Base Closing Blues

Defend America, not pork


Last week, the Defense Department announced its recommendations for Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC. Thirty-three major military bases are slated for closure and over 100 other smaller installations (some staffed with as few as three people) would be downsized or shut down. Some of the bigger closures include the naval submarine base in New London, CT; Fort McPherson in Atlanta, GA; the naval support activity in New Orleans, LA; the naval shipyard in Portsmouth, ME; Fort Monmouth in New Jersey; Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico; Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota; Brooks City Base, Naval Station Ingleside, and Red River Army Depot in Texas; and Fort Monroe in Hampton, VA.

Almost immediately, officials representing communities that would be affected by BRAC announced that they would fight to reverse the decision. For example, Senator Joe Lieberman (D-CT) said, "We pledge to fight tooth and nail to overturn this decision. Today is not the end of the road—not even the end of the beginning." According to New Mexico's governor Bill Richardson, "I unequivocally state that I am determined to do my utmost to overturn the Department of Defense recommendation to close Cannon Air Force Base." Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) vowed to "spare no effort in putting our case for all our facilities before the Commissioners and their staff—as often as it takes, for as long as it takes." And Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) claimed, "Our fight to save Ellsworth isn't over. I plan to work with the Ellsworth Task Force—and the entire South Dakota Congressional delegation—to demonstrate to the members of the BRAC Commission that closing Ellsworth is wrong."

Although advocates of keeping military bases open insist that those bases are essential to U.S. national security, their arguments emphasize another reason: jobs, jobs, jobs. For example, shutting down the submarine base in New London, CT—the single largest base closure—will result in the exodus of over 8,500 military and civilian personnel, as well as the potential loss of over 3,600 jobs and $1.3 billion to the state's economy according to a Connecticut economic impact analysis. According to Senator Johnson, Ellsworth Air Force Base is critical to the "economic livelihood of the Rapid City area. In 2004, Ellsworth contributed $278 million to local economy, and it generates a substantial number of civilian jobs at the base."

But U.S. military bases do not exist to support local economies. They exist to defend U.S. national security. Gone is the Cold War and gone with it is the need for U.S. attack submarines to hunt and track Soviet ballistic missile submarines that might launch a nuclear attack against the United States. So it's easy to see why the submarine base in New London, CT made the BRAC list. Although the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard has a better cost and performance record than Norfolk, VA—which is where the work and jobs would be transferred—Portsmouth services primarily nuclear attack submarines. Norfolk is larger (over 1,200 acres vs. slightly less than 300 acres) and can repair, overhaul, and maintain virtually all naval craft—both surface ships and submarines.

Other closures may not be quite so clear cut. For example, why close Cannon and Ellsworth Air Force Bases and keep other bomber and fighter bases open? These decisions are harder and may be more subjective, but still reflect the overarching need to downsize base capacity. For example, we don't need to keep as many strategic nuclear bombers on alert status as we did during the Cold War, which reduces the need to have as many bomber bases.

But even if a military base closes, it doesn't automatically mean that the surrounding community will wither and die. Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, TX and Fort Ord in Monterey, CA (casualties of the 1991 round of BRAC) are both examples of areas that flourished after a base closure—despite warnings at the time that the end was nigh. Bergstrom was converted into an international airport that has 25 gates and serves 7.2 million passengers annually. Fort Ord is now home to the California State University at Monterey Bay campus, a University of California at Santa Cruz research center, and the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

The chances that any community will be able to reverse a BRAC decision are slim. Past experience is that 85 percent of the recommendations are accepted. So instead of lamenting the loss of a military base, communities should expend their efforts to turn a loss into a gain. As Rhea Perlman said in Canadian Bacon, "sometimes when life gives you lemons, you've got to crush them into lemonade."