The Pentagon is planning to ask Congress for two new rounds of military base closures in its upcoming budget, according to defense sources.
The Defense Department made the same request last year, but it was immediately shot down by Democrats and Republicans at the outset of the election year.
In a meeting this week of governors appointed to advise the government on defense issues, DoD officials said they planned to seek authorization for a round of the Base Realignment and Closure process first in 2015, followed by a second round in 2017, according to a former defense official.
The Pentagon had no comment Thursday.
Last year, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta requested BRAC for 2013 and 2015.
Although defense officials have been calling for the closure and consolidation of bases for more than a year, only Congress can authorize the BRAC process, in which a bipartisan panel studies potential options for closures and then presents its recommendations for a vote. For members of Congress often anxious to protect home-district bases, the word “BRAC” is politically poisonous.
Still, in a Feb. 6 roundtable with reporters, Panetta said another round of BRAC was necessary.
“We’ll have to consolidate, obviously, in infrastructure and for that reason we will likely, again, propose that BRAC be put in place,” Panetta said. “We’ll have to because you can’t have a huge infrastructure supporting a reduced force.”
His successor, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, told lawmakers in written responses at the time of his Jan. 31 confirmation hearing that he would not rule out potential base closures.
“As with industry, the department should examine its infrastructure and eliminate excess,” Hagel said. “The BRAC process is not perfect, but I believe BRAC is a fair and comprehensive way to right-size the Department’s footprint, and is the best process identified to date. If confirmed, I would have to look at the need for BRAC in the future.”
With the Army and Marine Corps set to draw down some 100,000 troops by 2017 — or potentially even more depending on the future of the defense budget — Panetta and other Pentagon leaders have said tomorrow’s smaller force makes base closures inevitable.
Critics object that while closing military bases and installations around the country might save money in the long run, it does not produce immediate savings and, in fact, costs more upfront to pay for environmental remediation and the relocation of military and civilian personnel.
The last round of BRAC began in 2005, but the closing and consolidating of bases was not completed until the fall of 2011. A June report from the Government Accountability Office said that while costs of the 2005 BRAC round grew by 67 percent, the Pentagon will still reap savings in the long run.
The GAO report said costs for the 2005 BRAC grew from the BRAC Commission’s original estimate of $21 billion to about $35 billion. The increase was largely due to increased construction costs and building projects added to the original plan.
Last spring, lawmakers latched onto these costs as a reason to kill the Pentagon’s request, which was ruled out almost as soon as it was made.
Because the Pentagon didn’t budget for the BRAC rounds it was proposing or provide much analytic rationale for the closures, many defense analysts viewed last year’s proposal as the Pentagon floating the idea, with little expectation Congress would bite in an election year.
This time around could be different — with sequestration looming, there’s even more pressure on the Pentagon to reduce its budget. That could put heat on Congress to allow the Pentagon to use every cost-cutting tool it has to find savings while preserving military capability.
According to an official readout of the Feb. 25 meeting with the governors, Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano discussed cybersecurity, strategic trends affecting the defense budget and a review of the Hurricane Sandy response.
Governors in attendance included Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, as well as Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead.
President Barack Obama created the council so that governors and federal agency leads can discuss issues related to the National Guard and homeland defense.
“Carter began the meeting by describing the department’s current budget situation and the devastating impacts of sequestration, which will go into effect on March 1 if Congress does not act,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a statement.