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Don’t Bet on BRAC – Senators Reject Pentagon’s Base Closure Proposals

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

The odds against base closures got a little longer today as a key Senate subcommitee raked Pentagon officials with skeptical questions about the Administration’s request for two more Base Reduction And Closure rounds in 2013 and 2015. Chaired by Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, who has publicly vowed to kill any new BRAC proposal, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s military construction panel spent the vast majority of a two-hour hearing on the 2013 budget criticizing the call for BRAC. Some of the most pointed questions came not from senior Senators but from the ranking Republic, New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, who was elected only in 2010 – a sign that the Hill’s institutional memory of BRAC rounds past has become so bitter that even freshman legislators are poisoned against a process in which they have never personally participated.

“We’ve already seen the 2005 BRAC round… cost so much more than was estimated,” said Sen. Ayotte, citing GAO figures that the round cost $14 billion above what the Pentagon anticipated. “I don’t beleive we cna justify spending tens of billions of dollars within the Pentagon budget in the short term to fund more BRAC rounds [whose] savings may take decades to materialize.”

“The 2005 round…is not the right comparison,” responded the senior witness, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Dorothy Robyn. “Unlike the first four BRAC rounds, which paid off in a relatively short period of time, [in 2005, during wartime,] the focus was on transforming installations to better support forces as opposed to saving money.” In particular, Robyn and Army assistant secretary Katherine Hammack emphasised, the Army used the 2005 BRAC round to reshuffle its forces as it reorganized from division-sized formations to “modular” brigades. (The Army plans to revise brigade organization again this year, though by no means as dramatically). “The other factor was a decison by the Department to delay the implementation… We were at war,” said Robyn. But during the delay construction costs rose considerably in the aftermatch of Hurricane Katrina. “So the lesson,” said Robyn, “is do not delay implementation.”

This time will be all about getting cost savings ASAP, Robyn reassured the Senators. “We need another brac round, ideally two,” she said. “The math is straightforward. Force reductions create excess capacity, [and] BRAC is the only way we can realign our infrastructure with our strategy…. [It] is a marvellous process for carrying out something very, very difficult,” Robyn said – only to walk back that adjective after Sen. Ayotte pointedly questioned it.

“We are still in need of a new base realignment,” agreed Air Force assistant secretary Terry Yonkers. “The 2005 BRAC did not meet our expectations.”

The Senators were unconvinced that they should give BRAC another chance. Sen. McCaskill in particular argued that “we should not consider a new round of BRAC until we have considered the excess capcity overseas,” and that cutbacks to bases abroad “should be the first step.”

Robyn replied that “a BRAC-like process” is underway for the Department’s 300 locations left in Europe – down by 80 percent since the end of the Cold War, she noted – and a plan will be on Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s desk by next fall, in time to coordinate with the planned domestic BRAC. “Ideally we would like to do the two in tandem,” she said, rather than doing the overseas bases first, to allow more flexibility in trade-offs.

But even bringing troops back to U.S. territory is hard enough. “We remain comitted to establishing an operational Marine Corps presence on Guam,” pledged the Navy witness, assistant secretary for installations Jackalyne Pfannensteil. But the Senate is deeply skeptical of the proposed relocation of forces now on Okinawa and has restricted the Pentagon from spending any money on Guam – even funds provided by the Japanese government, eager to get rid of the Marines – until a host of conditions is met. “We don’t even want to begin going down the road until we’re sure we know where the road is going at the end,” McCaskill warned.

The committee could spend all day on BRAC alone, McCaskill concluded, before letting the battered witnesses go with a sympathetic statement that she knew how hard this process was for them. “And by the way,” she said, only partly in jest, “you can’t cut anything that’s in any of our states.”

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