BRAC to the Future

April 1, 2004

Ronald L. Orr is the Air Force’s principal deputy assistant secretary for installations, environment, and logistics. He knows that, between 1988 and 1995, the service closed 22 USAF facilities and realigned another 14. He knows that such actions cost $5.9 billion to carry out and that, by 2001, they also had saved the service $12.9 billion. He knows the actions helped the Air Force cut its annual operating costs by $2 billion.

Now, Orr will be a key figure in the fate of numerous Air Force facilities, as the Pentagon heads into a new round of base realignment and closure (BRAC) actions—the first in a decade. Orr makes no predictions about BRAC 2005. He will say only that it will be far different from those that have come before.

“In the past, we emphasized shedding infrastructure [to save money],” said Orr. “Now we are emphasizing shaping it to meet the needs of the future force.” The goal, he said, is to transform infrastructure to match the national military strategy.

Orr said each service must ask these types of questions:

  • Do new and advanced weapon systems require more or fewer bases?
  • Should a military that increasingly operates jointly have joint bases?
  • Should each service repair and overhaul its own weapons?
  • Should each service have its own research laboratories, or can they be combined?
  • What impact will the realignment of forces overseas have on bases back home?
  • What impact do environmental restrictions have on basing?

    The Transformation BRAC

    Senior Pentagon officials have called the new BRAC round a “base transformation” process. It will not simply reduce excess capacity but will enable DOD to “rationalize” facilities “to better match the force structure for the new ways of doing business,” Raymond F. Dubois, the Pentagon’s point man for BRAC, told Congress last year.

    Dubois, who is deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment, has said the 2005 round “is not your father’s BRAC.”

    Since the last BRAC in 1995, three different Secretaries of Defense have appealed to Congress for a new round of closures. It took intense lobbying by the Bush Administration to convince legislators to agree to one new round, in 2005. Approval was included in the Fiscal 2002 defense authorization bill.

    The Pentagon has cut military end strength by about 40 percent since the late 1980s. Yet, in the same period, infrastructure was trimmed by only around 20 percent.

    According to Pentagon estimates, infrastructure capacity exceeds needs by as much as 25 percent.

    The 2005 BRAC basically will follow the same process as each of the four previous base closure rounds. The President nominates members of a commission. The Pentagon provides a list of closure recommendations to the commission. The commission reviews the list and submits its own recommendations to the President. The President reviews the recommendations and either accepts or rejects the list, as is. If he accepts it, the President forwards the list to Congress.

    The same process was used to close 97 bases from all services in four previous rounds (1988, 1991, 1993, and 1995). However, that is where the similarities between those rounds and BRAC 2005 end.

    The new BRAC commission incorporates two important changes. First, the group expands from eight to nine members to prevent tie votes. Second, any changes commission members want to make to the Pentagon’s list will require seven votes. In the past, changes only required a simple majority.

    Among changes that directly affect the Pentagon is the requirement to provide a 20-year force structure plan to help guide recommendations. In the past, the plan covered only six years. However, the most significant change is in how the Pentagon manages the BRAC process.

    When it comes to BRAC, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has taken an interest that is far more active than that of his predecessors, who basically rubber-stamped the lists provided by the individual services before handing them to the commission. To manage the process from the top down, Rumsfeld created two senior-level Pentagon groups.

    The lead group, the Infrastructure Executive Council, is headed by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and includes the service Secretaries, Chiefs of Staff, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics. The second group, called the Infrastructure Steering Group, is headed by the defense acquisition chief and comprises Dubois and his counterparts in each service, the service vice chiefs, and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

    The first group provides policy and oversight, while the second manages the joint reviews that Rumsfeld has instituted as part of BRAC 2005.

    Philip W. Grone, principal assistant deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment, said Rumsfeld wants a major emphasis on creating joint bases and finding ways the military services can share support work. There had been criticism from Congress that past closure rounds were too focused on individual service needs.

    Dubois, testifying at a Feb. 12 hearing, told lawmakers, “The previous rounds, quite frankly, … were service-centric.” He added, “There was little joint decision-making or joint analytical authority.”

    The Prime Directive

    To prevent a recurrence, Rumsfeld established a prime directive to “maximize joint use” of facilities, said Dubois. Aiding that effort are seven joint cross-service groups (JCSGs): education and training, headquarters and support activities, industrial activities, intelligence activities, medical, technical, and supply and storage.

    These groups include experts from each service, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and appropriate defense agencies. For example, the Pentagon’s top scientist, Ronald M. Sega, heads the technical group, while the services’ surgeon generals lead the medical group.

