The GAO’s review of the 2005 BRAC sharply indicts consolidation for consolidation’s sake.
Almost everywhere but in Congress—and in the towns around the gates of garrisons—interest in another Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round remains high. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wanted a round in 2013. In his valedictory interview this year with Defense News, Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale insisted that the right time for another BRAC was now. The Army and the Air Force definitely agree. If the Navy isn’t completely convinced, it is only because it so thoroughly consolidated its facilities in the 1990s. For as Breaking Defense observed in June, almost all objective analysts agree that another round of base closures is essential for reducing the Defense Department’s back-office costs.
Ever-closer jointness amongst the military services has long been presumed to be a leading source of those savings. Thus in the 2005 round, the Pentagon convinced the BRAC Commission and the Congress to permit to consolidation of 26 Army, Navy, and Air Force bases into 12 larger, joint bases. The promise was impressive: the Defense Department argued that by sharing a host of support functions across the old fence lines, it would save (in net present terms) some $2.3 billion.
But on Nextgov just yesterday, veteran reporter Bob Brewin asked frankly whether DoD could ever gain the efficiencies envisioned. The sources of savings—in categories from telephone contracts to golf courses—are what supply chain managers call indirect spending, in that the expenditures only indirectly support the ultimate mission. While tackling indirects can make meaningful contributions to cost-reduction, doing so will only put a small dent in the Pentagon’s budget problem. The funding in those lines simply pales in comparison to that of, say, flight operations. More direct spending on the front line comprises categories from fuel to fighter planes. But even in the commoditized categories, the Defense Logistics Agency has already done much to reduce costs.
Now, some nine years into implementation, the Government Accountability Office has concluded that results of jointness in basing have been unimpressive. In a report that runs to 98 pages, the GAO recounts how it studied 11 of the 12 consolidated facilities (all but those on Guam), and concluded that while almost 80 percent of all support functions had been at least partially consolidated, not much money had been saved. That only so much could be done was recognized early on. As early as 2009, the Pentagon had downgraded its projected savings to $273 million. Worse, as the report notes, the Pentagon doesn’t know how much money it has actually saved, can’t decide on how to measure that, and isn’t even sure what the point of further jointness in basing would be—except that it would be Good.
What accounts for the huge gap in performance? How did the Defense Department conclude in 2005 that it could save eight times its eventual estimate just by bashing bases into joint ones? A misplaced faith in the power of jointness is the answer. Amongst military analysts, institutional memories of isolated and egregious failures in Vietnam and Grenada continue to resound, but today they stymie demands for hard analysis of the real costs of further consolidation. Blind embrace of the presumed benefits has led not just to anemic savings, but to challenges like those of the Joint Strike Fighter project. Just consider how different that plane could have been without the complications introduced by the ‘B’ model.
So, if we can indeed be blessed with another BRAC, the objective should not be jointness for jointness sake, and certainly not realignment, where functions are shuffled from on facility to another. Rather, the objective must be actual closures—’clean kills’ without large adjustment costs. In the process, we can hope to puncture the presumption that bigger is always better, and that amalgamated is always more efficient. To convince a reluctant Congress, we might hope to hear the defense secretary talking like Cato the Elder, finishing every speech with castrae delendam est.
James Hasik is a non-resident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center.