On the Brink of Brac

Cutting back on military bases makes economic sense--unless you happen to live near one.
May 2004
By Jonathan Walters  |  Senior Editor
A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.

Exactly one year from now, a collective groan will be heard across the country as the Pentagon identifies the losers in the upcoming BRAC sweepstakes. BRAC stands for "Base Realignment and Closure," four words that send chills up the spines of every state and locality that hosts a significant military facility. Four previous BRAC rounds have seen the shutdown of 97 bases from New York to Texas.

This round of BRAC is part of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's ambitious plan to transform the U.S. military into "network-centric, distributed forces capable of rapid decision superiority and massed effects across the battlespace." What those words might actually mean for national defense is anybody's guess. What they mean for many communities and their governments is the prospect of fiscal and environmental pain.

BRAC was born in the late 1980s as a way to take the politics out of downsizing domestic defense facilities. Essentially, it works the same way now as it did then: Pentagon staff go through a round of "fact finding," then produce detailed information on each facility's relative contribution to the evolving program of national defense. That's what's going on now.

Next March, the president--George W. Bush or his successor--will name a nine-member panel to comb through the staff findings and come out with a short (or not so short) list of those bases it feels the Defense Department no longer needs. Congress can either approve the list or reject it, but cannot make amendments.

The political logic is that since more bases stand to be protected than to be eliminated, there should be enough votes for passage. For the past four rounds of BRAC--in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995--that's pretty much how it has worked out.

The current round is especially nerve-wracking, though, because of its potential scope. While there is no stated goal for BRAC 2005, the percentage of bases to be closed is rumored to be as high as 25 percent, meaning that the competition for which ones stay open and which ones shut down could be fierce. States and localities are already scrambling to make the case that their particular facilities are significant contributors to defense, even if they are a little unsure just what "network centrism" is.

Kansas, which has four major military bases, is typical. There, Lieutenant Governor John Moore is chairing a Strategic Military Planning Commission, put together last March to explain why Kansas facilities should remain open--and even expand. The commission has hired a consultant to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the four facilities, and to come up with recommendations for enhancing each facility's role. Kansas is spending in the neighborhood of $1 million on this effort, a reasonable investment, state officials say, considering the estimated $2 billion annual impact of the bases on the Kansas economy. Texas and Florida are mounting similar preemptive strikes.

Those overseeing the BRAC exercise don't like to paint it in terms of "winners" and "losers." They insist that they focus on the best interests of the nation, and that even for communities that lose facilities, there is life after base closing.

In that regard, the Pentagon spends a lot of time and effort emphasizing the positive when it comes to shutting down facilities. In its 2002 report, "New Life for Former Military Bases," DoD outlined the comebacks that have occurred at BRAC-eliminated facilities across the country.

Lowry Air Force Base in Denver has become a model for post-closing resiliency. The nearly 2,000-acre site has been extensively retooled for housing, retail, office space and schools, adding up to hundreds of millions of dollars in redevelopment.

But not all base closings work out so swimmingly. Calhoun County, Alabama, is still struggling with the disappearance of Fort McClellan, which, when it closed in 1999, accounted for 1,500 jobs. Fort McClellan doesn't rate a mention in the Pentagon's rosy, four-color New Life report. That's for a lot of reasons, including the fact that construction of a new interstate connection to the property has been delayed by the slow cleanup of unexploded ordnance that peppers the fort's proving and training grounds.

Now Calhoun County is worrying that BRAC 2005 may target the Anniston Army Depot, a local facility bigger than McClellan. According to Nathan Hill, former civilian commander at the depot, and also the Calhoun Chamber of Commerce point person for saving it, a local committee is helping pull together U.S. Governmental Accounting Office reports heralding AAD's efficiency, and high school kids are being given training to do the military vehicle assembly and repair that the depot performs.

If Calhoun County has learned one thing above all others through BRAC, it is this: Losing a facility in a high-growth area such as Denver or coastal California may in fact turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Losing one in a developmentally challenged place such as northern Alabama is another story altogether.