Friday, June 17, 2005

Some ruminations about base closures. There is an old saying that goes something like this: That which is urgent is seldom important, and that which is important is seldom urgent. Now, while many more urgent stories are vying for our attention, it is very easy for us to forget about a very IMPORTANT issue, that may not be considered urgent by many -- and that is base closures. BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) has been with us for at least 15 years now. I was assigned to a base that closed in the mid-nineties, so I can say I have felt the effects of this "process" first hand. In fact, who hasn't felt its effects?: Just think of ALL the MAJOR installations that have been closed since 1990: Norton AFB, McClellan AFB, Kelly AFB, Ft. Ord are just a few that come to mind.

[Note: For the purposes of this piece, the discussion is limited to CONUS bases only, as the lifespan of overseas bases can be subject to other sets of pressures and conditions than is the case with domestic bases. There is a place to discuss overseas basing, but that is another subject for another time.]

There is something about the BRAC process that bothers me: The BRAC process just seems to "automatically" keep coming up with list after list of so-called "excess" bases that are recommended for downsizing or closure. If you study the history of BRAC, you will see that downsizing now may simply be prelude to a closure later.

Take March AFB, for instance, which -- despite its (then) new commissary and new Air Force media center (built when nearby Norton AFB had earlier been tagged for closure) -- our solons in their great wisdom seriously downsized in the mid-nineties. But, at least not all was lost: March was permitted to keep its significant Reserve flying mission. Well, . . . . guess what? March is now once again on the BRAC list!

Yes: BRAC seems to have a life of its own -- it just keeps on going, sort of like a cross between the Energizer Bunny and a runaway train. No one ever seems to ask: Why do we still have BRAC? Or, is it perhaps time to PERMANENTLY halt the BRAC choo-choo in its tracks? Logically, it seems like -- unless someone in Washington comes to his/her senses -- BRAC could keep going until there are only two Air Force Bases, two Army posts, and two Navy bases left -- one on each coast -- all in the name of all-important "cost savings."

You know: I hear we have more generals in the military now than we did in World War II: Yet, somehow we don't talk about "downsizing" the ranks of the general and flag officers! Perhaps there is a relationship: The number of bases secure from closure is inversely proportional to the number of officers wearing stars on their shoulders -- something like that.

All kidding aside, I think we have a right to ask -- and should expect to be told -- where does it all end? How many bases have to be closed before the BRAC monster is satisfied. I have to ask: If we keep paying a bunch of highly-educated people in the Pentagon O-5, O-6, GS-14, and GS-15 salaries to come up with new facilities to close each year, do you think that they will EVER stop finding installations that "need killin'?"

In fact I wonder, why Congress doesn't authorize a NEW commission -- say, just for discussion purposes, a Keep Our Military Bases Open Commission (KOMBOC) -- that is required to come up with reasons why NO INSTALLATION should EVER be closed?

First, two admissions:

  • I will admit that sometimes some bases may need to be closed/downsized.
  • Second, I acknowledge that many venerable military installations in our country's past have been shut down (think of names like Ft. Pitt, Ft. Wayne, Ft. Sumter, or Ft. Marcy) -- again, for this insight, I am indebted to Stan Klos .

Here are some other concerns I have:

  • Do "superpowers" that WANT to REMAIN superpowers keep on downsizing their military (while potentially VERY dangerous enemies -- such as China, Iran, North Korea -- continue to AGGRESSIVELY expand their military capabilities)? I recently read (forget where) that, within 20 years, at present growth projections, China will have a Navy that will be five (5) times larger than ours. Will we feel a bit funny THEN about having PERMANENTLY CLOSED -- as recommended on the latest BRAC closure list -- the Portsmouth (Maine) Naval Station or the Groton (Connecticut) sub base?
  • Do countries actively engaged in a shooting war (as we currently are) logically want to close bases?
  • Can anyone in Washington guarantee that we will never, ever, once again sometime in the future need the very bases we have closed (say, a Fort Ord, or a Norton AFB -- to say nothing of their costly infrastructures, which have (in too many cases) been allowed to go "to seed"?
  • Does anyone in Washington know the meaning of "penny wise, pound foolish"? I believe Mr. Rumsfeld has tried to sell the latest round of BRAC closures as saving on the order of $20 Billion over the next 20 years. Now, lest you be impressed with such a figure, keep in mind that in present day terms, $20 Billion is penny ante stuff when the total annual military budget is over $400 Billion. Put another way, Mr Rumsfeld, how much would it COST our children to REPLACE those VERY SAME facilities FROM SCRATCH (should that become necessary sometime in the future) that you are asking us to close on the latest list? May I suggest that it would cost them a GOOD DEAL more than the paltry $20 Billion you claim to be trying to save.
  • While I am no fan of Government waste, does ANYONE in Washington REALLY think that running a Defense Department is a "bottom-line" affair in the same way that running a business (small or large) is? Isn't the "bottom line" in the Defense business our national security, rather than "saving $20 Billion over 20 years? I mean, does ANYONE think that building either the ancient Great Wall of China or the current security fence in Israel were "profit-making" endeavors by the host countries? To ask such a question is to answer it. However, both projects evidently provide/d a measure of security to the countries who made the strenuous and costly output to build these structures.

