The Base Closure Flap

July 1, 1998

Pentagon officials and leading members of Congress generally agree that the defense budgets proposed by the Clinton Administration for future years will not be big enough to keep American forces combat ready and also finance a new generation of weapons. Congress also tends to accept, with some quibbling, the Pentagon analysis that the services have too much infrastructure, even after going through four painful rounds of base closings. And most lawmakers will concede that the closing of unnecessary bases should save money in the long run, even though many question the Defense Department’s claims as to how much it will save.

There, any trace of consensus ends.

Again this year, the anxious pleas by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and service leaders to cut expenses by closing more bases have crashed into a solid wall of opposition from a small but powerful group of lawmakers dedicated to protecting the Pentagon’s major industrial activities-air logistics centers, depots, and shipyards.

Political opposition to shuttering military facilities, always strong, is intensified by widespread anger at President Clinton’s handling of the 1995 base closures and by general reluctance of lawmakers to do anything as politically risky as approving more base closings in an election year. As a result, it appears certain that Congress again will reject Cohen’s request to authorize additional base closures after 2000.

Because any significant increase in military spending appears highly unlikely, Cohen and the increasingly beleaguered service chiefs will be forced to scramble for ways to pay for their weapons modernization programs while supporting forces spread inefficiently over a Cold War base structure.

Air Force Hit Hard

The stalemate particularly hurts the Air Force, which is straining to carry out increasingly frequent deployments of air expeditionary forces to the Persian Gulf and elsewhere without stripping domestic bases of essential support personnel. On that front, it appears to be fighting a losing battle.

There can be no question that the services must find new sources of financing-either through larger appropriations or by eliminating some current costs. Various government and private studies put the gap between projected budgets and actual needs at between $10 billion and $26 billion per year by the middle of the next decade. Those calculations are based on the assumption that the Defense Department budgets will stay at about the current $260 billion level, adjusted for inflation.

Results of Excess Capacity Analysis

Armed Force

Change in Capacity Relative to Force Structure Since 1989

(as percentage of 2003 capacity)

Army

Navy

Air Force

DLA

All DoD

20­–28

21–22

20–24

35

23

As a solution, DoD proposed additional base closure rounds. This has been controversial, to say the least. Cohen’s plan calls for two more attempts to reduce the military’s complex of operating and training bases and support installations to the level needed by a force of about 1.36 million troops, the level prescribed by the Quadrennial Defense Review.

After failing last year to get more rounds, Cohen asked Congress this year to authorize base closure proceedings in 2001 and 2005 but has received little support. The law authorizing the expedited Base Realignment and Closure process has expired and must be restored by legislation. However, members of both the Senate Armed Services Committee and House National Security Committee refused to authorize new BRAC rounds. The matter may come up again in future months, but it is unlikely that final legislation will overturn the decisions of the two defense committees.

The Pentagon’s request for new BRAC authority has been blocked by a coalition of forces in Congress, formed around the small but influential Depot Caucus. The caucus comprises about 50 lawmakers whose constituents work at the shipyards, depots, air logistics centers, and major laboratories. Two of the most vocal members of that group are Rep. James V. Hansen (R-Utah), who chairs the Depot Caucus, and Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who chairs the Senate Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, which controls the base closure process.

Lingering Bitterness

Opposition has come from a host of Republicans in both chambers and a number of Democrats on the authorizing committees, including Rep. Ike Skelton (D­Mo.), the senior minority member of the House National Security Committee. A major reason for the opposition, in addition to general concerns about losing major sources of jobs in their districts or the rarer concern that defense reductions have gone too far, is the bitterness over the 1995 BRAC round. The bitterness focuses on Clinton’s attempt during the early part of his campaign for reelection in 1996 to protect most of the jobs at two large USAF Air Logistics Centers-Sacramento ALC at McClellan AFB, Calif., and San Antonio ALC at Kelly AFB, Texas.

In the initial stages of the 1995 BRAC round, Air Force officials said they wanted to realign and redistribute work at all five of the service’s ALCs without closing any, even though most were operating at about 50 percent of capacity. The other three facilities are Ogden ALC at Hill AFB, Utah; Oklahoma City ALC at Tinker AFB, Okla.; and Warner Robins ALC, Robins AFB, Ga.

Results of Excess Capacity Analysis for the Air Force

Installation Category

Change in Capacity Relative to Force Structure Since 1989

(as a percentage of 2003 capacity)

Administration

Air Force Reserve*

Air National Guard

Depots

Education & Training

Missiles & Large Aircraft

Small Aircraft

Space Operations

Product Centers, Labs, & Test & Evaluation

Total

21

69

no increase

no increase

no increase–28

17–18

28–42

no increase

24–38

20–24

*The Air Force Reserve Command metric measures apron area at the bases in this category and Total Aircraft Inventory within the command. The increase in AFRC apron area is the result of the realignment of March, Grissom, and Homestead AFBs from active duty bases to AFRC installations.

