October 17, 2003

Erasing Bases

By George Cahlink
The hit list taking shape today may be the biggest ever.
Former Sen. Alan Dixon, D-Ill., wishes he had said no in 1994 when then-Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn, D-Ga., called and asked him to oversee the 1995 round of military base closings. Instead, Dixon agreed to take the job as a favor to his former colleague and led what turned out to be the military's most recent and largest round of shutdowns. "It's not a fun job. It's a bad job. I wouldn't do it again for anything," says Dixon, adding that one senator who he had considered a friend still won't talk to him because the commission closed a base in that lawmaker's state.
Somebody, though, will have to take the job again.
The Pentagon is gearing up for what is likely to be its final shot at realigning the military base structure set up to win the Cold War. Already, the Defense Department has been examining how work can be consolidated at bases that would be used by more than one of the military services. Over the next year the Army, Navy and Air Force will each draw up lists of bases that can be closed or realigned. By the spring of 2005, the Pentagon will hand off those lists to an independent commission that will hold hearings, crunch numbers and compose a final list that must be approved or rejected in its entirety by Congress and the president in the fall of 2005.
The verdict for military communities may be two years away, but the fate of many bases will be determined over the next 12 months. In the past, about 85 percent of the recommendations to shutter bases made by the Pentagon have become law. Indeed, the 2005 base realignment and closure process (known as BRAC) has already begun.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld lobbied Congress two years ago to close more bases, saying the military's 40 percent personnel reduction since the late 1980s with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War outpaced cuts in infrastructure of only about 20 percent. Rumsfeld has said as much as 25 percent in excess base infrastructure could be eliminated to save several billion dollars annually. Lawmakers eager to free up funds in the Defense budget for new weapons systems and the war on terrorism went along with the proposal. Mindful of losing military jobs in their states, however, they agreed to just a single BRAC round.
As in previous base closing rounds, the Pentagon will make its recommendations to a bipartisan panel, appointed by lawmakers and the White House, which will review them and present a final list to Congress. But the similarities between the 2005 round and those in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995 end there.
Some of the changes the next time around will be subtle: the commission has been expanded from eight members to nine members to prevent tie votes; the Pentagon has been told to make recommendations on a 20-year force structure plan, not the six-year plan used in past rounds; and the commission may only make changes to the Pentagon's list if seven members agree. (In the past, a simple majority could vote to add bases.)
The bigger changes are in the way the Defense Department is managing BRAC 2005. In the past, Defense primarily viewed the base closing process as way to save money, but this time around the military services have been told to look at it in the context of the overall military "transformation" demanded by the Bush administration. That means they'll look to consolidate or close facilities based on the smaller, more agile and joint armed forces that will continue to emerge in the next few years. "There was a lot of emphasis on shedding infrastructure. Now I see us more shaping infrastructure," says Ronald Orr, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and logistics.
Rumsfeld has repeatedly talked about eliminating duplicative work among the services and turning over commercial work to the private sector. "We've done as much as we can do with savings and capabilities, doing things the way we've always done business," says Anne Davis, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for infrastructure and analysis. "[BRAC] is a way to force us to look at the world in a different way."
Raymond DuBois, who as deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment is the Pentagon's point man for BRAC, says the coming round of base closures could affect more bases than did all previous rounds combined. More bases will be in play in 2005 because Pentagon officials want the services to merge common operations and consider privatizing government work.
"This," DuBois insists, "is not your father's BRAC."
The biggest way this base closing round will differ from its predecessors is that it will be managed in much more of a top-down fashion. In earlier BRACs, the services had substantial leeway in determining which of their bases to target, often frustrating Pentagon efforts to consolidate work or identify types of bases for privatization or closure.
For example, before the 1995 BRAC, Defense created six special joint task forces to find ways bases could be consolidated and operated across services. The groups came up with several recommendations, such as combining the military's maintenance and repair operations. In November 1994, those recommendations were handed off to the services, which were told to consider them in coming up with their BRAC recommendations. But six months later, when the Defense Department's list came out, there was no mention of combining depots. The recommendations had been ignored.
