Fort Worth and other military communities in Texas and other states are preparing to defend their installations against the prospect of another round of base closings as the Pentagon seeks to overcome protracted congressional resistance and win approval for a future Base Realignment and Closure effort.
Hundreds of installations large and small have been shuttered under five BRAC rounds from 1988 to 2005, including eight in Texas. Congress has expressly prohibited Defense Department calls for a new BRAC round, but Pentagon officials are continuing to push for one in the face of steady troop reductions and shrinking defense dollars.
“I think the need for it is being felt more acutely,” John Conger, the top Pentagon official responsible for military installations, said in a telephone interview, asserting that “the pressures that led us to request BRAC in the past don’t look like they’re going to let up in the future.”
Despite continued opposition in Congress and uncertainty over a likely timetable, the potential of another base-shrinking effort within a few years has prompted communities all over the country to begin taking pre-emptive action against the closure or curtailment of installations that can generate billions of dollars to the regional economy.
In Texas, the nation’s third-biggest recipient of defense dollars, military communities such as Fort Worth, San Antonio and Corpus Christi are gearing up against a potential assault on cherished installations that have been part of the local culture and economy for decades. Fort Worth is the home of Naval Air Station Fort Worth, a bustling joint reserve base that grew out of the closure of Carswell Air Force Base in the nation’s second BRAC round, nearly 25 years ago.
Host communities of the state’s 15 military installations, aided by a push from Gov. Greg Abbott, persuaded the 2015 Legislature to authorize a pool of $30 million in grants over the next two years for local improvements that would augment their bases and make them less vulnerable to federal base-cutters.
The grants are administered by the governor’s Texas Military Preparedness Commission, which will meet Dec. 10 to award the money after reviewing applications from communities. The so-called DEAAG funds — Defense Economic Adjustment Assistance Grant program — could provide communities up to $5 million apiece over the state’s 2016-17 fiscal biennium and will be capped at $2.5 million yearly.
Fort Worth Councilman Jungus Jordan, who helped lead the fight for legislative approval of the grants, said communities surrounding Naval Air Station Fort Worth hope to secure $4.5 million to improve access into the facility’s east gate.
“We want to be prepared if there is” another BRAC round, said Jordan, who is also president of the Texas Mayors of Military Communities, the main organization that pushed for increasing the DEAAG grants. “We don’t have Fort in front of our name by accident. We’re a military town. We will always be a military town.
In Fort Worth and other towns and cities that have confronted both the highs and lows of base closing rounds, the very mention of the word BRAC evokes communitywide jitters as well as a relentless determination to protect and possibly enhance their military neighbors.
Perhaps no one is more familiar with the BRAC roller coaster than U.S. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, who became the city’s mayor the year Carswell was ordered closed in the 1991 BRAC round. The closure of the decades-old bomber base, coupled with cuts in defense contracts at the aircraft plant next door, combined to send west Fort Worth into an economic tailspin.
The city rebounded in the next BRAC round in 1993 when Rep. Pete Geren of Fort Worth and other civic leaders secured the creation of Naval Air Station Fort Worth, replacing Carswell with a joint reserve base that now has 40 tenant commands from multiple services. Navy Capt. Michael J. Steffen took over on Aug. 14 as the installation’s 11th commander.
Today, the joint reserve base, established in 1994, is one of the largest employers in North Central Texas, with an on-base workforce of nearly 10,000 and an economic impact of $2.2 billion. The estimate climbs even higher — to $9.26 billion — when coupled with next-door neighbor Lockheed Martin, maker of the F-35 and the F-16.
The base received additional jobs in the last round, in 2005, and defenders like Granger and Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, vow protective vigilance if another BRAC round looms.
“Our Texas delegation will remain watchful and will vigorously support our bases when and if the subject of BRAC is taken up again,” Granger said. Veasey said Texas lawmakers “will work in a bipartisan manner to make sure we’re minimally impacted.”
Hundreds of closures
In all five BRAC rounds, an estimated 850 installations have been closed, according to calculations from Conger’s office. Most of the closures were designated as minor although 121 were categorized as major.
Eight Texas military installations and two ammunition plants have been ordered closed under BRAC, but the Carswell site was resurrected as a new installation. Another base ordered to close, Naval Air Station Dallas, was transferred to Fort Worth to help form the joint reserve base.
BRAC has also produced benefits, infusing bases including Fort Bliss in El Paso and Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio with new units, more manpower and added missions. And many shuttered sites, both in Texas and elsewhere, have undergone robust reincarnations such as the one in Austin, where the former Bergstrom Air Force Base is now the city’s international airport.
Nevertheless, Abbott and other political leaders have pledged a concerted campaign to prevent additional losses of Texas bases and potentially strengthen those that remain by attracting new units and resources from bases elsewhere that could be shrunk or closed. According to the state comptroller’s office, Texas military installations provide nearly $150 billion to the state economy and provide jobs for 256,000 total defense personnel.
