Congressional leaders could be headed for an election-year standoff with the White House over a plea to close unneeded military bases, officials say.
The Pentagon has again asked for a round of base closures to save billions of dollars it says would be better spent on weapons and training.
And while some say the likelihood of a congressional decision on the controversial issue of closing bases prior to this year’s general election isn’t likely, the Obama administration has vowed to cut excess military infrastructure if federal lawmakers do not act.
“The need to reduce excess facilities is so critical that, in the absence of authorization of a new round of BRAC, the administration will pursue new options to reduce wasteful spending on surplus infrastructure within existing authorities,” said a White House summary on the fiscal year 2017 budget.
The Air Force says a study estimated the service branch has about 30 percent more infrastructure than it needs, a situation it called “unaffordable.”
The stakes are always high with any talk of a base realignment and closure. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base gained 1,200 jobs in the last round a decade ago, capturing the biggest coup when the 711th Human Performance Wing — and the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine — relocated to Wright-Patterson from Texas.
But local jobs could be in play in the next round depending on what decisions get made. In the last round, the Springfield Air National Guard Base lost a squadron of F-16s that trained pilots but picked up a new role in overseas drone missions.
The Springfield base could be a target in the next BRAC round, said Michael Gessel, Dayton Development Coalition vice president of federal programs.
In previous BRAC rounds, the Pentagon had recommended moving some or all of Springfield’s missions, but a base closure commission overturned most recommendations, Gessel noted.
“We can expect (Springfield) will be considered again if there is another base closure round but we can’t predict the outcome,” he said. “There is a history of strong community support for the base and we are likely to see that again if its missions are considered by a future BRAC commission.”
Billions ‘wasted’ every year
There is “a strong business case” to close more bases and eliminate billions of wasted tax dollars every year, a senior defense analyst told this newspaper.
“Roughly a quarter of Army base capacity is unneeded, and the corresponding number for the Air Force may be even higher,” said Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute and a defense industry consultant.
“Billions of dollars are being wasted on unneeded bases each year at a time when the Air Force can’t find the money it needs to modernize and the federal debt is approaching $20 trillion,” he said in an email.
Since the last round of closures, the military has gotten smaller. Fewer troops are in uniform and aircraft and ships and ground combat units have also fallen in number.
Money spent on unneeded bases could be better spent on weapons, combat readiness training, quality of life issues for airmen and maintaining infrastructure that’s needed, said Lt. Col. Karen Roganov, an Air Force spokeswoman at the Pentagon.
The Pentagon’s proposed fiscal year 2017 budget asks for another BRAC in fiscal year 2019. Another base realignment and closure, or BRAC, would cost $7 billion over six years and net $2 billion a year in reduced costs, Defense Department figures show.
Five prior BRAC rounds — in 1988, 1991, 1993, 1995, and 2005 — closed 121 major bases and saved an estimated $12 billion a year, according to the Pentagon.
Could it happen?
Gessel said distrust between a Republican-controlled Congress and the Obama administration and the politics of a presidential election year make a decision on a BRAC unlikely prior to the election.
“I believe that the decision to have another BRAC will get wrapped up in presidential politics and the uncertainty of who will occupy the White House,” he said. “Uncertainty results in hesitancy and controversy which stymies action.”
But said Gessel, a former congressional staffer and long-time Washington observer, “The stars could align if there’s a lame-duck session after the presidential election.”
One area defense industry expert said declining budgets and pressures to stay technologically ahead of adversaries will dictate future closings and cutbacks.
“We have to figure out how to do more with less, there’s no doubt about it,” said Deborah Gross, executive director of the Dayton Area Defense Contractors Association.
She urged Ohio’s business and political leaders to “aggressively” showcase Wright-Patterson’s capabilities early to decision makers.
“I think if we do that collectively and early … we stand to come out OK,” Gross said. “We have to aggressively come together as a state and understand the capability that we have and get that story to the people that need to hear it.”
