February 17, 2015

Avoiding the Bad Politics of Domestic Base Closures



Last year, Congress blocked a Pentagon recommendation for a new round of base realignment and closure (BRAC) commission. This year, it will likely once again reject Department of Defense efforts to downsize its domestic basing infrastructure. The Pentagon indicates that it could become more efficient by shedding as much as 20 percent of its basing real estate within the U.S., but Congress has made it plain that a new look at basing needs at home is not in the cards.

Congress has overruled DoD’s own estimates of its most efficient way forward, in order to keep the federal money flowing into their home districts for half-abandoned military sites. It’s unlikely that members of Congress will change their attitudes toward the loss of jobs within their districts anytime soon, and so we’re potentially stuck with an oversized, unneeded, and partially abandoned military infrastructure within the United States.

However, there might just be a way to realize some savings through the downsizing of basing infrastructure while removing the political threat to individual members of Congress. Of the Pentagon’s $850 billion of real property around the world, a full $140 billion (about 16 percent) lies outside the borders of the United States.

While reducing the number of foreign bases presents fewer opportunities for savings than base consolidation at home, it would still bring in a significant amount of savings. If the same 20 percent of basing real estate outside U.S. borders is unneeded, Congress could save almost $30 billion by downsizing bases abroad. Even if those foreign bases contain much less surplus real estate than their domestic counterparts, a removal of 10 percent would save almost $15 billion – not an insignificant amount of money.

One of the main congressional criticisms of DoD’s proposal is that a new round of base closures will not save that much money, given that the savings from the last round of BRAC were only about $4 billion a year. This ignores the fact that members of Congress tried to compensate for job losses during the last round of closures by increasing construction on surviving bases, which ended up costing an extra $35 billion. Foreign bases might sidestep this kind of political horse-trading and allow lawmakers to actually focus on efficiency and cost savings.

At the same time, there are many political leaders around the world that find the presence of American forces on their soil to be politically costly, particularly in places like Okinawa and Korea. Political leaders often recognize the utility of an American presence, but many citizens see it, at a minimum, as a nuisance, and at other times as cause for mass political protest when American personnel commit crimes against the local community. Support from political elites can maintain the status quo, but in times of crisis, these leaders are often likely to bow to public pressure if it is opposed to a particular American policy. Consolidation and downsizing (where possible) could help ease this tension and shore up public support for the American presence overall and the alliance in general. That kind of support comes in handy in times of geopolitical tension, such as that currently taking place in Ukraine, the Middle East, and East Asia.

The point here is not to make a judgment on the nature of the American presence on foreign soil. The issue is that not only could the Pentagon see significant cost savings by reducing U.S. military real estate abroad, but the U.S. could actually see political gains by reducing its footprint in places that have become ambivalent at best and hostile at worst.

The American military has a sprawling infrastructure, both at home and abroad. While changes to this apparatus at home are fraught with political controversy and the inevitably frustrating decisions made by members of Congress, alterations to bases abroad might look much different. Not only could the federal budget see significant cost savings from downsizing the global basing posture, but citizens of some of our staunchest global allies would also greet a return of their territory with open arms. Anything that could strengthen the country at home by reducing unnecessary spending and simultaneously strengthening historic American alliances abroad is worth a look.