It comes courtesy of Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, party leads on the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, who are suggesting moving forward with a new BRAC but eliminating the BRAC commission.
While there’s no question the military has far more infrastructure than it needs, as well as firsthand knowledge of which infrastructure and missions are obsolete and which will take it into the next decades, simply turning defense lobbyists loose on the Pentagon is in no way preferable to allowing local communities – and outfits like the Kirtland Partnership Committee who live and work next to these installations – to make their cases to an independent BRAC commission.
No community wants to lose or shrink a base, but those that have them want theirs to be vibrant, with an essential mission that helps drive the local economy as well as national security. That goes hand-in-hand with why we have BRAC in the first place: Politicians have always been staunch promoters and defenders of military installations in their districts, sometimes for decades after those facilities are no longer needed for national defense. As a result, the military winds up with more bases, and maintenance costs, than it needs. Though the Pentagon has been calling for a new BRAC round for several years, pork-reliant Congress denied former President Barack Obama’s requests for closures and realignments four times. Yet the Air Force says it has 25 percent more base infrastructure than it needs; the Army says it has 21 percent more base infrastructure than it needs – even if it added 25,000 troops; and the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates the upkeep costs on excess properties cost the Pentagon $2 billion annually.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis says BRACs are the most significant and successful way of keeping the military lean and mean. But the proposal by McCain and Reed to severely curtail public input by allowing a mere 60-day public comment period – which could amount to little more than emails that are never read – is seriously flawed.
The current process, governed by the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Act of 1990, begins with a DoD threat assessment of the future national security environment, followed by development of a force structure plan and basing requirements to meet these threats. DoD then applies published selection criteria to determine which installations to recommend for realignment and closure, the secretary of Defense publishes a report with realignment and closure recommendations and sends it to an independent commission appointed by the president, in consultation with congressional leadership. This BRAC commission holds regional meetings to solicit public input prior to making its recommendations – that’s when interested citizens have the opportunity to explain why their military base should be spared. The commission has the authority to change DoD recommendations if it determines they deviate from the force structure plan and/or selection criteria, and it forwards its recommendations to the president for review and approval, who then forwards the recommendations to Congress, which has 45 legislative days to act on the commission report on an all-or-nothing basis.
Even Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is skeptical of cutting out the BRAC commission – and he was in the camp that voted against initiating the base closure process four times. He says “I’m not sure what problems are addressed by a new version of BRAC that involves more lobbying.”
Albuquerque businessman Sherman McCorkle, founder of the Kirtland Partnership Committee, is a veteran of the 1995 and 2005 BRAC rounds in New Mexico. He maintains “the commission has been a critical part of the process,” with community members allowed to make in-person presentations regarding the value of bases, “to appeal and present evidence.”
New Mexico fared well in the 1991, 1993, 1995 and 2005 BRACS – because New Mexicans in conjunction with Kirtland, Holloman and Cannon Air Force bases and the Army’s White Sands Missile Range did their homework. Over the years there have been changes and new missions, and Heinrich points out “as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I know that our best investment is to ensure our missions represent the future of our defense infrastructure – just look at the new Patriot missile detachment at White Sands, RPA mission and F-16s at Holloman, combat rescue helicopters at Kirtland, or special operations training infrastructure at Cannon we’ve successfully secured.”
The United States needs right-sized military installations with meaningful missions that address national security today and for many tomorrows to come. The advent of fifth-generation stealth aircraft, remotely piloted drone warfare, cyber warfare and laser-firing helicopters show our military – and its infrastructure needs – continues to evolve. But our military bases are also integral parts of the larger communities they are in, and those communities are better situated to explain their value than a D.C. lobbyist, bureaucrat or politician.
Congress, which has rejected a BRAC for years, should not be allowed to summarily change the rules of engagement and kick the public off the BRAC battlefield. Yes, hard decisions need to be made, and bases need to be realigned and even closed. But history has shown that an independent commission and public meetings, where community members can make the best case for their military installations, make the BRAC process as open and fair a fight as possible.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.