WASHINGTON – Each of the past four years, the president of the United States asked Congress to launch a major reduction and consolidation of the nation’s military bases, and each year the House and Senate refused his request.
But this year, as Defense Secretary James Mattis and the leaders of the Army and Air Force step up their calls for long-term changes at U.S. bases, the ambitious process could finally be set in motion.
President Donald Trump requested the base review – formally referred to as Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC – in his 2018 budget proposal, released in March. And Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has signaled his possible support, a change from previous years.
If approved by Congress, BRAC would begin with an in-depth, in-house assessment of U.S. military bases by the Pentagon. Then, by 2021, the military brass would forward its recommendations for realignments and closures to an independent commission for final review and decisions. New Mexico is home to three Air Force bases – Kirtland in Albuquerque, Holloman near Alamogordo and Cannon near Clovis – and one Army base (White Sands Missile Range).
“I would say the odds of BRAC passing (Congress) this year are probably greater than we have seen in past years based on the current dynamic,” Mike Jones, a retired Army general and former chief of staff of the U.S. Central Command, said in a Journal interview last week. Jones is now the lead BRAC expert at The Spectrum Group, an influential Washington-area lobbying and consulting firm.
The military – especially the Army and Air Force – is saddled with unneeded base capacity that costs billions in maintenance. The Army has said it has 21 percent more base infrastructure than it needs, even if it adds 25,000 troops.
The problem is even bigger for the Air Force, which reports having 25 percent excess capacity. The Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates that the upkeep costs the Pentagon $2 billion annually – money that Mattis says could be used to upgrade deteriorating military hardware.
The huge costs come at a time when the military is seeking additional resources to combat evolving threats, from cyberwarfare to rising Chinese and Russian military ambitions to terrorist groups like Islamic State.
The BRAC proposal is not included in the Senate’s defense authorization bill scheduled for hearings in the Armed Services Committee this week, but that could change as lawmakers offer amendments.
Congress must approve legislation to start the BRAC process, including issuing guidelines and criteria for an independent BRAC commission to use in making decisions about which military bases to shrink, expand or close.
Members of Congress, with concerns about their local economies – and re-election – in mind, have historically resisted presidential calls for BRAC rounds, as they did during former President Barack Obama’s final four years in office.
But the calls are growing louder, especially from the top ranks of the military. U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, a Republican who represented Albuquerque for 10 years in Congress, told her former colleagues this month that she backs a new BRAC round.
“The Air Force supports the Department of Defense request for authorization to conduct a Base Realignment and Closure round in 2021,” Wilson said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on June 6. “Completing the more detailed analysis once a BRAC is authorized will have value, and may highlight opportunities for some savings. Enduring savings from BRAC recommendations will leave more DOD resources available for future force structure or readiness requirements. BRAC also allows us, if the analysis supports it, to reposition forces or station new forces in locations that optimize their military value.”
Wilson could not be reached for comment last week on New Mexico’s Air Force bases specifically.
New Mexico bases
Civic boosters and members of the state’s congressional delegation say they are working hard to protect New Mexico’s military assets and jobs.
In Journal interviews last week, supporters of New Mexico’s military mission cited the state’s abundant airspace, cutting-edge work in the realms of lasers and nuclear weapons, special operations training and generally military-friendly community, as boding well for the state’s continued value in the eyes of the Pentagon.
“It’s really important to be engaged with our bases and always looking to make sure we have forward-leaning missions,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “There are always things that are trending away in the military and things that are going to become more important over time. You want to make sure your bases are poised to do the things that are more important.”
To that end, Heinrich said New Mexico’s bases have become more relevant to the military’s 21st century mission than they were in 2005, when the last BRAC round was completed. During that round 12 years ago, Cannon Air Force Base, near Clovis, came under intense scrutiny, eyed for significant force reductions or even closure. Thanks in part to some aggressive lobbying by then-Gov. Bill Richardson and the state’s congressional delegation, the BRAC commission decided to leave the base alone. It has since become a hub for Special Forces training, widely viewed as a critical need in modern warfare.
Kirtland Air Force Base was on the chopping block in 1995, but an intense campaign persuaded defense officials to retain it. Kirtland has since added new missions.
Last year, Kirtland received a new combat search and rescue helicopter fleet to replace older aging aircraft, and the base is also at the cutting edge of so-called directed energy, or laser, weaponry expected to be critical in future battles.
The state’s congressional delegation is also optimistic about the Air Force’s consideration of permanently moving two additional F-16 squadrons from Hill Air Force Base in Utah to Holloman Air Force Base, near Alamagordo. The planes have been temporarily relocated to New Mexico, and a recently completed environmental impact assessment revealed that the base would be a good permanent fit, according to Heinrich’s office.
And just this month, the Army announced that it would accelerate plans for a $34 million project at White Sands Missile Range, moving the timetable up from 2023 to 2019. The project includes construction of an Information Systems Facility to replace an existing communications center that was built in 1962 and caught fire two years ago.
“If there is a new BRAC round, I think the combination of bases we have, the forward-leaning missions and the geography and the airspace we have, actually gives us an opportunity to do better as a result – and potentially bring new missions to the state,” said Heinrich, who has voted four times for defense legislation blocking a BRAC round in previous years.
A spokeswoman for Rep. Steve Pearce, the delegation’s only Republican, said: “The congressman is not in support of a BRAC, especially as it is currently designed. A hyper-politicized process, BRAC is more about the strength and size of congressional delegations than the needs of the military.”
In a statement provided to the Journal, Pearce, who is considering running for New Mexico governor in 2018, said, “New Mexico plays a vital role in the national security of our nation.”
“Our delegation must never take this for granted, and work tirelessly to protect and improve our military installations and missions,” he said.
BRAC history in NM
Sherman McCorkle, an Albuquerque businessman and founder of the Kirtland Partnership Committee, is a veteran of two BRAC rounds that targeted New Mexico bases: the 2005 round that focused on Cannon Air Force Base and an earlier round, in 1995, that targeted Kirtland. McCorkle and other civic backers were able to save Kirtland’s mission, but not without a fight.
McCorkle and former Gov. Richardson both told the Journal last week that if history is any guide, at least one New Mexico base could fall in a BRAC commission’s cross hairs in 2021, if a round is approved.
“It all depends on what the rules look like,” McCorkle said. “The criterion does vary, but basically it is military value and how that is defined. I honestly believe we would be challenged, and I base that on the fact that in 1992 we were told, ‘Kirtland is the model Air Force installation; you guys don’t worry about anything.’
“Then, three years later in 1995, Kirtland was on the list. Everybody was surprised by that.”
James A. Tegnelia, a national security consultant based in Albuquerque who also serves as chairman of Gov. Susana Martinez’s Military Base Planning Commission, said the current perception in New Mexico and in Washington is that the state’s bases “are as healthy today as they have ever been.” Martinez could not be reached for comment.
Tegnelia, who is also chairman of the Kirtland Partnership Committee, stressed that he wasn’t speaking in his official capacity as either commission’s chairman, but as an informed citizen, and said he could not predict that New Mexico’s bases won’t be affected by a BRAC round. But he also said there is room for optimism among those who support the state’s military missions.
“New Mexico is a state that really is friendly to the military,” Tegnelia said. “”It’s a very patriotic state … and it’s a good, welcoming place. The military needs flying space, maneuvering space, and they need test space. The bases in New Mexico have access to the kinds of space the military needs.”