President Trump Creates a Major Pentagon Dilemma
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By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration at American Public University
President Trump recently unveiled his proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2018. In it, he requested a new round of military base realignments and closures (aka BRAC), to take place in 2021 – after his current term as president ends. However, during his term as president, Trump would also like to increase the strength of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Many previous secretaries of Defense called for another BRAC round for years. A 2016 report by the Department of Defense (DoD) estimated that DoD has 22 percent excess infrastructure nationwide. The Army has 33 percent more infrastructure than it needs; the Air Force has 32 percent more than it needs; and the Navy and Marine Corps combined have a 7 percent excess.
The DoD report says, “Based on the efficiency focused BRAC rounds of the 1990s, the Department projects that a new efficiency-focused BRAC round will save about $2 billion a year after implementation, with savings offsetting approximately $7 billion in costs over the six-year implementation period.”
Note, depending on what bases need to be closed or realigned, there will be up-front costs of as much as $7 billion to make the next BRAC happen.
BRAC Process in Congress Is a Unique Procedure
The BRAC process is unique in Congress. First, the Secretary of Defense collects recommendations from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He sends this list of base closures and realignments to the BRAC Commission (usually nine members). The Commission then vets the list, which includes base visits.
Once vetting is completed, the Commission sends its approved list to Congress for an up-or-down vote. Nothing on the list can be changed in any manner. Once both chambers of Congress have approved the list, it is forwarded to the President for his signature. Again, he cannot change anything on the list. Once the President signs the BRAC proposal, it becomes law (meaning it must be implemented), and the BRAC Commission is disbanded.
Last BRAC Still Has Not Shown Financial Savings
In 2002, Congress approved a BRAC round for 2005. Then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld labeled it the “Mother of all BRACs.” Unfortunately, BRAC 2005 cost $14 billion more to implement than the DoD originally estimated. Moreover, there have been no cost savings yet and none are expected until 2018, three years later than promised to Congress.
It turned out that there were far more realignments than actual base closures. Congress felt hoodwinked and has been reluctant to authorize another BRAC round since.
Congressional resistance to BRAC rounds is to be expected. Lawmakers worry that the closing of a military installation in their district or state will have a negative economic effect and anger their constituents.
The congressional Armed Services Committees are responsible for vetting any BRAC round proposals. Currently, the Senate Armed Services Committee is chaired by Arizona Senator John McCain (R). No bases are threatened with closure in Arizona. The House Armed Services Committee is chaired by Republican Representative Duncan Hunter, of the 50th District in California, which encompasses San Diego. Again, no bases in San Diego are threatened with closure. With a Republican-majority Congress and a Republican President, now is the best chance for approval of another BRAC round – 16 years after the last one.
However, does another BRAC round really make sense at this time? During Trump’s first visit to the Pentagon, he signed an executive order calling for a military buildup to include more troops, warships and a modernized nuclear arsenal.
While that buildup will not happen in this proposed budget, it is the direction Trump wants to take the military. But where would these new troops and warships be stationed? Is this the time, therefore, to be closing Army posts and naval ports when we may soon be adding more forces to them?
It may be wise at this time to delay another BRAC round until we know which way the proposed military buildup is headed. Once we know that, then another round might still be needed but its recommendations would be much more effective.
About the Author
Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Public University. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Stephen received a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Public Policy from Auburn University in 2006. His book about military base closures was published in 2009.