DuBois says that will not happen again. "The process needs to start with the presumption of jointness—multiservice and multimission installations—instead of being washed through the services individually," he says. Last fall, in a memorandum kicking off BRAC 2005, Rumsfeld wrote that a "primary objective [is] to examine and implement opportunities for greater joint activity." The Pentagon, he said, would review in joint study groups all operations done by more than one service , while the services would only review unique operations. In past rounds, the services reviewed all operations and then handed off their recommendations to the Office of Secretary of Defense, which more often than not rubber-stamped them and sent them to the commission.
Rumsfeld has created two organizations to oversee BRAC. The Infrastructure Executive Council—headed by the deputy Defense secretary and including the secretaries and chiefs of staff at each of the services, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics—will provide policy and oversight. Another organization, the Infrastructure Steering Group, will oversee the joint study groups. The steering group will be headed by the undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics and will include the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the services' assistant secretaries for installations and environment, the services' vice chiefs of staff and the deputy undersecretary of Defense for installations and environment. Previous BRACs did not have such high-level oversight, nor were joint reviews a top priority early on.
Last spring, the Infrastructure Steering Group recommended that joint cross-service groups be created to analyze ways work can be shared across the services in six areas: technical, industrial, medical, education, headquarters and support activities, and supply and storage. Those groups, which have already begun meeting, include representatives from each service and are headed by a senior Defense officials with expertise on each group's functions. For example, the Pentagon's top scientist, Ronald Sega, director of Defense research and engineering, will oversee the technical group, while the services' surgeons general will head the health group.
DuBois says the groups are broad by design, but will closely examine specific operations. For example, the training group will tackle the pilot training programs run by each of the services. Its members, DuBois says, will ask the following kinds of questions: "Should the military do all its pilot training or should the private sector provide us with men and women who can fly prop jets and rotary aircraft? Should there be a combination? Where should it be done? Could the Marine aviators and Navy aviators and Air Force aviators all get trained in a couple of places?"
The technical group will examine research laboratories, ranging from aerospace medical laboratories to centers that study unexploded ordnance. In past BRAC rounds, DuBois says, technical experts have not reviewed how the services manage their various research efforts and how that work could be combined across the services or with nonmilitary research organizations and industry efforts. "We have arguably the greatest research institutions in the world in this country—the universities, the corporations and think tanks," DuBois says. "To what extent does the military truly take advantage of that?"
The Pentagon also would like to see active duty and reserve bases consolidated, but that could be challenging, because states have a say in how National Guard facilities are used. Rear Adm. Benjamin Montoya, a BRAC commissioner in 1995, says most of the active duty bases that should have been closed already have been shuttered and the most obvious candidates for closure are smaller Guard and reserve bases scattered across the country. But, he says, "Closing a Guard base is as hard as trying to shut down a rural post office."
DuBois says the joint groups will only focus on common military functions, not service-specific operations. So the Navy will decide whether cutting its fleet to 300 ships will result in changes at its ports. The Army will weigh where brigades should be based if troops are brought home from Europe. The Air Force will determine whether its plan to lease commercial refueling aircraft would allow it to consolidate its tanker bases.
Officials at the state and local levels are already jockeying to influence how such decisions play out. William McGlathery, the federal liaison for Mississippi's economic development agency, hopes he has his bases covered. He knows his state lucked out in escaping the ax when the Defense Department shut down nearly a hundred bases in the late 1980s and 1990s, and he expects it will take some work to keep his state's bases from being shuttered when the Pentagon closes more installations in 2005. Mississippi was one of only a handful of states that not only didn't lose any bases, but gained more than 1,500 military and civilian jobs as Defense work shifted there from other states.
