Thinking About BRAC – Backwards

With the looming “fiscal cliff” and a sense that austerity is necessary if the United States is to get its economic house in order, major cuts to the Defense budget are inevitable. As we try to figure out how to smartly save money, one area seems overlooked: consolidating bases and facilities to eliminate duplication and improve efficiency.

During the last major Defense drawdown, in the years following the end of the Cold War, Congress created the Base Closure and Realignment Commission, or BRAC. The goal was to better integrate active, reserve, and Guard units; rearrange forces to better respond to worldwide crises;  bring the services closer together for both training and operations; and, oh yes, convert unnecessary capacity into useful capabilities while saving a bit (billions) of money.  The initial rounds were in 1989, 1991, 1993 and 1995; another took place in 2005 and its recommendations are still being implemented.

It’s time to review the BRAC process. But, this time, we should reverse the process.

To many, BRAC became, and still is, a four-letter word. Not many people want their local bases shut down as these bases often provide millions of dollars in revenue to the local community. However, these bases also cost the Department of Defense billions of dollars to keep open over the next 20-plus years. 

That’s a justifiable cost in some cases, but in many, the bases can be shuttered and converted to civilian use. That not only saves the government the costs of operating overage bases, but gives the local communities new industrial parks, airports, business centers, housing and more. When done with planning and foresight, these closures can be win-win for both the Department of Defense and the local communities.

Recently, the Air Force proposed moving an F-16 squadron from Eielson Air Force Base to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, also in Alaska, at a projected a cost savings of $200 million over five years. What they didn’t project was the uproar of Alaska’s Congressional delegation, which has fought the move, and just this month won a one-year reprieve with an amendment in the National Defense Authorization Act. This move was fought because of fear that it would devastate the local community around Eielson. 

BRAC was designed to get around these sort of hurdles. An independent commission was assembled to study the issue and recommend closures and realignments in order to meet Congressional savings targets. Then, Congress was required to vote up or down on the entire package. With Members thus being unable to lobby to save bases in their districts and states, local politics was unable to trump the overall desire to achieve savings. 

Historically, BRAC has looked at which bases provide minimal support and/or use and recommends closing those. These are generally the bases in more remote locations or with smaller missions. This makes sense at some levels; these bases are out of the way, small and often have a reduced mission that could be accomplished elsewhere. The bases that stay open are often in bigger areas with lots of infrastructure and surrounding support. In other words, areas that are already doing well.

Many argue that closing these smaller bases can devastate the local community. Hence, the fight that is almost always at hand. Jobs, spending, both government and private, and everything associated with a few thousand people leaving the town, can have a huge impact. However, these fears are disputed and may even be overrated in some cases. A RAND report studying some California base closings in 1996 concluded that the results in that area were not devastating, as feared. Not all closings are equal and as such, any closing or realignment needs to be looked at anew.

So, what if, instead of choosing bases the old fashioned way, we flipped the processaround and closed bases with an eye toward  which communities stand the best chance of converting those now unused facilities into productive areas for the community? A big city might be able to convert an unused runway and all its supporting infrastructure into a thriving cargo-hub, or industrial park whereas a rual area might not have the resources to develop an abandoned facility.

In Germany, the old Hahn Air Base was converted just this way. Regional airlines now fly out of the base, which boasts hotels, offices, and more. This is a win-win for both the military and the local community. Who’s to say we can’t do the same here in the United States? 

Well, actually, we have! When Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire closed, it was re-developed, creating nearly 2,500 local jobs. There are other base closings that had similar results.   As stated in ads, results may vary. The important thing is how the bases are chosen.

Let’s look at those bases that will convert well – and convert them. Consolidate units at the other bases – we’re paying for those bases anyway. That will save the DoD money, maximize resources, and have benefits for both the communities converting their bases and the base that will now reap the financial rewards of a larger mission.

BRAC will never be popular;  cost-cutting usually isn’t. But considering the impact of potential cuts on local communities at the front end of the process will minimize the pain. And, in the end, the local community might be thankful for the cuts when an inefficient base is replaced by something more economically productive.

Lieutenant Colonel Aaron Burgstein is the Air Force fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author. They do not reflect the official position of the US government, Department of Defense, or the United States Air Force.

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