“The recommended realignments will consolidate production lines and move workloads to a minimum number of locations, allowing the reduction of personnel, infrastructure, and other costs,” the Air Force explained.

However, the BRAC commission rejected that plan, instead deciding to close the Sacramento and San Antonio ALCs, which were rated as the least efficient of the five depots. The commission justified its decision by pointing to a General Accounting Office analysis. The GAO said, “The Air Force recommendation may not be cost-effective and does not solve the problem of excess depot capacity.”

Thus, the BRAC commission called for outright closure of Sacramento and San Antonio in 2001. It was assumed that the work being performed at the two centers would then be shifted to the surviving three depots. At least, that was the working assumption of members of Congress representing the surviving depots.

According to the rules, which were followed in the three previous BRAC rounds, the President and Congress can accept or reject the commission’s list in its entirety but cannot pick and choose among the actions proposed.

Clinton, however, denounced the BRAC action, claiming that it ignored the heavy economic impact of such a closure on the two communities-particularly Sacramento, which already had been hit hard, along with the rest of California, by past base closures.

The President and then-Defense Secretary William J. Perry also said the two closures would severely affect Air Force readiness by disrupting major maintenance programs.

During his reelection campaign, President Clinton promised to shield the vote-rich states of California and Texas from the decisions of the 1995 commission. The result: No move to redistribute the workloads ever was initiated. Instead, the President ordered the Air Force to launch a competition that would “privatize in place” a major part of the jobs at the two depots and to keep about 7,500 of the jobs at Sacramento and 13,000 of the jobs at San Antonio until 2001, when the ALCs should have been closed under the BRAC rules.

Former Sen. Alan Dixon (D-Ill.), the chairman of the 1995 BRAC Commission, later said the privatization effort was within the scope of the commission’s decision, but many lawmakers reacted with outrage.

Critics were quick to note that California and Texas were among the most crucial states in the presidential election, and they accused the President of blatantly politicizing the BRAC process. They charged the Administration of “playing dirty,” using its political clout to ensure that government workers at the two facilities could easily find work in the private sector.

The bitter reaction to Clinton’s action on the two ALCs has been a major factor ever since and was central in congressional opposition to Cohen’s requests for additional BRAC rounds.

The strongest reaction to Clinton’s action came from the lawmakers representing the three remaining ALCs. They and other Depot Caucus members have fought the privatization effort throughout, trying to ensure that the competition is won by the remaining ALCs and not by commercial firms.

As developed by the Air Force, under White House pressure, the privatize-in-place initiative sought to get a commercial firm to win the competition for much of the repairs and modifications done at McClellan and Kelly with a proposal to do the work at the former Air Force facilities.

Bundling Up

The competition has been complicated by Air Force requirements that major parts of the work at the two ALCs be “bundled” into one contract. The packaging, which the depot advocates tried to prevent, has particular impact on Sacramento, because it combines the airframe maintenance on KC-135s with the work of the aircraft’s hydraulics and other systems.

Ogden ALC, which is bidding on the Sacramento work, does not have the facilities to work on the fuselage of such large aircraft. So it must team with a commercial firm that could do work on the airframe. Contracts are to be awarded in August.

Just when it appeared the depot controversy would simmer until then, Clinton’s congressional critics got their hands on what they took to be an incriminating April 26 memo. The memo, written by acting Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters to Deputy Defense Secretary John J. Hamre, appeared to convey White House political pressure to again help California. Peters reported that John Podesta, deputy White House chief of staff, wanted the Pentagon to urge Lockheed Martin to join the bidding on maintenance business at McClellan and to keep the work in Sacramento.

Inhofe and Hansen reacted angrily, demanding that Cohen stop the competition if he could not ensure a fair and open process free of political pressure. “The White House has violated every ethical standard, including the letter and spirit of the BRAC recommendations and process,” Inhofe said. “I can’t believe the Administration would be so blatant, so flagrant, and so dumb to put this in print,” Hansen said.

The flare-up over Sacramento and San Antonio came just as Cohen and his supporters in Congress were making their last-ditch efforts to get authorization for the new rounds included in the new defense authorization bills. They had their eye particularly on the Senate Armed Services Committee, where the proposal had failed on a tie vote the year before. The committee turned thumbs-down on the Cohen plan.

The Pentagon leader, reacting to congressional accusations, on May 5 set up a new process for deciding the fate of jobs at the two contested Air Force bases. It will involve establishment of an “independent review authority” to ensure fairness in the bidding process, said the Pentagon. At the same time, the author of the memo, Peters, recused himself from decision-making.