Since 1997, Mississippi has spent $50 million improving its bases. The state picked up the $13.5 million tab to build a nine-mile sewer line for Columbus Air Force Base and kicked in $3.2 million to build a new naval reserve center at Naval Air Station Meridian. McGlathery says the bases both offer initial pilot training, which he knows is a target for consolidation. In 1995, Meridian was removed from the closure list thanks to some last-minute politicking by the state's congressional delegation. He says one way the state can protect bases is by making upgrades.
Other states also are looking to increase their bases' value. Texas, which has 17 installations, created a $250 million fund that lends money to communities near military bases to make upgrades. California, the nation's leader in military bases with 61, has doled out nearly $750,000 in "retention" grants for local communities to study ways to better link their bases to military needs. The state also has brokered a deal between a local developer and the military to trade land at Los Angeles Air Force Base in exchange for a new headquarters building. Georgia, which has not lost a base in past BRACs, passed a law requiring communities near installations to consult with the military before making any zoning changes, so bases will not be hemmed in by commercial or residential development.
In New Jersey, Wayne Girardet, the director of government relations for the state's Department of Military and Veteran Affairs, says the state's seven bases could be targeted in 2005 because they house support organizations, not operating forces. "The question from each state's standpoint is what's vulnerable to closure or relocation and, on the plus side, what can be received," says Girardet.
Knowing the Pentagon wants joint bases, Girardet has touted three bases that are adjacent to one another in central New Jersey—McGuire Air Force Base, the Army Reserve's Fort Dix training facility and the Naval Air Warfare Center in Lakehurst—as one of the military's first "super bases." Each base has been targeted in past BRACs. In 1995, the Navy recommended closing Lakehurst, but the commission opted to keep it open; in 1993, McGuire narrowly beat out Plattsburg Air Force Base in New York to stay open; and Fort Dix lost its active-duty training missions in the late 1980s.
Girardet says the Army's Picatinny Arsenal in northern New Jersey, a research and development center for explosives and propellants, also is vulnerable. It could face competition from Redstone Arsenal, Ala., for research and development work if facilities are consolidated.
Debbie Witherspoon, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees local at Letterkenny Army Depot in south central Pennsylvania, chuckles when asked how she thinks her installation will fair during BRAC 2005. "We've been on every BRAC list since it was initiated. I don't see why this one will be any different," she says, noting the depot's workforce has fallen from about 6,000 employees in the late 1980s to 1,800 today.
Letterkenny is not alone. All the services have closed or consolidated their huge repair and overhaul facilities, which employ tens of thousands of civilian workers and have nearly $20 billion in annual work. In the early 1990s, the Navy decided to close four major shipyards. In 1995, the Air Force privatized two of its five air depots. The Army has closed several depots and supporting organizations since the end of the Cold War. Nearly everyone interviewed for this story predicted BRAC commissioners would once again closely examine depots.
DuBois says depots not only will be judged against one another, but the Pentagon's joint study group also will examine whether commercial contractors could do the repair work. "You have to ask yourself, ‘Is the industrial base of the United States in a situation of overcapacity or underutilization?' " says DuBois. "Clearly there is some level of undercapacity and underutilization, whether it be [in the areas of] airplanes or ships or tanks or armored personnel carriers. The questions are how much, where is it, [and] most importantly, what's the best solution."
DuBois says no decisions have been made to close depots and outsource work to contractors. But, he says, the goal of BRAC is to maximize operational value and minimize cost. That could mean closing some depots, consolidating others, or forming partnerships with industry to run them. "In essence, BRAC is an opportunity to look at how you do things," DuBois says. The Pentagon has repeatedly asked Congress to permit it to outsource more depot work, but lawmakers have refused to change a law that says half of all depot work must be done at government facilities.
If depots aren't closed, consolidation seems likely. "There's no reason why [airplane overhauls] cannot be done at either at a Navy or Air Force facility," says former BRAC commissioner Montoya. The Air Force and Navy each have three air repair depots. The Jacksonville Naval Air Depot, which was seriously considered for closure by the Navy in 1995, could be candidate for consolidation. Not only does it service older Navy aircraft, but recent reports in the Florida Times-Union newspaper concluded it's the least efficient of the three air depots.
