A Profile in Discouragement: Base Motives

Congressional cowardice continues to keep unneeded military installations open
Excess warplanes, like these at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base “boneyard” in Arizona, hint at the Pentagon’s surplus real estate. (Photo: Val Gempis / US Air Force)

The Pentagon knows it needs to lose weight—and a lot of it—if it, and the country it defends, hope to live into a ripe old age. But like ghrelin, that ol’ hunger hormone that keeps us stuffing our faces with pizza and burgers, it’s Congress that keeps the U.S. military from slimming down to a lean and mean fighting weight. The Pentagon estimates that it’s at least 20% overweight when it comes to bases. That’s a lot of lard to be carrying around—and paying for.

We feel guilty when we can’t shed those unwanted pounds, even when we know it’s unhealthy. But Congress has adopted precisely the opposite tack when it comes to keeping unneeded military bases open: we might need them someday. It’s kind of like a fat person consoling himself by saying that someday he might be stranded in an arctic cave, far from sustenance, and that he might need every spare ounce of fat to survive.

The issue surfaces anew as Congress debates the 2018 defense budget. And that means base-closing opponents are rolling out all their heavy, static artillery to maintain the status quo.

Senator Jim Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, published a piece in the Washington Times on September 11 to denounce the Pentagon’s request for a new round of base closings. “There is no certainty that any proposed base closures or realignments would be economically viable in such a critical time,” he writes. “We are in a point of uncertainty that makes it irresponsible to expend billions of dollars downsizing our armed services when we are currently facing some of the most volatile, unpredictable and dangerous military threats that America has ever seen.”

In polite company, that’s known as balderdash.

Yes, it indisputably costs money in the short run to shut down bases and move their units elsewhere. But it’s also incontrovertible that it ultimately saves money. The five rounds of base closings carried out between 1988 and 2005 are saving U.S. taxpayers about $12 billion annually. That’s enough to buy a brand-spanking new aircraft carrier. Every year.

“Readiness, in the form of personnel, training and equipment, have been degraded to the breaking point,” argues Inhofe, who as chairman of the armed services’ readiness subcommittee really should know better. One of the reasons readiness is fraying is because the Pentagon has to spend billions of dollars annually maintaining bases it doesn’t need. The nation’s defenses need to be balanced among personnel, procurement and readiness, and forcing the military to pump dollars into unneeded real estate forces it to shortchange everything else.

Few issues highlight the hypocrisy of lawmakers more starkly than their devotion to hometown pork. That’s why it is refreshing to see Sens. John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, recently propose a new round of base closings. Like Inhofe, both also serve on the armed services committee: McCain is chairman, and Reed is the senior Democrat.

Their cause has been championed by an ideologically-diverse assortment of more than 40 defense graybeards, including my commander, Mandy Smithberger of (insert scuba breathing apparatus now) the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight. “Members of Congress who profess great concern about cutting waste, but who claim that an overseas [base-closing round] must come first, are being disingenuous,” they write. “The Pentagon retains the ability to close military facilities not on U.S. soil, and has done so, but Congress has blocked closures here at home for over a decade.” Even the Trump Administration wants to shutter unneeded installations.

Lawmakers opposed to closing more bases like to cite a 2016 GAO report that found about 15% of the Pentagon’s real-estate accounting records “contains some inaccurate and incomplete data” as justification for their anti-shutdown stance. Yet far more of the data projecting the cost and schedule of future weapons systems are likewise flawed with no impact on their funding.

Part of the aversion to base closings is the loss of local jobs. That’s why the American Federation of Government Employees, a group general silent on matters of national security, was quick to criticize McCain and Reed’s proposal. “In this age of military uncertainty, it is not the time to authorize a new [Base Realignment and Closure] round," Thomas Kahn, the union’s top lobbyist, said in a letter to members of Congress. “A precipitous BRAC action at this time would have serious consequences and the toll on military readiness is not worth the risk.”

That, too, is malarkey. Is the average citizen supposed to believe that military generals, the Pentagon’s civilian leader, and the White House all are eager to gut the nation’s fighting forces?

The five rounds of base closings carried out between 1988 and 2005 are saving U.S. taxpayers about $12 billion annually. That’s enough to buy a brand-spanking new aircraft carrier. Every year.

And the fear of grim economic impacts if bases close isn’t true, either. “While base closures and realignments often create socioeconomic distress in communities initially, research has shown that they generally have not had the dire effects that many communities expected,” the Congressional Research Service has reported.

Bizarrely, the more future wars look less like yesterday’s wars, the tighter lawmakers embrace the past. For too long, too many lawmakers have had a Pavlovian reaction to shutting unneeded bases. Instead of the nimble and well-armed-and trained forces we need for the 21st Century, they’re content to embrace the 20th Century template of industrialized warfare lasting years, and the mammoth real estate that fueled it. That was last relevant during World War II. But sticking to those guns today only makes sense if you’re happy how our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have turned out; otherwise, not so much.

That’s why it was refreshing to learn recently that the Air Force, in an effort to save money, is planning on building future presidents a new Air Force One that can’t be refueled in midair like the current model. “That’s not necessarily a big deal,” Defense Onereported. “The current aircraft have never made use of that capability, Air Force sources said.”

Doing away with mid-air refueling for Air Force One is a political judgement made by leaders willing to shift the fulcrum of risk. In the national-security arena, that is what political courage looks like. Of course, shutting surplus military bases would require lawmakers to act more like leaders, and less like swine.

Fat chance.