The flag is taken down for the last time at Onizuka Air Station, Calif., Sept. 15, 2011. The base was on the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure list. Air Force officials are saying with a smaller force, Congress should revisit closing some bases. (Air Force)
Facing extreme pressure to squeeze the budget, Congress has vowed to block the Air Force from cutting one area service officials have said is necessary: bases.
Senior Air Force leaders have called closing bases an urgent need, a way to address plenty of excess capacity within the service.
“We continue to believe [base realignment and closure] authority is a tool that we urgently need to allow DoD to divest excess infrastructure and refocus resources to meet other critical needs including readiness and modernization,” Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said at a February conference of the Air Force Association.
But in the first mention of BRAC heading into the fiscal 2014 budget season, congressional leaders lined up to discourage any suggestion of base closures, an idea expected to be floated in Defense Department budget proposals.
“I am adamantly opposed to pursuit of a BRAC at this particular time,” said Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., chairman of the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee. “I think that we have many, many other issues that we have to deal with, with the budgeting and strategy within the military. This is not the time to pursue a BRAC.”
The base closure process is handled by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the services cannot legally even begin a study on capacity unless prompted by legislation, said Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek.
Service officials cite a 2004 analysis that found 24 percent excess capacity in the service. The 2005 round of closures cut eight minor Air Force locations, about 0.8 percent of Air Force total facilities, said Kathleen Ferguson, the acting undersecretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and logistics.
And since then, the Air Force has cut about 500 more aircraft.
“We have limited authority under the current public law to effectively consolidate military units or functions and divest real property no longer needed,” Ferguson told lawmakers on the House readiness subcommittee March 14. “Put plainly, we continue to spend money, maintaining excess infrastructure that would be better spent recapitalizing and sustaining our weapons systems, training for readiness and investing in the quality-of-life needs of airmen. Divestiture of excess property is a must.”
A May 2005 Air Force analysis recommended that the service close 10 installations and realign 60 others. This included reducing 28 flying units — a 20 percent reduction. The bases recommended to close were Kulis Air Guard Station, Alaska, which closed in 2011; Onizuka Air Force Station, Calif., which closed in 2010; Otis Air National Guard Base, Mass.; W.K. Kellogg Air Guard Station, Mich.; Cannon Air Force Base, N.M.; Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, N.Y.; Mansfield Lahm Air Guard Station, Ohio; Pittsburgh Air Reserve Station, Pa.; Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D.; and Gen. Mitchell Air Reserve Station, Wis.
A new proposal is expected as DoD unveils its fiscal 2014 budget proposal next month. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said this year that proposing another BRAC is likely, and current Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said during his confirmation that he would look at the need for BRAC.
While a round of base closures would help the budget situation, the service should not count on it being approved, said Lt. Gen. Michael Moeller, the deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs. Lawmakers have said the cost for a round of base closures would be too high.
A Government Accountability Office report released this month found that the 2005 round cost about $35 billion to implement, exceeding the initial estimate of $21 billion. The office recommended that the Defense Department improve its process of estimating costs, along with identifying new cost measures and targets for eliminating excess infrastructure in initial guidance.