Some alternatives to closing bases:

  • Mothballing bases: When I was deployed to England during Gulf War I, I personally witnessed the "demothballing" of a World War II-era military hospital that we had mothballed for decades, but NEVER closed. It had been run by, perhaps, 10 US military members and a similar number of British employees for years. I understand that it was occasionally partially "brought up" for military exercises, but, for the most part, sat there UNUSED, but properly sealed and maintained, so that it could, on fairly brief notice, be activated when needed. Interestingly, we were also housed on another (RAF) base across town in empty base housing quarters, which, though no longer occupied by RAF families, had been adequately kept up to be used by the TDY troops during the six weeks we were there. The Brits, with much less real estate to play with, at that time, anyway, seemed to realize that an established base that is currently not needed need not necessarily be closed and allowed to go "to seed."
  • Renting out some bases for a small fee for 99 years at a time, while retaining deed to the land (with an emergency eviction clause) -- this is NOT my idea (I read it in something by Stan Klos), but it is a good one, because the value of the (rented out) real estate on which the bases sit will only appreciate (even if the facilities do not). A perfect example -- although dating back from well before the current BRAC era of base closures -- of what I mean is a former US military facility located in downtown San Antonio and known as "The Arsenal." The Arsenal was antiquated, but covered with buildings of hewn stone, located downtown, and exceedingly beautiful. This facility is now owned and (well) used as the administrative and information technology headquarters of the giant Texas grocery chain, HEB. I don't know the details of the transaction, but my guess is that HEB likely purchased the facility several decades ago for a song. The buildings alone on that land are likely worth uncounted millions. My point: Rather than GIVING this facility AWAY to HEB, the Pentagon could/should have RENTED it to HEB for, say, 99 years for the price of, say, one US dollar. That way, HEB would have still had the use of the facility, but the Pentagon would still own the ever-appreciating land and infrastructure that it likely gave away for a song.
  • Civilianizing more bases, a la Los Alamos Labs
  • Turning control of more facilities over to Reserve and/or National Guard units (without necessarily closing -- although, possibly, in some cases, mothballing -- their exchanges, commissaries, and hospitals)

One amazing paradox about the base closure issue is that it seems -- perhaps more than any other issue I can think of -- cross party lines. No one -- and I am referring to senators, congressman, governors, and mayors -- wants to see a base closed in his/her backyard. I read on the Internet today (not sure where) that the entire Washington State Congressional delegation (regardless of party affiliation) is UNITED against losing the Washington and Oregon installations that appear on the latest BRAC closure list.

While that "bipartisan, united-we-stand" resistance to military closures at first blush sounds encouraging, it is only good as far as it goes. There is an old saying that "all politics is local," and when it comes to fighting base closures, that saying is proven over and over again -- to the detriment of the "big picture." Why is that? Well, take the example of the Washington State Congressional delegation just cited: Their concern is very parochial -- only for bases in their state or in one neighboring state that employs Washingtonians. In other words, are they concerned that, say, Connecticut will be getting hammered harder than perhaps any other state mentioned on the latest BRAC closure list? Further, do they care that, due to the relatively small size of the New England states, that the BRAC-recommended closure of two major Naval installations in Connecticut will have a deleterious effect on SEVERAL New England states? To answer my own question: NO, they don't care.

Or, to give another example, I recently called one of my Texas senator's offices to complain about the general pattern of base closure nationally, and the Congressional aide triumphantly responded to me that "Senator Cornyn has been working all week to try to prevent the closure of the Texas bases" mentioned on the BRAC closure list. It is the old NIMBY (not in my backyard) syndrome on steroids.

Well, my response is: It is NOT simply a question of the bases in Texas or the bases in Washington or the bases in Connecticut. It is a question of NATIONAL well-being and NATIONAL security. By the various state Congressional delegations' becoming so myopic and pitting themselves against one another, they unwittingly fall for the ploy of the Pentagon's bean counters: Someone's bases STILL get closed.

Sure, if a Democrat is in the White House, the bases finally rescued from BRAC closure may be located in more Democratic areas, and if a Republican is in the White House, the bases spared may be located in districts voting more heavily Repubican. But what does that do? We all still lose. If the Congress critters were smart, they would all unite -- not just across party lines -- but also across STATE lines, and stage a sit-down strike on the Pentagon, saying: STOP this runaway BRAC train! Better, they would pass legislation neutralizing the BRAC process, which is itself empowered by a law passed YEARS ago by (you guessed it) the US Congress.

This is my first written foray into this subject area, and I am quite sure that I do not have all my dates, facts and figures in perfect order, so I welcome feedback and corrections (preferrably with links to authoritative sources that can be cited). However, I wanted to get this out for people to chew on and to generate some serious discussion of the BRAC process, its implications, and its philosophical underpinnings.

Finally, my suggestion is that someone in the MilBlogs ring might consider starting one of those online petitions to (PERMANENTLY) STOP THE BRAC PROCESS IN ITS TRACKS! I would gladly link to it and sign it.

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