For all of the controversy, the BRAC process has proved to be something less than the gold mine of income that BRAC founders had predicted. It has cost much more than expected to close the bases, mainly because of higher environmental cleanup costs.

Worth It

However, the Pentagon claims BRAC has been well worth the effort. In a report released April 2, the Pentagon told Congress that with three BRAC rounds substantially completed and the 1995 round partly done, the savings are exceeding the costs. It said that, by 2001, when the approved BRAC actions are completed, the services will have saved a net of $14 billion and will save $5.6 billion a year from then on.

The report noted that, despite those actions, Pentagon infrastructure reductions have failed to keep pace with the sharp drops in defense spending and in forces since the end of the Cold War. Budgets have been cut more than 40 percent and forces by 36 percent, but the base structure by only 21 percent, Cohen said. That leaves at least 15 percent extra infrastructure, he said.

In an attempt to convince a skeptical Congress of the need for additional BRAC rounds, the report tried to quantify the excess bases by comparing the reductions in various operational or support forces with the changes in the infrastructure they used.

That calculation indicated that infrastructure now exceeds force structure requirements by 23 percent compared to the forces. To remove that excess, the military would need two more rounds of closures about the size of the last two BRACs, Pentagon officials said.

Multiplying the 23 percent excess infrastructure times the 259 major installations left after four BRACs indicates there are about 55 unnecessary major bases. That is also the total number of large facilities ordered closed in the last two rounds.

The Air Force, which started the BRAC process with more bases than any of the other services, has closed a smaller share, and it still has more major installations than the other services.

According to BRAC commission documents, the Air Force cut 14 percent of its major bases, compared to 20 percent by the Army and 24 percent by the Navy­Marine Corps. With a nearly 40 percent reduction in its overall forces, the small cut in bases means the Air Force infrastructure exceeds its requirements by 20­24 percent, the Pentagon report said.

The biggest increase in capacity compared to forces was in ramp space for the Air Force Reserve-69 percent, when AFRC picked up the former March AFB, Calif., Grissom AFB, Ind., and Homestead AFB, Fla. There were sizable excesses in relative capacity for small aircraft, ranging from 28­42 percent, and in laboratories, product centers, and test and evaluation facilities-24­38 percent. Space for large aircraft and missiles now exceeds force requirements by 17­18 percent compared to the force, the report said.

The impact of the past base closures on the Air Force is a bit difficult to determine. BRAC commission reports indicate the four rounds closed 28 major bases used by the regular Air Force, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve, with three active bases converted to reserve status.

Those numbers don’t square with Air Force figures. Jimmy G. Dishner, deputy assistant Air Force secretary for installations, counted 22 major closures and 17 realignments of large facilities. Although savings are hard to calculate, Dishner said the Air Force believes it will have had a total of $5.9 billion in “cost avoidance” due to base closures by 2001 and will enjoy $1.8 billion a year in lower cost after that.

Dishner said the Air Force would not attempt to identify excess bases until Congress authorizes additional BRACs. However, Gen. Michael E. Ryan, Air Force Chief of Staff, said the service is conducting a strategic basing study for projected forces that would guide a future analysis on where to base those forces.

A Strategic Problem

Ryan said recently that the Air Force was as anxious to shed excess infrastructure to produce additional savings as the other services are, but he was more concerned about the operational impact of having his declining forces spread over too many bases.

The imbalance in force reductions and base closures “left us with a very thin distribution of our forces over bases that really don’t have a lot of depth,” he said. The situation becomes particularly troublesome when air expeditionary forces must take support personnel from those “thin” bases to operate from foreign airfields, Ryan said.

Deployment of support personnel, such as firefighters, security forces, and medical specialists, from domestic bases “leaves them [the contributing bases] in a hole,” he said.

“We are an expeditionary Air Force,” said Ryan. “That’s what the nation wants of us.” For that reason, he added, the Air Force must “reorganize ourselves in a manner that allows us to do that. We can’t do that from our thin base structure.”

Ryan explained that the major problem lies with the Air Force’s 20 combat-coded fighter and attack wings, which are “spread over too many bases. We need to reduce that.” Dishner said the fighter wings are dispersed across 70 different locations, including Guard and Reserve stations.

Cohen and Air Force officials insisted that they have not tried to determine exactly how many bases would be proposed to any future BRAC commissions, but the Pentagon estimated that, if BRAC commissions were created as requested, base closure would produce a net savings by 2008, which would grow to about $3 billion a year by 2012. The additional base reductions would free up a total of $20 billion by 2015, the report said. That, Cohen was quick to note, could help pay for the modernization programs the services are counting on to keep their technological edge in the next century. Cohen also pointed out that the savings from the proposed new BRAC rounds would kick in just when those big weapons systems were coming into production.

