At first blush, it may seem that inviting a return of BRAC might only worsen the current chaos in Washington. The nation is still coping with the effects of last year’s divisive election campaign, Congress is enmeshed in a stalemate over budget issues, and the military is in the midst of pulling forces out of Afghanistan and is facing political demands for large spending cuts. Arguably, the last thing all sides want is the stress of a scuffle over which units to realign or bases to close.
But a closer look shows that another BRAC round could prove to be just what the Pentagon needs right now. The current drawdown of military personnel—and commensurate reductions in hardware and support activities—will leave the services with excess (and expensive) infrastructure, from non-essential operational bases, laboratories, and industrial facilities to unneeded aviation training centers. Technological advances in weaponry and equipment, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, are changing the way the military fights, and what it requires. And the nation’s current fiscal plight is intensifying pressure for sizable cuts in the DOD budget.
As five previous BRAC rounds have proved, shutting down unneeded facilities can save billions of dollars, ease some of the pain of expected spending cuts, and help the services reconfigure their manpower and bases to support new generations of weapon systems. The BRAC activities of 1988, 1991, 1993, 1995, and 2005 resulted in some 500 base closures or realignments, yielding an estimated 24 percent reduction in the value of the services’ infrastructure.1 According to DOD’s Annual Base Structure Report for 2013, the military continues to maintain more than 4,400 sites in the United States alone. Of these, 111 are large installations, each having a plant replacement value (PRV) of more than $1.71 billion. Another 103 so-called medium-sized sites have a PRV of more than $915 million. The BRAC process that DOD proposed in its FY14 budget last month would cost $2.4 billion (over five years) to put into effect, but eventually it would save far, far more. It’s a key element in holding down defense spending.
But history suggests that we need to revamp the BRAC process as well. The old procedures made sense on paper: the Secretary of Defense submitted a list of recommendations for base closings or realignments, an independent commission (appointed by the administration and confirmed by the Senate) reviewed them and made changes, and the Commission’s recommendations became law unless lawmakers disapproved the revised package in an up-or-down vote. The process was designed to guarantee that all sides would have a say in making decisions on base closings, while at the same time providing the political cover that Congress and the administration needed to make the Commission’s recommendations a reality.
Creating a Monster
The problem was, in practice the procedure evolved into a monster—and lost credibility on Capitol Hill. Over the years, the military services created large temporary staffs to provide detailed analyses to evaluate various proposals for base closings and realignments. The Navy, for example, conducted its first BRAC analysis in 1988 with only a handful of staffers. In the 2005 BRAC process, it committed more than 100 officers and enlisted personnel for two full years, supporting several DOD evaluation groups, seven joint cross-service working groups and its own BRAC Infrastructure Analysis Team. Other services, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the BRAC Commission itself, increased their own staffs by similar proportions.
But the expansion of the BRAC-related staffs in Washington wasn’t the only problem. During the most recent BRAC, the analytical teams collected and analyzed millions of pieces of information, which in turn required massive amounts of detailed and intricate data from thousands of civilians and uniformed personnel throughout the military. That in turn was entered into complex computer programs, which produced myriad options. By BRAC 2005, the so-called “military value” quantitative scores, ostensibly driven by certified data, were overtaking military judgment.
Complicating the DOD analysis and the work of the BRAC Commission was the emergence of a large and much-enhanced “save-the-base” industry, complete with its own trade group, the Washington-based Association of Defense Communities. By 2005, State and local governments had hired legions of consultants and lobbyists, who had assured them that they had the expertise and political influence to ward off any efforts to close local military installations. To these communities, every dollar used to help keep the local military installation off the initial DOD recommendation list was money well spent.
Even more troublesome for the military were the communities’ frequent successes in convincing the BRAC Commission itself to remove a base from the closure list before sending it to Congress. The Navy’s submarine base in New London, Connecticut, for example, was on the Pentagon’s closure list twice (1993 and 2005), but was removed by the BRAC Commission each time on grounds that the DOD and Navy had deviated “substantially” from the initial “military value” selection criteria and from the service’s own Force Structure Plan.
In each case, the closure was vigorously opposed by a coalition of community leaders, congressmen and lobbyists. (The Commission’s turnabouts in the New London controversy have become a classic example of how military realities can fall victim to political pressures. Although the U.S. submarine force has shrunk substantially since BRAC 1988, the Navy has been unable to close any of its major submarine bases.)
Today, most communities that have a military installation within their jurisdiction have someone on alert in case Congress authorizes another BRAC round.
