This week the Obama administration formally submitted its proposed defense budget to Congress. Many details had already been made public in a series of carefully timed disclosures, starting with the president's announcement of a new American defense strategy in early January. The big news is that the Pentagon seeks to reduce future spending by approximately $259 billion over the next five years. As a result, significant cuts in military personnel and hardware are in store. The army, for instance, is projected to lose over seventy thousand soldiers. The air force plans to reduce by nearly ten thousand airmen and about three hundred aircraft. If the sequestration provisions of the 2011 Budget Control Act come into effect next January, even more draconian cuts could be in the offing.
Perhaps no aspect of the proposed reductions has raised more public alarm than the potential implications for military installations across the country. On January 26, Secretary of Defense Panetta announced that "the President will request the Congress to authorize use of the base realignment and closure process—so-called BRAC process—with the goal of identifying additional savings and implementing them as soon as possible." Almost immediately, several members of Congress vowed to fight any such request, declaring it would be "dead on arrival." This sharply negative reaction is hardly surprising. No legislator relishes the thought of a base and its associated jobs being cut in his or her district, particularly during a period of high unemployment.
The logic for reducing excess infrastructure is, however, inescapable. As the number of troops and military hardware decreases, the requirement for facilities to house and support them likewise shrinks. No civilian business in a similar downsizing situation could hope to survive if it continued to pay for property, plant and equipment it no longer needed. For the military, every dollar spent on excess infrastructure is a dollar that could be better applied to maintaining current readiness and modernizing to meet future threats.
The military has undergone five "BRAC rounds" since 1989, the most recent taking place in 2005. In this process, an independent, nonpartisan commission reviews recommendations from the Pentagon to close bases and realign missions. Each proposal is evaluated on the basis of several criteria, including the effect on military operations and potential costs, such as environmental cleanup. Consideration is also given to the economic impact on nearby communities, recognizing that for some, the closing of a base would be disruptive; for others, it could be devastating. Once a list of realignments and closures is approved, it's presented to Congress through the president for a straight up-or-down vote, with no amendments allowed. The process was designed to keep politics out of the deliberations and, truth be told, to allow individual legislators to distance themselves from the outcome should the results adversely affect constituents.
In theory, it all sounds very rational and analytical. In fact, the process can be gut-wrenching for the bases and the surrounding communities. Some years ago, I was the commander of a military organization that was a candidate for closure as part of the post-Cold War "peace dividend." The loss of 1,400 air force employees and their families would have had a severe economic impact on the neighboring city of less than forty thousand people. For nearly a year, emotions ran high, and concern about the future was palpable. In the end, a different unit at another base was picked for closure. But the overall experience was so unnerving that it continues to weigh heavily on the minds of local citizens, particularly as they face the unsettling prospect of yet another round of realignments and closures.
And it's not just about jobs and payroll. Many military bases are inextricably woven into the social fabric of their surrounding communities. Service members—and their families—reside in local neighborhoods, volunteer in local civic and charitable activities, and attend local schools and houses of worship. Some, like my own air force father, even marry into local families. For decades, bases and their nearby towns have lived side by side and thus share a common history and identity on many different levels. As a former state governor once told me, when a community loses its base, it loses a part of its soul.
Closing military bases is tough business—economically and emotionally. But the hard reality is that it must be seriously considered as both personnel and hardware are reduced. The military simply can’t afford to maintain facilities it no longer needs, especially in the midst of a budget crisis. Congress should certainly put its own stamp on the authorizing legislation to ensure a fair and equitable process. But in the end, it should vote to proceed with the task of making difficult but necessary choices.
Frank Klotz is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC, and the former commander of Air Force Global Strike Command.