    The groups are broad by design—to allow them to look across the services—but they will tackle specific questions. The training group, for instance, is studying whether DOD should develop joint pilot training programs using fewer bases than is the case with current individual service pilot training. The training JCSG also is examining the potential to privatize pilot training.

    The technical group will look at DOD’s research, development, test, and engineering functions, including the individual service laboratories. In past BRACs, those labs were largely unexamined, but the technical group will look at whether these facilities could combine research efforts and work even more closely with industry and academia.

    However, when questioned by lawmakers concerned about losing such RDT&E facilities, Dubois indicated that moving these functions from their present locations might not be in DOD’s best interest. He said the individual military labs are often co-located with some world-class educational institutions, which “was not without a design.”

    Dubois added, “They are where they are for reasons.” He went on to argue that the Pentagon does not need to consolidate its labs into one location because today’s information technology enables them to employ virtual interaction.

    Another area of concern for many lawmakers is the future of military depots, the services’ in-house weapon repair centers, with $20 billion annual operating budgets and tens of thousands of civilian federal workers. The charter for the industrial JCSG includes reviewing the need for in-house depots and whether they should be consolidated.

    Under the last BRAC, the Air Force closed two of its five air logistics centers. In previous closure rounds, four Navy shipyards were shut down, and the Army closed several depots and support organizations. The Air Force and Navy each maintain three depots for repairing aircraft. Some BRAC observers expect that these facilities will be consolidated into fewer joint aircraft repair centers. Other candidates for consolidation are Army and Marine Corps depots that overhaul ground combat vehicles.

    Rumsfeld has repeatedly pushed for privatizing more depot work but has been unable to get lawmakers to change the federal law that requires half of all military repair work to be performed at defense depots. Members of the Depot Caucus in Congress now fear the Pentagon may be able to work around that law by closing depots and, in effect, bypassing the law.

    The only solace Dubois offered lawmakers was that depots would be evaluated within their group and that there was no preordained cut list.

    As part of Rumsfeld’s push toward multiservice, multimission installations, the Pentagon also will review the potential for active and reserve forces to share bases. That could prove challenging, because states have a say in the disposition of Air and Army National Guard facilities.

    According to retired Rear Adm. Benjamin Montoya, a 1995 BRAC commissioner, most of the unneeded active duty bases have been shut down, but many smaller Guard and Reserve bases that should be shut down have stayed open. He said that closing Guard bases is “harder than shutting down a rural post office.”

    BRAC 1995 also had several joint task forces that provided recommendations for sharing capabilities among the services. However, the services never seriously considered them. There was no top-down emphasis, as has been established for BRAC 2005.

    Grone said recommendations from the JCSGs will be incorporated into the Pentagon’s final base closure list. However, the groups’ mandate precludes them from straying into service specific operational areas.

    The Air Force will decide whether the introduction of new, more capable aircraft will mean it could consolidate bases. The Navy will weigh whether a 300-ship Navy with smaller, more agile vessels requires changes in home porting. The Army will weigh where to base any brigades brought home from Europe as part of a global repositioning of forces.

    The Overseas BRAC

    The Pentagon began an overseas posture review in August 2001, recognizing that the Cold War basing strategy needed to change and that any change in overseas force structure would affect Stateside basing.

    “You cannot do the domestic BRAC without an overseas BRAC,” Dubois told lawmakers.

    He said the Pentagon should have the “basic building blocks of overseas force structure” in mid-May. Dubois noted that there are “variables” that are “somewhat outside” Rumsfeld’s control. However, he maintained that Rumsfeld would be the one to make basic decisions about what forces will return to the US. The services, in turn, will need to incorporate that information in their deliberations about Stateside facilities.

    In addition, the services will need to predict their infrastructure needs to retain the capability to handle a “surge in terms of end strength at any given time,” said Dubois.

    All things considered, Dubois said, BRAC 2005 “is a global BRAC.”

    Once the services complete their recommendations, their lists and the lists from the JCSGs will go to the Infrastructure Executive Council, and, ultimately, to the Secretary of Defense.

    Weighing the decisions made by the Pentagon is “not a fun job,” said former Sen. Alan Dixon (D-Ill.), who headed the BRAC commission in 1995. Dixon said that one former Senate colleague, whom Dixon considered a friend, still refuses to talk to him because the commission closed a base in the Senator’s state. “I wouldn’t do [the job] again for anything,” Dixon added.

    The list of commissioners for 2005 is to be announced by next spring. The question of who will be on the final list has been the subject of intense speculation and has spawned a bogus list of base closings on the Internet. Communities and states began their campaigns to stay off the list even before Congress formally authorized BRAC 2005.

    Air War College professor David S. Sorenson, author of the 1998 book Shutting Down the Cold War: The Politics of Military Base Closure, said it’s too early to predict closure of specific bases but not too early to spot some trends worth watching.

