For years, U.S. defense officials have asked lawmakers to give them permission to conduct a new round of base closures in 2017, saying the Pentagon could save billions by shedding empty facilities and unnecessary real estate.
But closing facilities could also mean money and job losses in lawmakers’ home districts. So each time the Pentagon has asked, Congress has responded the same way: No.
Yet U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat whose district includes El Paso and Fort Bliss, is among the few lawmakers who think it’s time for the Pentagon to launch another round of Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC.
“It is hugely unpopular in Congress because everyone runs a risk in a BRAC round of losing,” O’Rourke said. “Nobody wants to lose, but as a taxpayer, I don’t want to continue to subsidize bases and installations that are not performing.”
Historically, the Pentagon has launched a round of base closure and consolidation every 10 years. The last BRAC round was in 2005.
O’Rourke is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, which oversees the BRAC process. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, has said he is reluctant to approve a BRAC round anytime soon, which is a sentiment echoed by many of O’Rourke’s colleagues.
But in an interview with El Paso Inc. last week, O’Rourke said he would rather see the Pentagon do away with facilities and weapons programs it says it doesn’t need than make deep cuts in troop levels.
The Pentagon expects budget constraints to force it to reduce the Army from about 490,000 soldiers to 420,000 by 2020 and to shed some civilian positions.
At the same time, the Pentagon estimates it has as much as 20 percent excess infrastructure capacity, including buildings that are empty and expensive to maintain.
“There are necessary cuts even within the Department of Defense. What you shouldn’t cut are personnel,” O’Rourke said.
It doesn’t make sense, he said, to cut troop levels with the self-declared Islamic State spreading terror in Iraq and Syria, a resurgent Russia in Ukraine, fighting in Libya and Yemen and a growing and more assertive China.
What really happened
But lawmakers have also been reluctant to launch another round of base closures because the last BRAC round a decade ago, which upended the local economies of communities across the nation and impacted untold numbers of jobs, didn’t save as much as the Pentagon projected.
In addition, while closing bases and consolidating operations generally results in an annual savings, it actually costs money to implement. There are buildings to tear down, environmental remediation to be done and, in some cases, new facilities to build.
“The last BRAC round didn’t seem to go all that well,” said Tom Donnelly, a defense analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, a right of center think tank in Washington, D.C.
While a boon to El Paso, where the Defense Department spent more than $6 billion to expand Fort Bliss, the 2005 BRAC closed 24 major bases nationwide, including three in Texas. It saved less than originally expected and cost more to implement than expected, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Implementation costs ballooned from $21 billion to $35.1 billion, but the 2005 BRAC also resulted in an annual recurring savings for the Defense Department of $3.8 billion, according to the GAO report.
Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, said the 2005 BRAC round was an anomaly because it was completed at a time when the Defense budget was growing to support combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Instead of closing a lot of stuff, the Defense Department moved it. That ended up being incredibly expensive. Not only did they have to pay to tear down and remediate facilities, but they had to build new ones,” Harrison said.
Some El Paso community leaders and national defense experts say Fort Bliss would probably do well during another BRAC round because the Defense Department is unlikely to close facilities at a post where it just finished a multi-billion dollar expansion. And Fort Bliss has room to grow.
Fort Bliss and adjacent White Sands Missile Range, O’Rourke said, boast the largest training area in the Army and are one of the few places in the country with restricted airspace all the way to space.
“All those things are great, but we’ve learned you can’t rest on laurels,” he said.
While Fort Bliss may do well in another BRAC round, experts said soldier reductions are likely to impact the post, where about 30,000 soldiers are stationed.
“It is just too big not to feel it,” Donnelly said.