In the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the House Armed Services Committee included a request for a new study to assess how well the Defense Department’s physical infrastructure meets the needs of its force structure. This study, outlined by Section 2812, would be due in February 2020, attached to the president’s fiscal 2021 budget request. If it stays in the NDAA, forget about getting a round of base realignment and closure (BRAC) until after the report is done.
The unfinished infrastructure assessment will serve as the excuse to delay any decision regarding the much needed BRAC. There is little doubt that the Defense Department has too much infrastructure. The Pentagon has known this for at least seven years, which why it has consistently requested the authority for a new round of BRAC. It would save an estimated $2 billion a year, money that could be applied to critical needs.
Instead of providing a clearer understanding of the Defense Department’s physical infrastructure, the new study will likely lead to increased frustration and friction between Congress and the Pentagon. After all, the Defense Department has done the study twice in two years: one in March 2016 and another in October 2017. The first study determined that the Pentagon carried 22 percent of excess infrastructure. The second study, with a modified force structure baseline, calculated a 19 percent excess.
It is as though Congress did not like the Pentagon’s homework, asked it to redo using different parameters, then still did not like the result. Lawmakers are once again changing the parameters, in the hopes they will be able to avoid a new round of BRAC. The proposed third report would change the real property requirements for major military units from the 1989 baseline used in the previous two reports. The idea is to provide a calculation more consistent with current practices. The updated formula, however, is unlikely to materially change the results.
The other major change in the study parameters is the requirement to identify the specific locations of any infrastructure shortages or surpluses it finds. This all but guarantees than any lawmaker representing a jurisdiction identified as having surplus infrastructure will become an immediate opponent of any BRAC efforts, reasonably fearing that “their” base would be closed or realigned. It is also not far fetched to imagine that the real estate market in communities near any base listed as having excess capacity will be distorted by the mere possibility of a BRAC action.
This is exactly why the Pentagon does not provide that level of detail in capacity studies. Congressional frustration over the very broad character of the calculations used in the previous studies doubtless helped drive the request for yet another study. But it is unlikely that the new study would yield more granular data. The broadness in the data release is intentional as to not create any anticipation of specific BRAC actions. After all, mere excess infrastructure does not automatically translate into a BRAC action.
Absent an authorization for a new round of BRAC, the Pentagon has little incentive or desire to generate and share the location-specific assessments required by the current legislative language. Such detail creates a substantial downside for both the bases and communities listed. The best method for Congress to get the Defense Department to generate precise data on its real property usage is to authorize a new round of BRAC. As it stands, Section 2812 is a delay tactic dressed up as a robust data call. The Pentagon has excess infrastructure. Whether that excess accounts for 22 percent of its holdings, or 19 percent, or even just half of that is largely irrelevant for starting a new round of BRAC. Each round usually reduces infrastructure by only 5 percent.
Furthermore, each round has to produce the type of robust data that Congress is expecting to see with this new infrastructure capacity study, but it comes with the proper care and takes the precautions to not destabilize local real estate markets around the bases. Running a third infrastructure capacity assessment will produce nothing useful. In the meantime, Washington will continue to waste taxpayer money by maintaining unneeded military facilities.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on May 31, 2018