The Department of Defense is struggling to figure out how it will absorb its share of the $400 billion in budget reductions called for by President Obama. DoD has sought refuge in a comprehensive strategic review intended to weed out redundancies and irrelevant activities and find additional efficiencies. At the same time, Secretary Gates has suggested that reductions of this magnitude could force a fundamental reevaluation of U.S. defense strategy including a shift to a one-war strategy. Such a change would permit major force structure and manpower reductions but at the risk of undermining this country’s ability to protect its vital interests and allies in one or more regions of the world. Think about having to choose between containing China or preventing Iran from seizing control over the Straits of Hormuz.
In order to protect force structure, DoD is seeking to gain efficiencies in other areas. Secretary Gates demonstrated the possibilities associated with reducing overhead; his initiatives have resulted in some $150 billion in savings. Gates led his efforts with the decision to shutter an entire major defense organization, Joint Forces Command.
Could the search for savings result in another round of base and facility closures? Five times over the past two decades the executive and legislative branches have engaged in base realignment and closure (BRAC) actions to close excess military facilities and realign DoD operations and maintenance activities. Some 350 installations have been closed in five BRAC rounds: 1989, 1991, 1993, 1995 and 2005.
BRAC rounds are extremely protracted and often very painful processes. Many communities have lost facilities which were their largest employers. They are so politically sensitive that Congress is only allowed an up or down vote on the final list of facilities to be closed or realigned. The department and various communities around the country are only now dealing with the serious consequences of the last BRAC round. Thousands of people are being moved into Fort Belvoir in the Washington area. At the same time, thousands more government employees are heading for Huntsville, Alabama as part of the BRAC-ordered relocation of both Army Materiel Command and the Missile Defense Agency.
Even though the pain from the last BRAC has not fully abated, it may be time to consider another round. It is estimated that DoD infrastructure is some 40 percent larger than that needed to operate the current force. The 2005 BRAC Commission took a number of facilities off the original list of proposed closures — Portsmouth Naval Base, for example — because it was concerned for the robustness of the supporting defense infrastructure at a time when the United States was engaged in two wars. Now that the war in Iraq is over and Afghanistan is beginning to wind down, it is worth revisiting some of the 2005 decisions.
BRAC rounds also serve to force the public defense industrial base, the depots, air logistics centers (ALCs), arsenals and government-owned factories to improve their operations in order to be more competitive with one another and the private sector, the results can be dramatic. I just returned from a visit to the Letterkenny Army Depot (LEAD) which was under intense scrutiny during the 2005 BRAC process. LEAD used Six Sigma and LEAN techniques to transform its operations. Now the depot partners with major private defense firms such as BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon not only in overhaul and modification of platforms and systems but in new production of major military hardware. Partnerships between the public and private sector have demonstrated their value. But without the prior BRAC rounds, the public sector would not have been forced to get their act together.
It is bad strategy and poor policy to demand that fielded forces accept major cuts without asking the same or even more of the supporting infrastructure. If the Pentagon is contemplating meeting its goal of $400 billion in reductions through cutting end strength or weapons programs it should give equal or greater consideration to reducing overhead and infrastructure. Time for the mother of all BRAC rounds.
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