The Concept Works
Despite these problems, the basic concept imbued in the BRAC process still is valid. The procedure adopted for the initial BRAC round in 1988—that is, having the services calculate the military value of a base or facility and submit their recommendations to DOD for review and consolidation, and then asking an independent commission to review the combined list and send it via the President to Congress for an up-or-down-vote—is a workable approach. All we need to do is trim away some of the vines that have grown around it and are threatening to choke it. That calls for heeding the lessons we’ve learned from the five BRAC rounds we’ve had so far, for simplifying the procedure for the next one, and for shaping it to ensure that the final decisions on base closings will be based primarily on the military’s judgments of what is needed to maintain and garrison U.S. forces.
In brief, lawmakers should revise the BRAC process to achieve these goals:
• Ensure a single, integrated effort within DOD and streamline the process for preparing initial recommendations.
• Appoint members of the independent BRAC Commission early in the process, so the panel can hire an experienced staff in time to help the services put their recommendations together.
• Ask the services to compile a list of critical bases that should be excluded from full BRAC process review at the start, and conduct at least two successive BRAC rounds that can be coordinated to help refine the choices.
• Ensure that the primary factor in determining whether installations should be closed or realigned is what their current (and future) value is to the military, rather than whether they help local communities or keep business interests happy.
A Single, Integrated Effort
Probably the most significant lesson learned from BRAC 2005 was the inability of the Office of Secretary of Defense to oversee and coordinate the work of each service and of the seven Joint Cross-Service Study Groups. In spite of organizational efforts based on lessons learned from BRAC 1995, in the end the layers of decision-making authority within the various chartered BRAC bodies made the process dysfunctional. Another complicating factor was the high turnover of both staff and key decision makers, which complicated an already intricate process.
One solution that provides numerous advantages over past BRAC processes would be to task the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to create a BRAC Analytical Group (BAG), under the supervision of the director of the Joint Staff, with oversight from the independent civilian BRAC Commission. This JCS group would be staffed by senior, experienced personnel from each of the services, who would be detailed to that assignment for at least three years, to provide continuity. The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review would provide the strategic basis for the group’s decisions. The BAG would have two major tasks. The first would be to certify that there is excess capacity in the military infrastructure. The second would be to draw up recommendations for a list of installations that the military believes should be excluded from the BRAC process. These would be sent to the service secretaries and to the Secretary of Defense, and forwarded to Congress. Congress would vote up or down on the list. Lawmakers would then grant the Secretary authority to conduct two BRAC rounds—an initial round in 2015, and a follow-up round in 2017.
The best way to integrate civilian oversight into future BRAC rounds—to ensure that the procedure was inclusive, fair, and transparent—would be to return to the way the process operated in 1988: to ensure that the BRAC Commission is appointed early and is involved in the selection of bases from the start. Doing so would solve two problems that impeded the panel in 2005: it didn’t have adequate time to recruit and organize a professional staff, and it was denied sufficient time to review DOD’s recommendations and formulate its own.3
Under this proposed procedure, the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the White House, would nominate nine to 12 commissioners—ideally drawn from military, industrial, and political spheres, and with no potential conflicts-of-interest involving BRAC-related issues—and send the list to Congress for approval. Once confirmed by Congress, the commissioners would serve for a three-year term that covered both BRAC rounds. The law would spell out procedures for replacing a commissioner for medical or personal reasons. The commissioners would monitor the analytical process and rely on the director of the Joint Staff to provide the personnel needed to carry out their duties.
The commissioners, along with the Secretary of Defense, would be responsible for recommending final selection criteria, policy oversight, public hearings, and other governmental agency input, and for meeting deadlines as required by law. They would work alongside the BAG as it prepared BRAC recommendations for DOD. The Secretary of Defense would provide administrative facilities, compensation, per diem, and travel expenses.
The Defense Authorization Act for FY95 tasked the Department of Defense to report on the ability of the department to “remobilize” to 1987 end-strength levels, given the actions mandated by the prior four BRAC rounds.4 The department conducted a study and issued a report that concluded that for the most part only “reconstitutable” assets had been closed in previous BRACs, and that it was more cost-effective to rebuild or obtain these assets in the private sector rather than retaining them inside DOD. The study also concluded that the services had retained “difficult to reconstitute” assets either in the active forces or Guard and Reserve.
