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Politico - March 18, 2013, By Philip Ewing

The man who ran the last round of military base closures knows better than anyone that it’s one of the toughest jobs in Washington — but he says going through with it again soon might ultimately be better than putting it off.

Anthony Principi, a former secretary of Veterans Affairs and the chairman of the 2005 Base Realignment And Closure Commission — known by the infamous shorthand BRAC — told POLITICO in an exclusive interview that he appreciates as few do just how tough it is for members of Congress, local officials and communities.

Military downsizing is a fact of life, however, and so if Congress doesn’t agree to the new rounds of BRAC the Defense Department is expected to pitch in its budget submission next month, Principi said, it might still wind up with changes — ones outside its control, under another name.

“You can do some of it without a BRAC, but what you’re really doing is having a BRAC under the radar,” he said. “Defense still has some authorities where they can piecemeal a base apart. There are certain requirements in the law where you can cut [some] civilian personnel, you can move military personnel. … That doesn’t help a community, in my view.”

And if there’s anything Congress hates more than BRAC, it’s a “backdoor BRAC,” or “stealth BRAC,” as members call it. But Principi pointed out that the Air Force, for example, has about 500 fewer aircraft than it did in the last BRAC and yet has “excess” real estate at its bases around the country. The Army plans to disestablish six of its U.S-based brigade combat teams. So something’s got to give — especially, as defense officials have warned, if sequestration winds up shrinking the force even more than previously planned.

Defense advocates are covering their ears. The Pentagon hasn’t even sent its budget to Capitol Hill, but Rep. Rob Wittman — the Virginia Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee’s readiness panel — convened a hearing to pre-emptively rule out the prospect of BRAC.

“There is simply not enough evidence to even consider moving forward in such a time of uncertainty,” he said. The process of BRAC costs a substantial amount of money to execute, and real savings don’t accrue for years after the BRAC is initiated. In the case of BRAC 2005, we will not accrue savings until 2018, 13 years into its implementation. We have too many long-view decisions that need to be sorted out and need to be settled before we make a shortsighted decision to authorize a BRAC round.”

Principi acknowledged that the 2005 BRAC was more expensive than any other — a congressional report estimated that it wound up running $14.1 billion over its original estimate, for a total price tag of $35.1 billion — but he said much of that came from costs incurred after the closure decisions, especially in military construction.

“There was inflation in [military construction],” he said. “There were some structures that — I won’t say they were gold-plated, but they were very large. I’m trying to be objective here — if you go out and see these structures, they were certainly built to last a long time.”

At least the BRAC process lets lawmakers and communities plead their case, Principi said, and he remembered occasions in which the commission’s involvement helped save everyone involved from potentially bad outcomes.

For example, Principi flew up to Kittery, Maine, the home of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, a major economic engine for Maine and New Hampshire that the Defense Department had slated for closure. Principi’s and BRAC’s job was to visit the site and decide whether to concur or object.

“I recall getting off the airplane in Kittery. … There must’ve been 30,000 people there, from the airport to the gates of the base with signs that said ‘Save our Base, ‘Save our Jobs.’ You understand the economic impact on the communities.”

In the case of Portsmouth, Principi and his commissioners recommended that the Navy keep the shipyard open, citing the work of managers and unions to turn it around from an underperformer into what Principi called the most cost-effective naval shipyard. Principi and his commissioners also recommended the Navy keep open Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Conn., though its advocates have remained on guard ever since. One of them, Democratic Rep. Joe Courtney, joined those at Wittman’s hearing who pre-emptively ruled out the need for another BRAC anytime soon.

Principi also remembered another visit to Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach , the Navy’s once isolated jet base that has been hemmed in by development but stayed open thanks to tireless advocacy. Without an in-person visit by BRAC, Principi said, Washington might not have appreciated the ground truth for the flight crews who used it.

“We’re sitting around a conference table with two senators, a congressman, the mayor, all these admirals, and they’re saying, ‘Nope, no problem with encroachment,’” Principi said. “So I said, ‘Can you go get me some Super Hornet pilots? I want to ask them.’ So they went to the flight line, grabbed this lieutenant, and this lieutenant commander, and they said, ‘Sir, we can’t train the way we fight.’ They were practicing carrier landings, but they said, ‘We have to approach the deck at a different angle, and take off at a different angle, all because of the noise abatement.’”

Even so, Virginia’s delegation was able to keep Oceana open. Principi remembered constant lobbying about nearly every base involved with his panel.

“You have no idea,” he said. “It was incessant. When the president appointed me as chairman, when we were announced, a hold was put on our nomination. I think it was Sen. [Trent] Lott, who put a hold because of what might happen in his case in Mississippi. There was obviously a lot of concern. … We heard from every governor. We heard from every member of Congress on both sides of the aisle. There was no shortage of input. Some of it was very beneficial. It brought to light certain issues people thought the commission should consider — the commission is a court of last resort for communities.”

In that sense, Principi said, BRAC can be helpful even when it ultimately closes down a base. He remembered the Pentagon’s initial idea to close Naval Air Station Brunswick in Maine but keep it on “warm standby”: ready for reactivation but with no aircraft or people on hand.

“What’s the community going to do?” he asked. As it happened, BRAC closed the base and Brunswick has tried to turn it into a regional airport and a business development hub. In San Diego, he said, developers took the land that was once a naval training center and used it for housing and commercial developments.

Still, Principi acknowledged, “There’s not always life after BRAC,” and he said he appreciated the difficulties of localities that lose installations and often don’t get anything in their place. The country’s fiscal crisis, however, might mean that Washington doesn’t have a choice.

“That’s a drain on the community, but to a degree you might have that if there’s no BRAC,” he said. “Look at the situation in the Air Force: You’re spending dollars on a military base that could more effectively be used to meet other needs of men and women in uniform. How are you going to spend these limited and constrained dollars? That’s where the tough decisions come in. No one wants a base closed. It’s hard.”

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