WASHINGTON The Defense Department has just wrapped up the base realignment and closure round of 2005. Could another one be around the corner?
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., seems to think so. She has organized a statewide meeting in Syracuse on Oct. 14 to discuss that prospect and to begin crafting a plan to protect installations such as Fort Drum should defense official look to installations to save billions of dollars.
Mrs. Gillibrands effort which grew out of her concerns about the future of Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn was met with puzzlement in the north country. But the idea of trimming infrastructure to save money, whether by a base closure round or other means, is not far-fetched, say people who have worked on previous base closures or closely follow the defense budget. Indeed, it is likely, they say.
The Defense Department is looking for $350 billion in cuts over a decade, as agreed to by Congress. If lawmakers do not identify further cuts in other programs, the Defense Department could be automatically ordered to find still deeper cuts by a process called sequestration. Defense Secretary Leon H. Panetta has warned that such cuts would create a hollow force, and Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee have warned against further cuts as well.
No one at the Defense Department has said that a base closure round would be a way to achieve such savings. But installations would be an obvious target. Infrastructure and personnel pay and especially health insurance are two of the biggest costs at the Defense Department, and Mr. Panetta has said he does not want to cut back on quality of life for current soldiers, which can hurt morale. Health insurance premiums may rise, but only for retirees, for instance, the department has said.
Theres obviously going to be some downside pressure, said F. Anthony Keating, Watertown, a civilian aide to the secretary of the Army who has worked for years with the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization. The magnitude of the cuts theyre calling for are certainly going to touch facilities.
Mr. Keating said he has not heard any specific chatter about cuts to Army installations, including any discussion of base closures, however.
Mr. Keating said he was puzzled by Mrs. Gillibrands discussion of base closures, but a lobbyist who has worked to keep installations off BRAC lists, Paul J. Hirsch of Madison Government Affairs in Washington, credited her with taking an early start toward highlighting the states military assets even if BRAC seems remote.
I commend her for marshalling her forces, Mr. Hirsch said.
Although a BRAC round seems unlikely given the difficult politics around it, Mr. Hirsch said he would not be surprised to see the department look to move assets from one post to another if that would save money.
Several people close to defense policy said the Pentagon may look first to overseas bases, which can be closed without going through the domestic base closure process. The domestic process requires a Base Realignment and Closure Commission to review a list submitted by the Defense Department, possibly make changes and send it to Congress for an up or down vote.
More likely is an overseas base closure process first, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Were that to happen, DoD would probably need more space, not less, here in the U.S. which could bolster some stateside bases like those in New York.
New York has had a rough experience with BRAC over the years, having lost Griffiss Air Force Base and Plattsburgh Air Force Base. In the last BRAC round, the Pentagon affirmed an earlier decision to expand the 10th Mountain Division with a fourth brigade, which was assigned to Fort Polk, La.
Otherwise, Fort Drum which was already expanding with the Armys growth was largely untouched by BRAC decisions.
Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said last week that he has heard nothing about the possibility of base closures. But he said he aims to expand Fort Drums mission, perhaps with more use of drones for Air National Guard training, for instance.
My goal here is to make Drum a more utilized installation, Mr. Owens said.
Although base closures are highly unpopular in Congress, they have had fans in the military establishment for years. Former Defense Undersecretary Raymond F. DuBois, who oversaw installations during the George W. Bush administration and helped run the 2005 BRAC round, said the military still has excess infrastructure. The BRAC commission scaled back some of the Pentagons recommendations, he recalled, diminishing some of the longterm savings.
Still, Mr. DuBois said, the last BRAC round will save billions of dollars in the long run, even though the process initially cost money in some cases, such as the closure of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, more than he expected.
Mr. DuBois said he sees no chance of another base closure round anytime soon but that does not mean officials shouldnt consider it.
I believe the next administration, whether Democrat or Republican, will find themselves seriously considering another round of BRAC, Mr. DuBois said. I kind of think that thoughtful, intelligent people looking at the lay of the land are going to have to seriously consider this.