Defense Department officials are quick to say the formal process of selecting U.S. military bases for closure will not begin until Congress says so.
But people inside the Pentagon already are talking about candidates for the politically charged process that often triggers intense opposition from governors, mayors and local business leaders.
Defense sources say, for example, that the Air Force has too many pilot training centers and can consolidate some to save money. It has retired 500 aircraft since the last round of closings in 2005, yet maintains about the same base infrastructure.
The Army could close some of its 1,000 research-and-development sites and perhaps some of its 11 depots and arsenals. The Navy, which is retiring more ships, might make a bid to condense two East Coast submarine bases into one, in Georgia. Some suggest it could consolidate more warships in San Diego, at the expense of Washington state.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has asked lawmakers for two rounds of the Base Realignment and Closure negotiation (BRAC) process, with the first next year. His pending 2013 budget begins the military’s postwar downsizing by slashing $487 billion over 10 years. Among those cuts are troops, planes and ships.
“Given how significantly the services are reducing capacity in both uniformed people and capital assets, a base closure round is inevitable sometime within the next four years,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
“The Air Force needs to reduce its infrastructure immediately, and they will keep the heat on Congress to authorize a round eventually,” she said.
“With an Army shrinking by 80,000 active-duty soldiers, a Navy retiring ships faster than it is building them, and an Air Force hemorrhaging people, aircraft and entire units, a base closure round is justified in the near term.”
The Army is leading the charge.
“Force reductions produce excess capacity, [and] excess capacity is a drain on resources,” said Dave Foster, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon.
If Congress does not authorize what would be the sixth BRAC since 1988, the Army “will be forced to retain installation infrastructure that will become excess to its requirements and thereby jeopardize spending on forces, training and modernization,” Mr. Foster said.
The Army maintains more than 1,000 research-and-development sites across the country, as well as 11 depots and arsenals. Virginia alone is home to a dozen forts and installations. Only two of the 50 states - Rhode Island and New Hampshire - have no Army bases.
“Have you ever heard of the Picatinny Arsenal?” said Lawrence Korb, a military analyst at the Center for American Progress. “It’s smack in the middle of New Jersey. What is this doing here? There is nothing else here.”
He said the Army has lots of closure candidates, such as Fort Dix, N.J. The Army could consolidate, down to one, the eastern bases for the Green Berets.
The Air Force has let it be known that it is looking to close bases, not just shut a few small installations.
“Bottom line is, BRAC 2005 did not close major Air Force installations. It largely realigned installations,” Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month.
If the service does not shutter bases, he said, “we will place the force again under more pressure to put spending into excess capacity, when it should go into readiness and modernization.”
The Air Force tried to close Ellsworth Air Force Base, which houses B-1B Lancer long-range bombers in South Dakota. But the state mounted a grass-roots campaign to keep the base and its jobs. The BRAC 2005 panel voted 8-1 to keep it open.
‘Didn’t save a nickel’
Mr. Korb is a resident expert on BRAC.
As a senior Pentagon official in the Reagan administration, he worked with Sen. Barry Goldwater in the 1980s to create the first one. The senator discovered that it was politically impossible to garner the votes to close job- and revenue-producing posts in hundreds of congressional districts.
The genius in BRAC is its inoculation from direct political interference. The Pentagon submits a list. The commission, whose members are named by Republicans and Democrats, can add or subtract bases. Congress then can accept the list in total or vote to reject, which has yet to happen.
The Army does not need BRAC to shrink its footprint overseas.
In Europe, it has closed 97 sites and returned 23,000 acres to host countries since BRAC 2005. Another 23 locations, most in Germany, will shut down in the next four years. In South Korea, the Army has closed or will close more than 50 installations.
Mr. Korb said the Pentagon should not repeat the mistakes of 2005, when it proposed closing nearly 180 installations. The most glaring mistake was the Navy’s bid to close the New London, Conn., submarine base, even though General Dynamics Electric Boat, the manufacturer, was located there.
In too many cases, he said, personnel were shifted to new locations instead of jobs being eliminated.
“It didn’t save a nickel. It was done so poorly,” Mr. Korb said. “It counted savings that were not savings.”
The upfront cost of BRAC 2005 was steep, amounting to $35 billion for conducting studies, moving personnel, refurbishing facilities and the like. Today, the Pentagon says, BRAC 2005 is saving $5 billion annually by reducing the number of bases the military operates.
Ms. Eaglen, who was an official in the Donald H. Rumsfeld-era Pentagon, said it is doubtful Congress will vote this year, an election year, to authorize a BRAC 2013.
“Not only are the wounds still too fresh for members of Congress from DOD’s last bungled round of base closures in 2005, it is hard to take the Pentagon’s base closure requests seriously in the 2013 budget since they did not allocate any money to prosecute the closures nor calculate any savings from the process,” Ms. Eaglen said.
Cuts and compromise
Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is already on record as saying he will oppose the base-closing authorization in his 2013 defense budget bill, which his committee will write in early May.
“Kill it. That’s going to be our approach,” the California Republican has said.
Mr. McKeon is squarely at odds with Mr. Panetta, who said: “It’s a fundamental problem we have to confront. As we draw down the force, we’ve got to take a look at the infrastructure that’s supporting the remaining force. And the reality is that we are going to have to be able to reduce that infrastructure.”
This month, however, Mr. Panetta found out how difficult it is to eliminate local jobs in downsizing the military.
His 2013 budget in February called for the Air National Guard to cut 5,000 personnel and more than 200 aircraft: The budget reduction quickly showed the defense secretary how fast states and small towns can mobilize to stop military cuts.
On Monday, Mr. Panetta proposed a compromise, pledging in a letter to Congress to restore nearly 2,200 jobs and two-dozen C-130 transport planes in three Air Guard squadrons.
Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, said the Air Force’s targeting of the Guard makes lawmakers leery of giving the Pentagon another base-closing round.
Mr. Hunter has drawn up an amendment that would limit the Air Force’s ability to retire Guard aircraft.
“On a big-picture level, the Air Force sees the Guard and Reserve as a safe place to go for savings, which is somewhat contradictory when the Guard and Reserve are still doing a lot of the heavy lifting overseas,” Mr. Kasper said.
Mr. Hunter “doesn’t support the cuts, and he’s definitely not enthusiastic about talk of another BRAC round,” Mr. Kasper said. “This suddenly doesn’t make BRAC appealing, nor should it.”
Mr. Korb said the Air Guard dust-up shows why there should be another BRAC to take such issues out of the hands of Congress.
“Congress is in no mood to make domestic cuts, given the state of our economy,” he said.