Another round of base closures would go a long way toward paying for billions in deferred infrastructure maintenance, the military vice chiefs told House lawmakers Thursday.
Both the Air Force and Army vice chiefs of staff urged lawmakers to support another round of base realignment and closure to allow the military to redirect the money spent on excess infrastructure to modernizing what infrastructure the services actually need and use.
"It's real money that we really need to reinvest into deferred maintenance and infrastructure backlog," Gen. Daniel Allyn, the Army's vice chief, told the House Armed Services Committee.
Allyn said that, if the Army grows to 490,000 active troops, an increase of about 25,000 from today, it'll still have 21 percent excess facilities. Instead of paying for that, Allyn said he would put that money toward the $11 billion backlog of infrastructure maintenance that has been deferred because of the Budget Control Act.
Gen. Stephen Wilson, the Air Force vice chief, said his service is paying for 25 percent excess infrastructure and has a $25 billion maintenance backlog on which that money could be better spent.
"In today's budget environment, it makes sense to invest wisely, so BRAC would help us make smart investments to prepare for the future," Wilson said.
Base realignment and closure, also known as BRAC, has been unpopular on Capitol Hill, both because lawmakers are loathe to cut jobs in their districts as a result of base closures and because of criticism of the last round of base closures in 2005 that did not yield savings as quickly as planned. The Pentagon asked in its fiscal 2017 budget request for $4 million to begin preparing for a round of base closures in 2019, but that did not make it into the final authorization bill.
But Allyn defended the 2005 BRAC and said that now, more than a decade later, the Army nets $1 billion each year in savings from that effort.
Congress approving a BRAC seems more likely than in the past after Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said last month that he and ranking member Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., want to talk about a new round of base closures with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
"Sen. Reed and I are seriously considering the issue of BRAC and obviously we want to talk to the now-secretary of defense about it, but it's a little bit like sequestration. We can't make the decisions ourselves, so we leave it up a commission, and frankly the last commission made some very bad decisions," McCain said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. "We need to talk about it, I think it has to be considered as all things should be on the table."
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said last year that he would be open to considering base closures if the services can provide updated numbers on the amount of excess infrastructure relative to the threats the country faces today.
"We better be darn careful we know that we have something that we don't need because once we give it away, especially if it's a training range or flying range or something, we'll never get it back," Thornberry said in early 2016.
The military's request for a new BRAC came at a Tuesday hearing about military readiness, where all four vice chiefs delivered a bleak but familiar message to Capitol Hill: Unpredictable budgets and caps on spending are creating a military that is unprepared and undertrained to meet threats facing the country.
The four officers pleaded with the House Armed Services Committee to immediately repeal the Budget Control Act, which will come back in full force in fiscal 2018 if Congress is not able to reach another budget deal. If lawmakers fail to do so, the men said the military will be at risk of sending undertrained service members into harm's way.
"The most important actions you can take … will be to immediately repeal the 2011 Budget Control Act and ensure sufficient funding to train man and equip the FY17 NDAA authorized force," Allyn said.
This is far from the first time Pentagon leaders have traveled to Capitol Hill to paint a picture of the dire impacts of the Budget Control Act, a set of across-the-board cuts so bad that they were intended to act as a prod to lawmakers to reach a budget deal.
"We're getting it done because that's who we are … but the unrelenting pace, inadequate resources and small size are taking their toll," said Adm. Bill Moran, the vice chief of naval operations. "Our testimony today may seem like a broken record."
Allyn said that the capped funding, and especially the lack of predictability in budgets as the military is forced to operate under repeated continuing resolutions, mean that soldiers will "arrive too late" and will need too much time to close equipping and manning gaps before responding to a threat.
"The end result is excessive casualties to both innocent civilians and to forces that are already forward stationed," he said.
But so far, pleas from the military have gone unanswered on Capitol Hill. Even though President Trump said he wants to repeal the Budget Control Act for defense. Many on Capitol Hill, especially members of the armed services committees, are onboard with the plan as well, but it's unclear if those lawmakers will be able to build a consensus among their colleagues, especially Democrats who have previously demanded relief for non-defense accounts as well.