The Pentagon needs a comprehensive rethinking of its public and private industrial support.
The US Congress isn’t allowing another Base Realignment and Closure process (BRAC). People at the Pentagon aren’t even supposed to think about it, at least not on the job. But at least the House version of the 2016 authorization bill does require yet another comprehensive review of “force-structure plans and infrastructure inventory.” Infrastructure sounds like BRAC, and the need for another round hasn’t receded. But better yet would be factoring the Defense Department’s business needs into another BRAC, so that public and private capacity can be better balanced for future needs.
Fairly, excess military real estate is not a wholly American problem. Back in January, Defense News picked up a story on Agence France Press about the same problem in Portugal. Are those three Army hospitals in Lisbon awaiting the imminent arrival of casualties from Angola? Is its stone castle in Porto on watch for Moorish raiders? Solving the problem in the US, though, requires a distinctly American approach, in that the congressional system emphasizes local interests in national decision-making. Parliamentary systems usually lack this feature. Hence BRAC.
Indeed, last November I appealed to the new Republican majority that another round just makes good business sense. Similarly, in February, Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord argued that “anybody running a business, large or small, would say that every 10 to 12 years if you had an organization as large as this one, it’s time to look at your physical footprint and see if it still was relevant to your needs.” Or as I put it, BRAC gives the GOP an opportunity “to look tough on the deficit and tough on defense” all at once. Cutting lawns across stateside real estate holdings, after all, annually runs up a tab but does nothing to keep Daesh out of Baghdad.
It’s notable that the 2005 round left a bad taste, mostly from the high upfront expense of all those transformations-by-realignments that Don Rumsfeld’s Pentagon had cooked up. But it needn’t be that way again. As our late colleague and Air Force Fellow Aaron Burgstein wrote in 2012, legislation authorizing the next BRAC could emphasize easy-to-close as a decision criterion. Clean kills of underutilized bases would facilitate the work of both the Pentagon staff and the future Commission. More importantly, they would control upfront costs, and speed the eventual cost savings—both important to a department facing continually sequestered spending.
I will now further argue that another BRAC should appeal to the GOP’s sensibilities about sound business practices. Authorizing legislation could also—unlike that preceding previous rounds—mandate that the Pentagon consider how private plants could flexibly take up the workload of the least efficient of the government-owned facilities. The 2005 round passed on this obvious factor, and wound up sustaining much more industrial capacity than the military needed. Already today, with at best flat acquisition spending, the Army’s arsenals are said to be “in a death spiral”. That sounds like an easy criterion on which to make a decision. For at a certain point, shooting old cavalry horses gets cheaper than putting them out to pasture.
James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.