WASHINGTON — A Senate panel on Wednesday said it will not back the Defense Department on another round of military base closures, despite warnings that excess properties will squeeze budgets and could hurt readiness in the future.
Members of a Senate Armed Services subcommittee were urged by defense officials to allow the closures but said an earlier round in 2005 did not save as much as promised and was a difficult experience for military communities across the country.
The testimony was part of the 2016 defense budget process and continues an ongoing department effort to offload property through its Base Realignment and Closure process. But the reaction from lawmakers was not a surprise — the idea is deeply unpopular among many who are skeptical of the savings and fear the loss of military bases and jobs in their home districts.
"Let me just make clear up front, I continue to be opposed to BRAC," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support.
Ayotte said she was disappointed by the prior closures, and that a new round will require a $6 billion investment at a time when Congress is scraping to find money for basic military programs.
Others said talk of closing bases will send out waves of anxiety to military communities.
"You make everyone nervous when you do a BRAC because every community across the United States has to hire lobbyists and lawyers," said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., the ranking subcommittee member.
Overall, about 20 percent of DOD property is thought to be unneeded and the department could start saving about $2 billion annually after six years of closing bases and other facilities, said John Conger, who was performing the duties of the assistant secretary of defense energy, installations and environment.
"As we deal with this constrained budget environment … we must look for ways to divest excess bases and seek ways to support our smaller force structure," Conger said. "There is clearly enough excess to justify another BRAC round."
As a cost-saving measure, the last round of base closures in 2005 was a mixed bag — another reason why Capitol Hill has remained cold to the idea.
About half of those closures, which included 56 major installations and hundreds of smaller facilities, cost the department $29 billion and only save about $1 billion annually.
However, Conger said the other half of closures were a bigger fiscal success and could be a model if another round is approved. Those cost $6 billion and are saving about $3 billion each year, he said.
Defense officials pressed the closures as a key measure to save money and deal with the uncertainty hanging over myriad military programs. The DOD and Congress are grappling with a mandatory cap on defense spending for the coming year.
"We are facing critical decisions that will impact our capabilities for the next decade," said Katherine Hammack, assistant secretary of Army installations, energy and environment. "Without savings from a BRAC round, the risk is our installations will experience larger cuts than what would otherwise occur."