The diversity of Wright-Patterson’s missions and the availability of buildings and land put the base in a prime position to possibly gain in another round of closures, said Cassie B. Barlow, a retired Air Force colonel and former base commander.
Director post urged
Efforts are underway to better position Ohio to sustain another BRAC round.
In a report released in January, a state panel urged the state to create a statewide facilities director post to oversee efforts to protect and grow jobs at federal installations and enhance the military value of bases in Ohio.
“The main point we need for Ohio is a single focal point for all activities related to BRAC,” said Gary O’Connell, chairman of the Ohio Federal Military Jobs Commission, which produced the year-long study.
“That’s a vision that the commissioners believe is really critical, ” said Barlow, executive director of the commission. “You know that when somebody is in charge of something, things tend to happen.”
The commission urged stronger public-private partnerships with military installations to boost their chances of survival in a round of base closures, and it said Ohio should push to commercialize technology developed in federal and university labs to create more jobs.
O’Connell said the state should act well before the BRAC process begins so that any state-offered incentives to protect bases or missions could be factored into the recommendations.
State lawmakers appropriated $5 million to bolster infrastructure at military bases in a bid to improve their chances in a BRAC.
Ohio also set aside $350,000 to fund the new director’s post and staff for two years, O’Connell said.
“It’s just a matter of pulling the trigger,” said O’Connell, a retired chief scientist at the National Air and Space Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson. “My belief is it’s just not a high priority right now for the governor’s office or the legislature to do that because they haven’t really seen any threat of a BRAC.”
Joe Andrews, a spokesman for Gov. John Kasich, said in an email last week, “We are still reviewing the report and have made no decisions yet.”
Winners and losers
In the last round of base closures, the Miami Valley region both lost and gained jobs and missions.
The region lost 435 jobs at the Defense Finance and Activity Center in Kettering. The Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson faced the threat of consolidation or closure, but was spared.
Wright-Patterson gained work that bolstered the Air Force Research Laboratory Sensors Directorate on base, but lost the Information Systems Directorate to Rome, N.Y.
Defense Department-wide actions then moved many missions and closed fewer bases than anticipated, Gessel said.
“The 2005 round was heavier on realignment and lighter on closure than expected,” Gessel said. “That disappointed a lot of people.”
Ohio could be one of the few states to benefit from another BRAC round, Thompson said.
“There is no chance at all Wright-Patterson Air Force Base would close, and there’s a better-than-even chance it would gain jobs” and “free up money” for technology research headquartered at the base, he said.
Air and Army National Guard Bases are more at risk, and Ohio should develop a plan to protect bases in Columbus, Springfield, Mansfield and Toledo, Thompson said.
“Rickenbacker in Columbus is probably safe, but the Air Force would dearly like to reduce the count of Air National Guard bases,” Thompson said. “The Army may share that view of its own Guard bases.”
Wright-Patt has an estimated $4.3 billion economic impact and directly employs 27,500, while Springfield has a $91.9 million economic impact, and employs 300 full-time employees, including 1,000 Guardsmen.
Ohio’s federal lawmakers are not eager to see another BRAC.
“I believe this is an issue that should be left up to the next administration,” U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, whose district spans Wright-Patterson.
“I will continue to oppose President Obama’s efforts to force additional cuts in defense spending, including a BRAC,” he said.
Last year, Turner and three other congressional leaders met with leaders of the state’s military bases to focus on preparing for a future round of closures.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, indicated last week he would not support actions to reduce military installations or missions in Ohio.
“The military presence in Ohio strengthens our national security and our economy,” Brown said in an email. “I remain committed to supporting the many missions at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base as well as Ohio’s National Guard and reserve installations.”
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said he wouldn’t back base closures now and it was unlikely Congress will this year.
“I will do everything in my power to strengthen our installations and demonstrate their value to the Department of Defense,” he wrote in an email.
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