Downsizing the Department of Defense

COMMENTARY Defense

Downsizing the Department of Defense

May 27th, 2022 3 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Frederico Bartels

Senior Policy Analyst, Defense Budgeting

Frederico is a senior policy analyst for defense budgeting in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.
Since 2016, the department has told us they have at least 15% excess military infrastructure. Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call, Inc / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

The Defense Department has lots of “spare bedrooms” they are not using and cost big money to maintain.

Saving defense dollars should be a shared bipartisan concern.

While it makes sense to maintain some extra capacity in case the need arises to scale up our forces, there is no need to maintain over 15% of excess capacity.

One way that many families deal with increased costs is by downsizing, especially when they become “empty-nesters.” Downsizing makes even more sense when your family hasn’t used that spare bedroom in a long time. The Defense Department has lots of “spare bedrooms” they are not using and cost big money to maintain.

Since 2016, the department has told us they have at least 15% excess military infrastructure. At least three different studies have highlighted the excess and estimate the Pentagon could save about $2 billion dollars a year if allowed to trim its excess properties through the process called base realignment and closure (BRAC).

Those annual $2 billion would be more than enough to cover all the Air Force proposed aircraft divestments for this year, which total 102 aircraft and $1.6 billion. Or they could be used to expand the Navy’s inventories of Standard Missile 6 (one of their core missile systems) and long-range anti-ship missiles, which top their unfunded priorities list.

Under both the Obama and Trump administrations, the Pentagon asked Congress for authorization to conduct a round of BRAC. Congress consistently rebuffed those requests, and so, frustrated, the Pentagon simply gave up asking. The need did not go away, but the Pentagon’s enthusiasm did.

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Now, if there is going to be any push toward a new round, it will have to come from Congress. Thankfully, a May 11, 2022, public hearing offered a glimmer of hope that might happen.

Toward the very end of the hearing, the chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, Rep. Betty McCollum, closed with: “A new round of BRAC is necessary, and I believe it could save taxpayers billions of dollars, and it could also save the department a lot of time and energy expenditures maintaining something that is not useful to the department anymore.”

Saving defense dollars should be a shared bipartisan concern, and there are indications Ms. McCollum might get some support from her counterpart, ranking member Rep. Ken Calvert. Calvert has also expressed willingness to explore how to conduct a new round of BRAC.

The fact that two members of the House support a BRAC is significant because House members have historically been more resistant to new rounds of base closures since by mere geographic reality they have a higher risk of losing a base than senators. Historically, the current chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, has also shown willingness to support a new round of BRAC. Now would be a good time to resurrect the issue.

Lawmakers should encounter a friendly reception in the Deputy Defense Secretary’s office. Dr. Kathleen Hicks co-signed an open letter making the case for a new round of BRAC back in 2017. Back then, the group of mostly think tank scholars highlighted that “the military has been forced to allocate resources away from the training and equipping of our soldiers, and toward maintaining unneeded and unwanted infrastructure.” That still holds true today.

BRAC is the best way to holistically assess our military infrastructure against the missions outlined in our national defense strategy. And since the last round of BRAC in 2005, that strategy has changed significantly in response to today’s great power competition. The strategy shift started under President Donald Trump, and President Biden’s interim national security guidance indicates that he supports that change.

Members of Congress have previously been apprehensive of falling into the trap of authorizing another round like the 2005 BRAC (where costs exceeded savings), however, these are problems of legislative design that can be addressed while authorizing a new round. The new round of BRAC should have a narrow mandate and focus on reducing excess infrastructure.

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The Pentagon has had unused spare bedrooms for a while now. The Pentagon has 16,000 fewer active troops now than it did in 2005. Put another way, the children are gone and aren’t coming back.

While it makes sense to maintain some extra capacity in case the need arises to scale up our forces, there is no need to maintain over 15% of excess capacity. It’s costly, and the cost keeps rising.

Fiscal Year 2023 would be a great moment to authorize a new round of BRAC. Ms. McCollum and Mr. Calvert are well-positioned to lead the charge to rationalize our defense infrastructure, saving money that can be used to keep our current and future forces best situated and equipped to deal with today’s great power competition.

Let’s hope they succeed.

This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times