    Politics, he said, does play a role in determining which bases make the Pentagon’s list. In the four past rounds, former Rep. Ronald Dellums (D-Calif.), an outspoken critic of defense spending, suffered the shut down of five bases in his northern California district.

    Then-Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), the hawkish chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, lost not a single base in his home state.

    Sorenson recommended that communities examine DOD’s past BRAC lists, because bases targeted by the Pentagon but spared by the commission will usually appear again on the list. In the past, commissions have concurred with the Pentagon’s recommendations about 85 percent of the time.

    States Weigh In

    In Mississippi, economic development officials are well aware that the state has been lucky to escape the ax. Jackson has invested more than $50 million to improve roads and infrastructure around the state’s bases. In 1995, the Navy wanted to close Meridian Air Station, but last minute politicking kept it off the final list. Since then, the state has spent $3.2 million building a Naval Reserve facility at Meridian. Columbus AFB, Miss., which offers pilot training, is also considered vulnerable. The state has spent $13.5 million improving sewer lines to Columbus and Meridian.

    New Jersey worries that its seven military bases could be targeted. Many of them house support organizations, not operating forces. New Jersey is touting three adjacent bases—McGuire Air Force Base, Ft. Dix Army Reserve Base, and Naval Air Engineering Station Lakehurst—as one of the military’s first “superbases.” Previous BRACs have targeted all three in the past. In the 1993 round, McGuire narrowly beat out Plattsburg AFB, N.Y., for survival.

    Encroachment—the effect that suburban sprawl and environmental laws have on military bases and operations—looms increasingly large in decisions about which facilities will stay open. In Southwestern states, where military bases are positioned near fast-growing Sun Belt cities, that problem has been most acute.

    Luke AFB, Ariz., USAF’s largest fighter pilot training facility, is only 10 miles from Phoenix. Sometimes officials must cancel training because someone has sighted an endangered antelope species on the Luke ranges. Arizona may have to relocate an elementary school a mile from a busy runway on Davis–Monthan Air Force Base, near Tucson. The Arizona legislature is now weighing laws to limit encroachment around the state’s bases.

    Orr said Air Force bases will be evaluated, in part, on whether they have the space to handle the more powerful weapon systems that will enter the inventory over the next few decades. These include systems such as the F/A-22 fighter, F-35 fighter, and various unmanned aerial vehicles. Environmental concerns are far bigger today than they were in past BRACs. “It’s not only if they can fly there today, but can they fly there in the future,” Orr said.

    Some Western state officials tout their wide-open training ranges as an attractive alternative to the crowded training sites east of the Mississippi River. One who does so is Robert Johnstone, executive director of the Southwest Defense Alliance, an organization that represents the interests of testing and training ranges in the region.

    Johnstone said Edwards AFB, Calif., located in the southern California desert, could easily accommodate aviation training to go along with its test mission. Currently, the services only use about 30 percent of their western test and training ranges. That excess capacity makes them possible targets for consolidation, too.

    The most aggressive BRAC players are states with a large military presence. Georgia, facing its first BRAC without the political cover of the powerful Sam Nunn, passed a law requiring communities to discuss proposed zoning changes with the military. The objective is to prevent any adverse impact on nearby bases.

    Florida has spent $475,000 to retain both Washington, D.C., law firm Holland & Knight and former Rep. Tillie Fowler (R-Fla.) to analyze the relative vulnerability of its 21 bases. Texas voters last fall approved the creation of a $250 million fund to help communities upgrade roads and other infrastructure around military bases.

    California has 62 bases and $19 billion in associated federal payroll. State officials recall the economic havoc of the past four BRACs, when the state lost more than 90,000 defense jobs. In recent years, California has offered grants worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to communities seeking to strengthen ties to military bases. The state also brokered a land swap between a developer and Los Angeles Air Force Base, trading excess military land for a new headquarters building.

    Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took time during his State of the State address to note that BRAC poses a large threat to California’s ailing economy. “This could mean thousands of lost jobs to California,” he said. “These bases are important to national defense, and they are important to our steady economic recovery. As a state, we will fight to keep our bases open.”

    Plans called for the Pentagon to deliver a new analysis of infrastructure capacity to Congress. Officials expect it to confirm the existence of 25 percent excess capacity, as determined in a 1998 analysis. If it does, said Dubois, the 2005 round will nearly match the combined reduction of the four previous rounds, which brought an overall 21 percent reduction.

    BRAC 2005 promises to be a “very difficult and challenging round,” said Dubois.

    George Cahlink is a military correspondent with Government Executive Magazine in Washington, D.C. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The Limits of Outsourcing,” appeared in the January issue.