Among the key elements of “difficult to reconstitute” assets from BRAC 2005 were deep-water ports, weapons systems testing, training airspace, and weapons storage. The Navy used policy imperatives as a way to override low military value scores for bases that could not compete in a mission category against larger bases, but would be “difficult to reconstitute” if they were closed. The U.S. naval station at Pearl Harbor is a good example of a case where the policy imperative—strategic location—trumped a low military value score in comparison to Naval Station San Diego and Naval Station Norfolk.
Applying the same logic as the services have used in previous BRAC rounds, it would not be difficult for the BAG to produce quickly, with commission oversight, a list of military installations that have high military value by virtue of their “non-reconstitutable” status. For example, the Navy will not close Naval Base San Diego due to its deep-water port and short transit time to open water. Likewise, the Air Force will not close Vandenberg Air Force Base because of access to proper space orbit. The Marines will keep MCAGCC Twenty-Nine Palms for maneuver space, and, for the same reason, the Army will retain Fort Bliss.5 There are many high-military-value installations in these categories. An approved exclusion list could eliminate some needless and non-productive analytical efforts and, at the same time, reduce many communities’ anxiety and uncertainty.
Once Congress authorizes BRAC, then DOD would develop and include its exclusion list and certification of excess capacity with the Department of Defense’s FY15 Budget. (Note: not being on the exclusion list wouldn’t necessarily mean that an installation will be targeted for closure; rather, the installation would be subject to a more rigorous analytical process to determine if it is no longer needed.)
In previous BRAC rounds, no military installation has been recommended for closure based solely on cost and savings, economic impact, community infrastructure, or environmental impact. However, an enormous amount of time and energy goes into examining and documenting these criteria. The Cost of Base Realignment Actions (COBRA) program, DOD’s primary BRAC costing apparatus, has often proved inaccurate, primarily because of flawed inputs from users. As a result, final BRAC actions do not always reflect COBRA inputs. Also, in carrying out BRAC recommendations, the military departments have used BRAC to ensure that the mission has the necessary infrastructure at its new location to support its operations, regardless of cost. The closure of MCAS El Toro and realignment of Marine aviation forces to MCAS Miramar is a prime example where the cost of the BRAC recommendation does not come close to the final cost of the relocation and build-out of MCAS Miramar today.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) suggests that DOD make cost savings a priority if it is given authority for future BRAC rounds and that it change the method of calculation.6 But I disagree. GAO’s suggestion won’t work because “cost savings” would trump “military value” in that to maximize cost savings the military services should close their largest bases. Generally speaking the largest bases are “non-reconstitutable assets” with very high military value and have high PRV.
Likewise, the other three criteria are less important when it comes to choosing whether to close Base A or Base B. All military installations have economic, community infrastructure, and environmental impacts. And the local communities will invariably tell the commission that DOD got it wrong with respect to their installation. Sticking primarily with military value as defined in prior BRAC rounds would clarify and simplify a process that has become extremely complicated. A simplified process also would support the basic tenets of BRAC—that the process be easily understood, transparent, repeatable, and verifiable.7
Some additional thoughts about military value based on prior BRAC rounds are appropriate. First, military value is not a constant. Over time, the military value of an installation can be eroded by excess capacity in a mission area, encroachment, and environmental restrictions. Naval Air Station Oceana is a prime example. So are many military airfields in all services. In drafting an exclusion list, Pentagon strategists will have to weigh these factors carefully to determine whether circumstances have changed enough to alter the value of these “reconstitutable assets.” In the case of military installations that are not on the exclusion list, these variables will weigh heavily in the final recommendations.
Multiple BRAC Rounds
Authorizing only a single BRAC round could present problems for the services. Each of the three rounds following the initial 1988 BRAC session allowed the panel to change the recommendations of previous years. If panel members aren’t permitted to do that, there is no opportunity to fix something if they get it wrong. In truth, there were several instances where the services encountered unanticipated problems when they began actually carrying out some of the BRAC recommendations, which they were able to resolve in later rounds.8 In some cases, changes in force structure might alter the needs of the service, such as the consolidation of Navy and Marine Corps aviation assets in Southern California in the 1991 and 1993 BRAC rounds.
The benefits of a two-round BRAC process were shown in the BRAC actions then. In that case, the Marine Corps initially won approval to close MCAS Tustin and move the assets to MCB Twenty-Nine Palms, but the decision was changed in 1993 after the Navy and Marine Corps opted to consolidate the aviation assets then at MCAS Miramar, Camp Pendleton, NAS Lemoore, and NAS North Island. BRAC’s re-direct saved taxpayers an estimated $600 million construction tab.
