It is less than three weeks until the Pentagon announces its recommendations for base closings and realignments, but analysts and insiders say this year’s list could be markedly different from those in the past.
With an eye on military transformation and interservice planning and preparation, Pentagon leaders are expected to recommend far more base realignments, perhaps softening blows to communities, department employees and lawmakers worried about the devastating economic impacts of completely shutting down installations.
As opposed to a full closure, a base realignment expands or reduces the number of personnel at a certain installation, often consolidating missions at one or a handful of bases. In this go-around, that could mean creating joint offices and bases, a key piece of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s transformation plans.
“We will see a stronger mark here by the secretary of defense to ensure that there is a correlation between the force structure as he envisions it for the future and the infrastructure to support that force structure,” said Charlie Battaglia, chief of staff of the independent Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission, which will analyze the Pentagon’s recommendations over the summer. “That’s why we’re seeing an emphasis on realignment instead of closure.”
While a base realignment can still have long-term effects on communities on the losing end, it can often be easier to swallow than if the military completely pulled out of town, cutting thousands of skilled jobs. The military can relocate needed employees and, in some cases, keep bases open, albeit with reduced missions and personnel.
“Congress is likely to be less unhappy than they would be otherwise,” said Daniel Else, a base-closure specialist at the Congressional Research Service.
The Pentagon’s recommendations are one of the best-kept secrets in town, with not even members of the commission receiving any official sneak peeks at how many — and which — installations will make the list. But department officials have not been shy in suggesting that realignments will factor heavily into their decisions.
“Originally, everybody talked about BRAC and base closure,” said Paul Hirsch, a veteran of the 1991 commission who currently is a BRAC lobbyist and president of Madison Government Affairs. “But about nine months ago, sometime last year, folks in the Defense Department started reminding us that there’s an ‘R’ in BRAC.”
Interestingly, the move toward interservice consolidation could mean that towns that are home to an Air Force installation, for instance, could wake up next year and learn there is a new service in town.
“There will be enough jointness manifested in the secretary’s recommendations that some of the AFBs [Air Force bases] or forts or NASs [naval air stations] could in fact change their designators,” Hirsch said. “I believe the secretary is looking for substantial change.”
Jointness is not Rumsfeld’s only goal. He also is looking to save money and scrap excess capacity in an era of belt tightening at the Pentagon and across the federal government.
“There is a push towards good business practices, cost effectiveness, rather than having multiple entities” do essentially the same task, Hirsch added.
Not everyone agrees that the Pentagon will go far enough in its recommendations.
“The feeling that we’re getting is that the reductions in excess capacity are not going to be as significant as we hoped,” said Ken Beeks, a vice president at Business Executives for National Security who closely follows the BRAC process.
Beeks said he fears that the realignments will be more intraservice job “shuffling” than an actual move to a more joint and streamlined military. He does not expect many of the realignments to impact areas like military training and professional military education, often the province of individual services, he added.
“A culture builds up attachments to places and things, and sometimes those bonds are hard to break,” Beeks said. “BRAC is the time and BRAC is the tool to do that.”