Many of the opponents insist that approval is not needed this year, since the first round would not come for three years.

It only takes about 18 months to conduct a BRAC round, including a year for the services to produce their recommendations and six months for a commission to review that and make its decisions, congressional aides said.

Starting the process now would only lead to an early “panic” among communities with potentially vulnerable bases, the opponents said. The request for approval this year “is all about covering up the fact that this Administration’s defense budget is inadequate,” declared an aide to Hansen.

Cohen has insisted that he needs the approval now because he must make decisions on whether to proceed with the new weapons programs and how to get funds to maintain readiness.

“Without the certainty of BRAC, we’ll have to adjust those plans for modernization, either that or affect our force structure or the quality of life for our troops. And that’s why it’s imperative that we have BRAC now,” Cohen said.

The Way It’s Supposed to Work

For most of US history, administrations opened and closed bases almost at will. President Lyndon B. Johnson closed down a number of installations in New England, it is said, just to punish congressional delegations for opposing his Vietnam War policies. That freedom was revoked in 1977 under legislation that was cosponsored, ironically, by then-Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine).

By making major reductions or closures of military installations subject to congressional, legal, and environmental scrutiny, the legislation prevented the armed services from closing any major base for a decade.

To break that logjam, Congress passed a bill in 1987 that authorized an independent, nonpartisan commission to review a list of bases the military considered excess. It became known as the Base Realignment and Closure process.

The list approved by the BRAC commission had to be accepted or rejected in full by the President and by Congress. And facilities approved for closure or major cutbacks by that process were immune from the legal and environmental challenges that had barred past actions.

BRAC commissions formed in 1988, 1991, 1993, and 1995 recommended the closure of 97 major bases and more than 100 smaller facilities and major changes, or realignment, of scores of other installations.

With the glaring exception of the handling of two major Air Force facilities on the 1995 list, the BRAC process functioned as designed, with no political interference.

Voices From the Caucus

The Depot Caucus exerts major influence on Capitol Hill. Rep. James V. Hansen (R­Utah), who chairs the group, and Sen. James M. Inhofe (R­Okla.), who chairs the Senate Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, are the two key figures.

“Congressman Hansen believes we do need to close more bases,” said a senior Hansen aide, because there are “too many runways and not enough aircraft. But that’s not the reason the Pentagon wants to do it.” This aide said Cohen is pushing for more base closures because “the defense budget is underfunded by $10 [billion] to $15 billion a year.”

Because new rounds of base closures will not show any real savings for years, he insisted, “None of that has a thing to do with getting $15 billion more next year and the year after that to solve the readiness and modernization gap.

“My boss supports BRAC as a necessary means to reduce unnecessary infrastructure. The thing he doesn’t support is saying it will cure the short-term budget shortage,” he said.

Hansen, said the aide, also worries about closing large expensive facilities that could never be regained if a future threat required a defense buildup. “Do we think this is as big as DoD is ever going to get?” he asked.

Similar opposition was voiced by the chairmen of the two defense authorizing committees, Sen. Strom Thurmond and Rep. Floyd D. Spence, both South Carolina Republicans.

“Senator Thurmond is opposed to more rounds of base closure at this time,” said spokesman John Decosta. “He has said he doesn’t think we should move forward with more rounds until we are finished with the ’95 round,” Decosta said.

Thurmond “also is concerned that we may be losing irreplaceable assets. … We should stop and think-What do we need? What can’t we do without?-instead of just closing bases to get funds,” the spokesman said. “The savings won’t cut in for many years.”

In opening one of his budget hearings earlier this year, Spence belittled the increasing calls for more base closings.

“Judging from some of the recent rhetoric coming from the Pentagon, you would think BRAC was the miracle cure for readiness, modernization, quality-of-life shortfalls, and everything else that ails the Department of Defense,” he said.

“Even if Congress put aside legitimate concerns about the integrity of the BRAC process following the President’s action back in 1995,” and closure rounds proceeded as expected in 2001 and 2005, “under the most optimistic of scenarios, not one penny is likely to be saved until the later part of the next decade or beyond,” Spence said.

He warned, “The process of closing bases will result in significant additional net costs to an already underfunded defense budget. We are 10 years into the BRAC experience and there is still a legitimate debate about whether we are actually saving any money yet. So calling for more BRAC rounds may make for good theater, but it offers no solutions in the foreseeable future to the serious shortfalls confronting the services.”

Otto Kreisher is the national security reporter, based in Washington, for Copley News Service. This is his first feature article for Air Force Magazine.