Ring-fencing half the spending aims to fulfill the campaign promise to focus federal attention on national security and cash transfers, to which his supporters feel entitled. The move rather furthers the nature of the US government, as former Treasury Undersecretary Peter Fisher once quipped, as “a pension fund with an army.” The administration is also hoping for a Laffer Curve increase in tax receipts through the economic growth that should result from burning down vast sections of federal regulation. That’s not quite what happened in the 1980s, so even if the administration is punting the entitlement question until at least next year, it shouldn’t take a minor military buildup as an excuse to ignore opportunities for military savings. The work will be hard, but tens of billions are available for the taking. A vast back office sprawls within and beyond the Pentagon, and shifting money from tail to teeth requires tackling problems of footprint and function.

For disposing of excess infrastructure, the federal approach has generally been the formal Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process. (It's a burning question for me, so I have repeatedly written about it, or at least my hopes for it.) Former Pentagon Comptroller Bob Hale once described BRAC to Defense News as “the single largest program efficiency that DoD has been able to implement.” The Cato Institute, naturally, is in favor. The Defense Business Board, as well, has unanimously called for another BRAC. Back in July 2015, Allyson Versprille wrote for National Defense of how “lawmakers [were] starting to see value in another BRAC.” As Connor O’Brien reported for Politico Morning Defense in January, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman (SASC) John McCain of Arizona is “seriously considering” another BRAC, calling inaction on rationalizing military infrastructure “an act of cowardice.” He and SASC Ranking Member Jack Reed of Rhode Island want to discuss the question with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

Last April, however, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) did firmly reject another BRAC. While HASC Ranking Member Adam Smith of Washington rather favors another round, HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry of Texas remains opposed, if only because the military expects presently to expand its force structure. Naval blogger Commander Salamander recently argued that we “just say no to BRAC,” because “there is a lot more to military base utility than a simple spreadsheet snapshot” that comes from the Pentagon and the Commission's models. If nothing else, as my friend Dave Foster at Naval Air Systems Command reminds,“there's always a case for some degree of redundancy in military affairs, to mitigate against vulnerabilities by distributing footprint.” It’s unwise to have whole capabilities stationed at single bases, whatever the perceived efficiency. Indeed, that’s a reminder that not every agency needs BRAC equally. The Navy is actually pretty lean and consolidated in terms of ports and airfields. At this point, if anything, it needs to disperse, particularly in the Pacific, where almost all the combat power of the fleet resides in four basins: Tokyo Bay, Puget Sound, San Diego, and Pearl Harbor. The Navy actually might consider moving some ships back to Long Beach and San Francisco Bay, if the housing costs could be addressed.

So what can be done? The standard question for BRAC is footprint: how much does the military need for doing things, and where those things could be done with less. The ponderous nature of Pentagon planning has exacerbated the problem in ways that may be easy to fix, at least in the long run. Jamie Morin, the Pentagon’s former director of Cost Analysis and Program Evaluation (CAPE), has observed that the US Air Force generally assumes that any base needs at least 800 troops, “before you put any equipment there.” Here’s another idea—before trying to close a base, ask how to run it with fewer people. Ever seen a firehouse with 800 firemen? A police station with 800 policemen? Someone call General Casey—those are stateside SuperFOBs. No business, and no reasonably accountable state or local government, would run its affairs this way. It’s entirely why the Trump campaign called the federal bureaucracy “out of control.”

Rationalizing all this should be easier than many think. As Kristina Wong wrote for The Hill last July, the Pentagon has over 2,500 data centers, and wants to close 60 percent of those by next year. So, the Defense Department stood up a team, which started work in Charleston in November. Stephen Losey wrote in Air Force Times in October of how training for “battlefield airmen”—pararescuemen, combat controllers, special forces weather forecasters, etc.—will be consolidated from four sites to two. The Army recently moved its Strykers out of Hawaii, and converted the regular brigade there to light infantry, without much fanfare. Note that none of this, however, has actually required a BRAC.

A more fundamental question, though, is function—whether the military should do something at all. Writing in Breaking Defense, the Cancians recently asked why the Pentagon runs schools—even in the United States—for the troops’ children. What other NATO military establishments do that? Or take grocery stores. As Army Times noted in 2013, the Pentagon has at least once before drawn up a plan for shuttering all the commissaries in the United States. For as the Government Accountability Office reported last November, the Pentagon cannot figure out how to make money from them. In December, Stars & Stripes noted that the Pentagon was at least trying to concoct a plan to offset its annual $1.4 billion loss from its commissary system. Before blanching, recall that radical reform has been successfully implemented at least once before. As former Assistant Army Secretary Sandy Apgar retold at the CSIS last October, over 99 percent of base housing is now in private hands—and most effectively so. So why prolong the pain? Only a socialist would think that the government should run housing or groceries—though on the schools issue, better call Betsy DeVos. Regardless, none of this contributes to acumen in warfighting, and closing none of it actually require a BRAC.

For a more martial example, consider the Navy’s surface fleet. Its research and development activities are coordinated by the 17,000 staff of the eight Naval Surface Warfare Centers (NSWCs). The Naval Research Laboratory has another 1,600 scientists and engineers, over half of whom with PhDs, plus 900 support staff. At the same time, consider how, of all the new surface ship classes in the 25 years since the end of the Cold War—San Antonio, Zumwalt, Freedom, Independence, and America—only the last has debuted without anguish. These great people are doing some great work, but they may be doing too much of it, and maybe some of that work has been far from great. Making the fleet great again will require some moving some offices and maybe retiring a few officeholders. That process will then need to be repeated across the defense enterprise.

Defense contractors, who are rather smarter at this, have been at the game for years, and they’ve been steadily improving their margins all the way. Boeing is working on another round of consolidation even now, moving people and functions from high-cost California to Oklahoma and Texas. Boards of directors may be easier to convince than legislators, and that’s why non-BRAC solutions appeal. But even BRAC should not be difficult. James Durso, a former naval officer who served on the staff of the 2005 Commission, wrote in Defense News in June 2016 of how no senator or congressman has ever lost a seat for voting for BRAC. Academic research confirms this—see David Sorenson’s Military Base Closure: A Reference Handbook (Greenwood Press, 2007). All the same, maybe the members will wince over authorizing one just before next year’s midterm elections. For such a business-minded administration, however, a BRAC in 2019—or at least a thorough scrubbing of the Pentagon’s back office—is too compelling an opportunity to pass.

James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.