Top Pentagon officials Thursday defended their call for a new round of military base closings, suggesting it would be less expensive than the 2005 round, which cost far more than estimated.
The comments came during a brief give-and-take with Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland, in a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee.
Wittman, a critic of the 2005 process, questioned whether 2015 was the right time to revive the Base Realignment and Closure commission, better known as BRAC. The military is unsettled, facing steep cuts due to sequestration while drawing down forces in Afghanistan and shifting assets to the Pacific.
But now is exactly the time for the comprehensive view that BRAC offers, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel countered.
“It seems to me . . . we’re going to have to look at overhead,” he said. “I don’t know how you come at it any other way than with some kind of review from top to bottom.”
The 2005 BRAC process closed Fort Monroe in Hampton and threatened to close Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach. But it also resulted in new construction elsewhere, such as Fort Eustis in Newport News.
Defense Department Comptroller Robert Hale conceded that the 2005 round spent “an enormous sum of money,” but he said 2015 would be different.
In 2005, the military focused on realigning and positioning U.S. military forces with an eye toward future needs. It was the biggest and most complex round ever, involving 800 defense locations and relocating more than 125,000 people, according to a Government Accountability Office study.
GAO found that one-time construction costs related to 2005 BRAC jumped by 67 percent. Five projects had one-time cost increases that skyrocketed beyond 1,000 percent of what Congress was originally told.
Hale said a 2015 BRAC would be “the classic realignment and closure round,” simply looking at excess infrastructure..
Still, military-heavy states like Virginia and regions like Hampton Roads are already mobilizing in advance of BRAC, even though Congress may not approve it this year. Gov. Bob McDonnell has revived a state military commission and state lawmakers recently set aside $3 million to invest in safety improvements at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton.
“I understand the politics of this,” Hagel said. “Still, l think it’s an important time to do it.”
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. had “an uninterrupted flood of money going to the Defense Department,” Hagel said. “This is a different time. We’re going to have to do some things differently.”
Hagel noted that BRAC “allows communities a role in reuse decisions for the property and provides redevelopment assistance.” The budget also includes $2.4 billion to pay upfront costs for BRAC in 2015.
“In the long-term, there are significant savings,” Hagel said. “The previous five rounds of BRAC are now saving a total of $12 billion annually.”
Wittman was not convinced. After the hearing, he issued a statement saying he was not satisfied with the Defense Department’s answers.
“I will continue to oppose a BRAC based upon the lack of information, current budget challenges and the additional cost associated with it, that this nation cannot afford in the current environment,” he said.