The Battle Is On to Save Military Bases from Closure
Policy + Politics

The Battle Is On to Save Military Bases from Closure

REUTERS/John Sommers II

A delegation of about 32 people from Kentucky and Tennessee is headed to Washington, D.C. to press their case with Congress to save Fort Campbell from budgetary cuts. Even though the group can count on the support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to protect one of the region’s major employers, it has hired a lobbying firm because it can’t afford to take anything for granted in the current fiscal climate.

“Our message is that you should be growing Fort Campbell not cutting it,” said Marian Mason, president and CEO of the Christian County Chamber of Commerce, which is in Kentucky. Mason added that the group won’t be timid about pointing out Fort Campell’s virtues in comparison with other bases. “It’s unfortunate that we have to do that,” she said.

The group feels it has little choice. Members of Congress from states such as New Jersey, North Carolina, Texas and Hawaii have vowed to give their all to protect military bases in their states from significant budgetary cuts.

That’s proving to be increasingly difficult. With the Iraq War officially over and combat operations in Afghanistan wind down, the size of the military is shrinking. Experts note bases are going to pay the fiscal piper. It’s a question of when.

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The Pentagon’s recent budget proposal calls for the funding of 1.3 million troops, a decline of about 12,000 from a year earlier, with much of that decline coming from the Army. General Ray Odierno, the Army Chief of Staff, said recently that his branch of the military had cut 98,000 active duty and reserve soldiers in eliminating 13 combat brigades. The overall size of the Army is due to fall to 980,000 by fiscal 2018, though military leaders have warned that automatic spending cuts known as the sequester may force a reduction of 60,000 extra troops.

Military personnel by branch

Of course, with fewer troops, there is less of a need for facilities to support them. The Army and Air Force in particular are awash in empty buildings. They have between 18 percent and 30 percent excess infrastructure, according to the Department of Defense. The DoD operates an enormous real property portfolio encompassing over 562,000 buildings and structures on 523 bases, posts, camps, stations, yards and centers. Though the Navy and Marine Corps may be leaner than their sister services when it comes to facilities, they aren’t immune from budgetary pressures either. 

“People like to talk about wasteful government spending,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, in an interview. “That’s wasteful on a massive scale.… Every base has a story and a particular reason why they should be spared if there is another round [of cuts].”

The Pentagon last month requested that Congress restart the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process, a convoluted procedure that is designed to take politics out of the decision-making process in determining which military bases no longer are necessary. Given the unpopularity of BRAC and the toxic political culture in Washington, observers don’t expect Congress to go along with the Defense Department’s request. 

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Congress and the military have done this dance before in recent decades, of course. Most recently, a 2005 BRAC Commission recommended closing 22 bases and “realigned” 33 by enlarging or shrinking them. The one-time implementation of those changes was about $35.1 billion, some $14.1 billion (or 67 percent) higher than initially estimated, according to a 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office. Four previous rounds of changes — in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995 — closed a total of 97 bases and installations and “eliminated approximately 21 percent of DoD’s 1988 installation capacity,” according to a 2005 report.

The story this time may be more complicated. Though the Obama administration’s 2016 budget proposal includes a $2 billion increase in the military budget for construction, and a $2.5 billion increase in funding for maintaining and repairing existing, those figures are contingent on Congress being able to avoid the sequester. That may not happen.

As a result of these unknowns, communities surrounding the bases are in a tough position as they wait for the next fiscal shoe to drop.

“It’s already a painful time for military bases and their communities,” said Tim Ford, the head of the Association of Defense Communities, in an interview. “Every dollar that we spend on bases that we don’t need is less money that we have to spend on bases that we do need.”

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Battle lines are being drawn across the country. Some communities have hired lobbyists to press their case. Members of Congress representing bases as well as local political officials, though, don’t need much prompting to plead their cases. That was evidenced during a recent round up public hearings held by the Army that detailed the potential devastating impact of budget cuts on local communities where they are major employers.

Under a worst-case scenario outlined during a recent meeting in Hawaii, the Army could eliminate about 20,000 military and civilian jobs in the state. About 30,000 family members would also leave and as are result Honolulu’s population would shrink by 5 percent. Officials in Hawaii not surprisingly urged the Pentagon to leave the Army’s two bases on Oahu alone. Honolulu Mayor Frank Caldwell was quoted in the local press as saying the cuts would have a severe impact on his community. His office didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story. 

New Jersey officials are lobbying to keep the KC-10 tanker aircraft at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, while New York State is trying to hold the line on cuts at its 10th Mounted Division at Fort Drum. North Carolina’s congressional delegation is fighting efforts by the U.S. Air Force to shut down the 440th Airlift Wing at Fort Bragg.

“Every community has to stick up for itself,” said Russ Rogerson, executive vice president at The Economic Development Alliance, a group in North Carolina fighting cuts at Fort Bragg, in an interview. “It’s a challenge for the Army and the military in general to make those decisions. We have to constantly remind them that we have the ready force for the regular Army.… It’s important to make sure that Fort Bragg is top of mind for all the decision makers.”

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Many bases have been shrinking slowly over the years. Fort Bragg, the Army’s biggest base by population, had 54,806 active-duty soldiers in fiscal year 2014, the latest year available. In the 2013 fiscal year, there were 56,796. New Jersey’s Joint Base McGuire- Dix-Lakehurst has roughly 4,000 fewer military personnel than it did five years ago, when the Army was mobilizing guard and reserve units for overseas deployment at much faster rate than it is now. 

With fewer troops to house, some base commanders are preparing their communities to expect the worst and hope for the best.

“Last time, we had a good idea what the impact was going to be,” said Fort Drum Garrison Commander Lt. Col. Gary Rosenberg in a recent press conference with the local media. “This time we don’t have a good idea ... of where these cuts will be taken. We are concerned about this, as I think our community will be as well.”

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