By contrast, in the 2005 round, BRAC recommended consolidating 26 military installations into 12 joint bases to save duplicate base-operating costs. Today, GAO disputes this as a valid saving. The original decision could have been changed if there had been a follow-up round.9
There’s another reason that scheduling two rounds rather than one is a good idea: the first round could concentrate on closures, while the second could focus on realignments, thus simplifying the process and enhancing military value. BRAC 2005 was criticized because it became preoccupied with force-realignment rather than eliminating excess infrastructure. Historically, realignments cost money with little or no payback, while closures save money—particularly when you are able to eliminate the entire military infrastructure, such as a hospital, commissary, or post exchange (known as a “clean kill” in BRAC parlance). An example of this kind of two-stage process can be seen in the Navy’s departure from the San Francisco area. Under a three-year, two-round BRAC process, this format would seem more attractive because costs and savings would be more fully understood. The chart at the top of this page shows a proposed new, simpler BRAC process.
What’s Best—For the Navy and the Nation?
With a growing possibility that Congress will authorize a new BRAC round, it is time for a re-set on how DOD executes the procedure. Five previous BRAC rounds have provided numerous lessons learned on what works and what does not. Congress can alter the way DOD conducts its analysis to enable the military to achieve its objectives.
Over the past ten years, world events and advancing technologies have rendered the post-BRAC 2005 infrastructure less-suitable and –cost-effective. Yet we continue to fund unneeded installations to keep them operational. Meanwhile, the local community is denied the opportunity to benefit from the transfer of the base to civilian control, where it can be redeveloped and used for economic revitalization. Left without BRAC authority the services will just chip away at the unneeded bases’ missions until one day local employment on the base is minimal.
BRAC must benefit the warfighters first; in doing so, it will benefit the nation as well. Unless changes are made to the process, any future BRAC will fall short of this goal, because military value has taken a back seat to an overly complex process driven by outside influences. Congress should only authorize a new BRAC if DOD is given the latitude to do it right.
2. Walter Pincus, “Closing Military Bases: Common Ground on the Wrong Front,” Washington Post, 18 March 2013.
3. 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission Report to the President, Vol. 1, Chapter 2.
4. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1995, Public Law 103-337, Section 2815.
5. “Report on the Effect of Base Closures on Future Mobilization Options,” 10 November 1999.
6. Government Accountability Office, “Opportunities Exist to Improve Future Base Realignment and Closure Rounds GAO-13-149, March 2013.
7. Conger, op. cit.
8. Department of the Navy Analyses and Recommendations (Volume IV) March 1993.
9. Government Accountability Office, “DOD Joint Basing” GAO-13-134, 12 November 2012.
The author argues that the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) procedure should be revamped to give more weight to the services’ own recommendations. Here’s a look at the process followed in the BRAC round of 2005, along with a plan for how a new system might function.
Before: BRAC 2005
Feb 2001 President asks Congress to authorize new BRAC
Dec 2001 Congress passes legislation authorizing new BRAC for 2005
Nov 2002 SECDEF issues memo with objectives, goals for BRAC 2005
Mar 2004 dod reports to Congress on excess base capacity
Mar 2005 Members of BRAC Commission nominated and confirmed
May 2005 secdef forwards recommendations to Congress and BRAC Commission
May-Aug BRAC Commission reviews secdef recommendations
Jul 2005 gao provides its views to Congress and BRAC Commission
Sep 2005 Commission issues report to Congress via the President
Sep 2005 Congress reviews Commission report, up-or-down vote
Sep 2005 President signs closures into law
Author’s proposal for BRAC 2015 and 2017
Sep 2014 Congress authorizes new BRACs for 2015 and 2017
Oct 2014 secdef orders analysis to determine excess capacity and create a BRAC exclusion list
Feb 2015 secdef submits budget that includes capacity verification and exclusion list, recommends nine to 12 commissioners
Mar-Jun Congress confirms commissioners. New jcs BRAC analytical group (bag) conducts analysis (with Commission oversight) and sends secdef list of recommendations for closures and realignments.
Jul-Sep BRAC Commission holds public hearings, followed by hearings of House and Senate Armed Services Committees
Oct 2015 Congress includes BRAC-approved recommendations in fy16 Defense Authorization Act
Sep 2016- jcs bag (with Commission oversight) analyzes alternatives, Jun 2017 provides secdef with list of recommended BRAC actions for 2017
Jul-Sep BRAC Commission holds public hearings, followed by hearings of House and Senate Armed Services Committees
Oct 2017 Congress includes BRAC actions in fy18 Defense Authorization Act