Meanwhile, the Air Force raised eyebrows among some depot backers in August when the service restructured its acquisition programs and moved procurement responsibility away from its three depot commanders. The Air Force has said the move was not a precursor to closing the depots, and in fact, it allows them to better focus on their core repair missions.
The three depots that repair tracked ground vehicles—the Anniston, Ala., Army Depot; the Red River Army Depot in Texarkana, Texas; and the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Albany, Ga.—also could be consolidated. In 1995, the Army wanted to close Red River, but the BRAC commission opted to keep it open, shifting work there from other depots.
A recent General Accounting Office report (GAO-03-682) concluded that Red River was using 79 percent of its capacity, while the figure for Anniston is 76 percent. BRAC observers say the Marine depot is far less utilized. One longtime industry official, who asked not to be named but closely follows BRAC, predicted the Albany depot would be closed and the work would be split between the two Army depots.
The Army's 14 government-owned, contractor-operated plants—which either manufacture munitions or are being held in reserve to do so—and the service's two arsenals in Rock Island, Ill, and Watervliet, N.Y., could also be BRAC targets. A recent study by research firm RAND for the Army recommended privatizing most such facilities, except those at Crane, Ind., Pine Bluff, Ark., and McAlester, Okla., which by law cannot be privatized. The report recommended turning Rock Island and Watervliet into federal corporations that also could manufacture commercial products and might eventually be completely privatized. The study found the Army could save as much as $3.3 billion over 20 years by taking such an approach.
The efficiency and operational necessity of military bases won't be the only factors under consideration as the Pentagon weighs closure and consolidation decisions. Another factor will be what happens outside the walls of bases.
When DuBois first worked for Rumsfeld, as a staff assistant during the secretary's first tour at the Pentagon, the term "encroachment" never came up in discussions of military facilities. Two decades later, the Joint Chiefs of Staff raised the issue with Rumsfeld within his first two weeks on the job—and it has come up regularly ever since. Encroachment is used to describe the impact of increased development near military bases and the effects environmental laws have on military training and operations. All of the military services have said encroachment hurts their training.
DuBois says encroachment will be a factor in deciding which bases to close, but will not be applicable to every base. "You could have critical habitat [for an endangered species] to the fence line of an installation that does research and development, and it will have no effect on its value. If you have encroachment of an endangered species on a training range, that could be a major issue," says DuBois.
Encroachment has been most common in areas with dense and growing populations. Noise complaints have increased at Naval Air Station Oceana, near Norfolk, Va., and the Naval Air Weapons Station at Point Magu in southern California as surrounding communities have grown. The Oceana fighter base is unlikely to be shuttered, since it is near the center of the service's operations on the East Coast. It was recently picked to receive 120 new Navy fighter planes and has the support of Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va. But Point Magu could see some of its work shift to ranges in other western states, such as White Sands Missile Range, N.M., or ranges in the California desert.
Orr, the Air Force's BRAC chief, says Air Force bases will be evaluated partly on the basis of whether encroachment issues would prevent them from handling the aircraft that will be fielded over the next several decades, such as the Joint Strike Fighter, F/A-22 fighter and unmanned aerial vehicles. "It's not only can they fly there today, but can they fly there in the future," he adds.
Rapidly growing Arizona cities, such as Phoenix and Tucson, have encroached on military bases. Luke Air Force Base, the service's largest fighter training base, had few neighbors when it opened more than 50 years ago, but now finds itself about 10 miles from the suburbs of Phoenix, the nation's fifth largest city. Pilots at Luke's Goldwater training range, which is used by both Marine and Air Force fighter pilots, have been hamstrung by sightings of Sonoran pronghorn antelope, which have moved onto the range as surrounding lands have been developed. Every time an antelope is sighted, training sessions must either be canceled or relocated.