“We have so much to offer as a state in the context of national security that you can’t duplicate,” said retired Navy Capt. Paul Paine of Fort Worth, a former commander at NAS Fort Worth who heads the governor’s military preparedness commission. “The installations in Texas all have very high national security value.”
Corpus Christi Mayor Nelda Martinez says leaders in the coastal city are in “perpetual motion” in behalf its two installations, the Corpus Christi Army Depot and the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station, the city’s largest and sixth-largest employers. The depot is one of the world’s largest military helicopter repair centers.
San Antonio, which has lost two installations under BRAC, is bracing to protect and potentially bolster its remaining three, says Bob Murdock, a retired brigadier general who serves as director of San Antonio’s Office of Military Affairs. Murdock says he believes that “it’s not a matter of if another BRAC will happen; it is when,” venturing that 2019 would be a likely time.
Defense analyst Loren Thompson, CEO at the nonprofit Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., said he believes that Texas, home of major installations such as Fort Bliss and Fort Hood in Central Texas, would be relatively safe in another BRAC round and could actually get additional resources.
“Texas doesn’t have a lot to fear from base closures,” he said. “Nobody is going to close a place like Fort Hood or the Army Depot in Corpus Christi.”
The Pentagon’s case
Conger, the BRAC point man in the Pentagon, said in the recent phone interview that continuing troop reductions exacerbate the need to shrink or consolidate base infrastructure. The Defense Department is downsizing from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and struggling to adjust to shrinking defense dollars caused by congressionally mandated budget caps known as sequestration.
Although Congress and the Obama administration negotiated a recent budget deal that effectively skirts sequestration by raising the caps on defense spending by $25 billion for each of the next two years, proponents of another BRAC round said the agreement doesn’t significantly effect the need to reduce military infrastructure.
“We need to become more efficient because of the budget situation of the department,” Conger said. “Even in the wake of the budget deal … that’s still the case.
The Pentagon sought another BRAC round for as early as 2017, but Conger acknowledged that a 2017 timetable now appears uncertain. Several experts who follow the base-closing issue say the next likely possibility could be 2019, but Conger declined to speculate on a timetable, other than to predict that pressure will continue to build for another round of closings and consolidations, regardless of when it occurs.
“If there isn’t one, we will be exacerbating a very difficult budget situation,” he said.
Conger, who was a defense staffer to former U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards of Waco, is charged with overseeing the Defense Department’s $850 billion in real estate holdings, encompassing 500 installations on 25 million acres. He performs the duties of the assistant defense secretary for energy, installations and environment, a position subject to Senate confirmation that was created in December.
Conger and officials from individual services have testified before Congress that the government has been paying for excess capacity of around 20 percent to more than 30 percent, and the combination of troop reductions and shrinking defense revenue are further “squeezing the system,” as Conger puts it.
The department’s military construction budget dropped from $14 billion in 2011 to $5 billion in 2015, and the facility maintenance backlog now exceeds $100 billion, Conger said. As a result, he said, buildings on installations nationwide face increasing disrepair.
“We don’t fix the roof; we don’t do preventive maintenance and that’s going to lead to more emergency service orders later,” he said. “There are some buildings that are in fine shape but there are plenty that aren’t. … So what happens if you’re at Fort Hood, and you don’t have a working air conditioner? You make do.”
Pushback from Congress
The latest defense authorization bill, which lawmakers were addressing after a presidential veto, prohibits the Defense Department from undertaking another BRAC and mandates the Pentagon to conduct a new study of inventory and capacity.
Conger and others say such a study is typically considered a first step toward a BRAC but congressional critics counter that the mandate is designed to provide fresh data — the Pentagon’s estimate of a 24 percent excess capacity comes from a 2004 analysis — and does not constitute a change of heart or encouragement toward another BRAC round.
Although Conger says he believes that congressional resistance may be softening, he and his allies face a hard sell.
“Congress was very dissatisfied with the last round of BRAC, which was costly and resulted in no savings,” said Granger, vice chairwoman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee. “Members of Congress are going to demand that military planners provide detailed proposals that make it clear that we will save taxpayer dollars before we consider another round of base closures.”
Rep. William “Mac” Thornberry, R-Clarendon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, expressed concerns that subjecting military installations to another base-closing effort could result in the loss of vital national security assets that could never be replaced.
“Our country faces a greater number and a wider array of security threats than ever before,” Thornberry said in an email to the Star-Telegram. “We need to be very careful about shuttering facilities that we may need to help defend us or dismantling assets that could be prohibitively expensive to replace.
‘“Congress has asked the Pentagon to provide real data about military facilities,” he added, “but we will evaluate that data based on the reality of the threats we face around the world.”
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the armed services committee, has voiced support for another realignment and closure effort. “While BRAC is not popular,” he said in an email, “ it is the only transparent process by which the Department of Defense can properly align its infrastructure and force structure.”