Bringing Closure

March 1, 2012

At the end of the Cold War, the Defense Department went through several rounds of base realignments and closures, a process known to all as BRAC. The changes were needed to update DOD’s basing structure as the Soviet Union collapsed and the US military shrank.

BRAC works. The first four rounds, in 1988, 1991, 1993, and 1995, brought dramatic changes for the Air Force as a series of large, high-profile bases were shuttered for good. These rounds of closures cost $5.9 billion to carry out, but had already saved the Air Force $12.9 billion by 2004. The early rounds cut USAF’s operating costs by $2 billion a year.

About 20 percent of USAF’s basing capacity was shut down, but the service actually shrank by some 40 percent from its peak Cold War size. In 1995, the Air Force still had too much property for its airmen and equipment.

For a decade, Congress rebuffed repeated Pentagon requests to approve additional closures. All politics are local, and the prospect of additional closures terrified lawmakers with military bases in their districts. Although efficient and economical in the aggregate, the base closure process was undeniably painful for those local communities that lost their nearby bases.

Finally, in 2005, Congress granted its approval for a new BRAC round, and many anticipated this would be the final go-round for many years. “This round of closures and realignment represents the last opportunity we will have, for a generation, to reset our forces,” said Gen. John P. Jumper, Air Force Chief of Staff at the time. Others referred to the 2005 round as the “mother of all BRACs.”

But when everything was said and done with BRAC 2005, something shocking happened: USAF closed exactly zero Air Force bases.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s Pentagon had made military transformation the overriding priority. Cost savings came second, so the Air Force and DOD sought to optimize the efficiency of the military base network in their 2005 proposal. When the BRAC commission edited the list for congressional approval, the commission spared many of the higher profile bases DOD targeted for closure.

At various points in the 2005 process, Air Force or DOD officials proposed shutting down Ellsworth AFB, S.D.; Grand Forks AFB, N.D.; and Cannon AFB, N.M. None ultimately closed. A plan to turn Alaska’s Eielson Air Force Base into an aircraftless “enclave” to host training missions was overturned. Pope Air Force Base was absorbed by nearby Fort Bragg, but remained open.

The result was that the only three “major” (DOD’s description) USAF installations closed by BRAC 2005 were Gen. Mitchell Airport/Air Reserve Station in Wisconsin; Kulis Air National Guard Base in Alaska; and Onizuka Air Force Station in California. With all due respect to the Mitchell, Kulis, and Onizuka communities, those bases were not of the same magnitude as those shut down in earlier closures.

The Pentagon’s original 2005 BRAC list predicted Air Force savings of $14.5 billion over 20 years. By the time the BRAC commission finished with its version of the closure list, the expected savings were halved to $7 billion over 20 years.

The upfront costs of that BRAC round proved higher than expected, so now DOD does not expect the 2005 round to break even until 2018. The savings may have been slow to develop, but they are large and perpetual. DOD comptroller Robert F. Hale recently said the 2005 round cost $35 billion upfront, but now that it is done, it will save taxpayers $5 billion annually.

Still, Maj. Gen. Gary W. Heckman, the Air Force’s 2005 BRAC director, declared the 2005 round would be worthwhile even “if we save nothing,” because of the “combat force enhancements” it ushered in. However, all of this left the Air Force—already saddled with roughly 20 percent too much infrastructure—in roughly the same place.

The service has continued to decline in size, albeit at a much slower pace. Between 2005 and 2011, as the last BRAC’s actions were carried out, the active duty Air Force shrank by roughly 21,000 airmen while the force shed about 500 aircraft.

None of this counts the further reductions included in DOD’s 2013 budget request, which if approved by Congress would over the next few years shrink the Air Force by an additional 9,900 airmen and 286 aircraft.

Getting Congress to approve DOD’s most recent request for new base closure rounds in 2013 and 2015 will not be easy. Lawmakers with bases in their districts frequently take parochial views and attempt to scuttle the entire process or protect their specific bases. They sometimes frame their arguments in national security terms, but just as often the argument is a transparent plea to keep the jobs and money flowing.

It is for this reason that military value is always the top priority when DOD and a BRAC commission nominate which sites to close.

The Air Force had too many bases in 2005. The problem has gotten worse over the past seven years, and the mismatch is only expected to grow. It is clearly time to close bases, so USAF can properly align its infrastructure with its force.

If history serves as any guide, it will take several years of studies, analysis, and pleading before Congress acquiesces to this latest BRAC request. Yes, the Pentagon should look to identify excess overseas facilities first. Yes, DOD should fully understand the national security and financial ramifications of what it is doing. But Congress ultimately needs to set aside its opposition and approve the new BRAC rounds. Without them, the Air Force will continue to be spread around at too many locations, leaving inefficient units and wasting scarce infrastructure dollars.

“There’s yet more excess infrastructure,” noted Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz in February. “Our expectation is that we would actually close bases in a future base closure round.”

When the new BRAC round does come, it has to be different than the last one, which for the Air Force was really BRWC: base realignment without closure.