In Tucson, a local school district might relocate an elementary school because it's within a mile of David-Monthan Air Force Base's runway. City officials there have said they expect closing the school would alleviate some encroachment concerns. The Arizona legislature is studying changes in laws to ease encroachment around the state's military facilities.
Even in the wide open state of Alaska, encroachment issues have emerged. The Army has proposed fencing 34 miles of boundaries Fort Richardson shares with the city of Anchorage to tighten security as it expands training on the base. However, local residents argue that miles of fence would be unattractive, damage property values, harm moose and other wildlife, and limit access to public land. The Army has not made a final decision on the fence, but the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce has backed the idea, saying the lack of a fence could be cited as an encroachment issue and count against the base in the upcoming BRAC round.
Some military communities that aren't facing encroachment are hoping that will be a selling point with the BRAC commission. In Kansas, Fort Riley backers are quick to point out they have no endangered species or sprawling suburbs that could affect training. If the Army elects to close a training base, that fact could give the old Indian outpost an edge over other Army training areas, such as Colorado's Fort Carson, which is located between rapidly growing Colorado Springs and Pueblo.
Several western states, including California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, have formed the Southwest Defense Alliance to represent the 19 testing and training ranges in the region. Bill Johnstone, executive director of the alliance, says many of the ranges offer open, uninhabited space that would offer better training and test conditions than smaller ranges east of the Mississippi River.
For example, Army aviation training is done largely at Fort Rucker, Ala., but aviators complete high-altitude training at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. "Why not move the training somewhere [like Edwards] where you can do the entire thing?" Johnstone says.
Testing ranges could well be targets for consolidation even without encroachment concerns. The military services use only about 30 percent of the capacity at the ranges, and they emerged unscathed in past BRACs. Johnstone concedes the ranges are underutilized, but he says that's due to cuts in testing budgets, not a reduced need for testing weapon systems.
Of course, there's one other factor that plays a major role in base closure decisions: politics. "People critical of the Defense Department tend to lose bases," says David Sorenson, an Air War College professor at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., and author of the 1998 book Shutting Down the Cold War: The Politics of Military Base Closure.
For example, former Rep. Ronald Dellums, an outspoken opponent of Defense spending, saw five bases shut down in his Oakland, Calif., district in the 1990s. Former Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., another Defense critic, lost two bases in past rounds of base closures. Georgia's Nunn, on the other hand, did not lose a single base in his state. "If I were Ted Kennedy, I'd be worried about Hanscom Air Base" in Massachusetts, says Sorenson.
Some lawmakers already have tried to protect bases by making changes to the BRAC process. One proposed amendment to the House version of the 2004 Defense authorization bill would require the Pentagon to create a list of bases that cannot be closed because they are critical to national security. Another proposal would require the Pentagon to come up with a plan for basing all military forces in the United States rather than overseas, which would mean few bases could close. The Bush administration has threatened a veto of the Defense bill if any changes are made to current BRAC plans.
In the hope of playing the political game well, several local communities near bases have hired former BRAC commission staff members and retired military officers who once managed installations as lobbyists and consultants. One BRAC consultant says just hearing that a military service may put a particular base on its list can convince a state or municipality to hire a lobbyist—often for a minimum of $250,000.
At the same time, others are waiting in the wings to pick up the pieces when bases are shuttered. Developers who specialize in turning closed military facilities into commercial shopping centers and residential communities turned out in record numbers for a National Association of Installation Developers conference in Chicago this summer to discuss the upcoming BRAC round.
Retired Air Force Gen. James B. Davis, who served on the 1995 closure commission, says that there's no simple way to shut down installations that provide hundreds, often thousands, of well-paying jobs to communities across the country. "Like Churchill said about democracy, ‘It's a lousy form of government, but it's the best I know,' " Davis says. "That's exactly where we are on the BRAC process."

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