Air Force Secretary to Lawmakers: Let Us Close Bases

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James speaks to attendees at the Center for a New American Security's, "Women and Leadership in National Security," in Washington, D.C., March 4, 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash)
Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James speaks to attendees at the Center for a New American Security's, "Women and Leadership in National Security," in Washington, D.C., March 4, 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash)

The U.S. Air Force's top civilian said the service is forced to maintain infrastructure it doesn't need and called on Congress to move forward with another round of base closures to cut costs.

"I never miss an opportunity to remind all of you and remind our Congress that we really, really do need the authority to conduct a base closure and realignment," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said on Friday during the Air Force Association's air warfare symposium in Orlando.

"We've got to get beyond that. We need a BRAC," she said, referring to the acronym for base realignment and closure -- a process that has met stiff resistance from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Base closures are always a tough political battle as senators and representatives fight to keep installations in their own states up and running and with as large a personnel footprint as possible, regardless of what the Defense Department argues is necessary.

The last BRAC occurred in 2005, when the services closed 24 bases, realigned two dozen others and cut some 12,000 civilian jobs. The moves are expected to save nearly $4 billion annually, though the General Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, predicted the savings would not begin until 2018.

Capitol Hill lawmakers routinely point to the lack of immediate savings from the 2005 BRAC as evidence that closing or realigning bases and cutting personnel doesn't result in meaningful savings.

James said the Air Force budget targets some modernization programs, including delaying the acquisition of five F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and three C-130J cargo aircraft in fiscal 2017, and also putting off needed upgrades to F-16 missile warning and radio systems.

The secretary also called on Congress to "permanently" lift mandatory across-the-board spending caps, which are set to return in fiscal 2018.

"Remember, it will come roaring back if Congress does not affirmatively act, and if that happens we will return to the bad old days of sequestration," she warned.

James comments on the need for more base closures comes the same week Acting Secretary of the Army Patrick Murphy made the same case to Senate lawmakers. He told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee the Army is spending half billion dollars annually on underutilized or unnecessary facilities.

"Smaller investments in Army installations without the ability to reduce excess infrastructure jeopardizes our ability to ensure long-term readiness," he said. "To continue the efficient use of resources, the Army requests Congressional authority to consolidate or close excess infrastructure."

The Pentagon typically uses its annual budget request to call for a new round of base closures and realignments. More than a year ago, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said during a town hall meeting with troops last June in Stuttgart, Germany, that a new BRAC round was inevitable.

"It's unpopular, I get it [but] we can't let tail and not tooth eat our budget," he said.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.

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