This column originally appeared in Defense News.
For the last decade, the Pentagon has been complaining that keeping excess bases open is costing the military and the taxpayers at least $10 billion a year. Since taking office, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been arguing that the Congress needed to reauthorize another realignment and closure process so he could eliminate about 100 major bases, or about 25 percent of the Defense Department’s base structure.
Given the fact that four previous rounds of base closures closed 97 major bases, restructured another 55, has saved $40 billion and continues to save $7.3 billion annually, these estimates seem plausible.
Yet this year, when a reluctant Congress finally allowed another round of base closures, the results fell far short of expectations. Why? Although some blame politics, the fact is Rumsfeld and his staff mismanaged the process.
The list that the secretary submitted to the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission proposed eliminating only 10 percent of the military’s excess capacity. Moreover, some of the military and economic justifications that Rumsfeld provided for the major base closures were so weak that the commission, which had been appointed by President George W. Bush, rejected the most significant closures.
According to the list, which Rumsfeld submitted to the commission in May, the Pentagon would save $48 billion over 20 years primarily by closing 33 and consolidating another 29 major bases. But overall, the BRAC panel recommended the closure of only 21 of the 33 bases proposed, a reduction of one-third.
The largest amount of the savings, or $10 billion, would come from closing such major facilities as the submarine base in New London, Conn.; the shipyard in Portsmouth, Maine; Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota; and Eileson Air Force Base in Alaska.
But by overwhelming majorities, the commission elected not to close any of these bases. As a result, the projected savings will amount to no more than $37 billion, or less than $2 billion a year. But even this figure is exaggerated. About $23 billion of the projected savings, or 62 percent, will come from eliminating jobs at the installations to be closed. But since the Pentagon plans to transfer the personnel to other bases, the real savings will be approximately $14 billion over the next 20 years, or about $700 million a year.
But the fault does not lie entirely with the Pentagon. The commission also deserves blame for exceeding its mandate. Commission Chairman Anthony Principi said the panel had to “balance proposals to restructure military infrastructure against the human and painful impact of these proposals.”
Had his predecessors made similar judgments, the Pentagon would still be operating the Charleston, S.c=, Naval Shipyard, Lowry Air Force Base in Denver and the McClellan Air Force Depot in Sacramento, Calif. The primary job of the commission is to ensure that the Pentagon is not playing politics by planning to close bases only in areas where the political leaders are not strong supporters of the military.
In the long run, this missed opportunity is not good for the country, the Pentagon or even the communities that were spared. As a result of the Pentagon’s poor analysis and the commission’s overreaching, the military and the country will continue to waste about $9 billion a year, money that can be used for other military or social needs.
Even the communities which dodged a bullet this time will not be better off. Studies by the Pentagon demonstrate that within six years after a base has been closed, most communities are better off. For example, over the last decade, Lowry has generated about $4 billion in economic activity and the Charleston shipyard has turned into a beehive of commercial and residential activities.
And the communities that were spared know that, if and when there is another commission, they may be on the list again.
Lawrence Korb was an assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan and is a fellow at the Center for American Progress and an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information.