The Political Theater of Base Closings
by Sarah Kellogg
March 16, 2012
The painful and complex process used to close military bases in the United States is one of the rare moments in Washington where the rubber truly meets the road. If the government needs to shrink in size to balance the federal budget over the long term, then closing bases is an effective way of doing it.
But on Capitol Hill, the machinations around closing bases frequently turn into Kabuki theater as lawmakers and lobbyists employ any number of maneuvers, posturing and tricks to protect their turf from Pentagon budget-cutters looking to slash facilities and eliminate antiquated weapons system and staff to support them.
So, when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced in January that the Pentagon was considering employing two rounds of base closures, with reductions coming in fiscal years 2014 and 2017, to trim military spending, it caused a stir. The details were not known at the time, but the rumblings were felt at military installations around the nation.
Those rumblings became harsh reality in Michigan with the announcement of the first salvo—proposed reductions in force and aircraft from the U.S. Air Force for FY 2013. The Air Force said it planned to eliminate a quarter of Michigan’s Air National Guard staff. Some 850 full-time and part-time jobs would be lost if proposed cuts at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township and W. K. Kellogg Airport Air National Guard Station in Battle Creek were approved.
The reductions are the result, in part, of Pentagon plans to shift 24 A-10 fighter planes from Selfridge to other states, and a proposal to eliminate the older C-27J cargo aircraft from the fleet. Some of those airplanes are housed and serviced at Kellogg.
The response from Michigan’s congressional delegation was swift and pointed. Members questioned why the Air National Guard nationwide was bearing 59 percent of the Air Force’s cuts even though it represented only 6 percent of its budget costs. “At a minimum, we believe that a delay in any decision be made until the studies currently under way are completed to fully understand the delicate balance between cost savings and the preservation of combat capabilities,” wrote the 15 members of the delegation to congressional leaders.
Of course, Michigan has an ace in the hole here. U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Detroit) is chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee which has oversight of the Pentagon’s budget. He will be a mighty obstacle to stripping airplanes from Michigan and closing bases down the road. He has already scheduled a hearing to quiz officials on why they targeted the Air National Guard for reductions.
One of the issues Levin is likely to bring up at the March 20 hearing is what the Pentagon is doing about closing bases overseas, especially those in Europe, which are beginning to seem so last century. Already the Obama administration has said it is shifting its military focus to Asia, and it seems unnecessary to keep some of the European bases open to protect our allies from our other allies.
Meanwhile Gov. Rick Snyder has joined with other governors to challenge the proposed 2013 cuts, as has Maj. Gen. Gregory Vadnais, commander of the Michigan National Guard. He signed onto a letter from 54 adjutant generals to the Pentagon opposing the reductions.
Many believe it is essential the states draw a bright yellow line early in the process because the results of these FY 2013 conflicts could determine the later base-closing recommendations. For example, eliminating the C-27J will leave Kellogg with no manned aircraft on its base. It will, however, become a home to the Air Force’s MQ-1 and MQ-9 unmanned aircraft. But that isn’t much to hang your hat on in a pitched battle over resources.
Much is at stake in Michigan in the coming skirmish over bases, especially the loss of thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in local investment every year. Michigan has felt the pain of this loss acutely in the past. The Pentagon closed Kincheloe (also known as Kinross) Air Force Base in Chippewa County in 1977, Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Iosco County in 1993, K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base in Marquette County in 1995 and the Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant in Warren in 1996, although a portion of the site is an active Army facility dedicated to tank research and development. In 2005, Michigan also lost jobs at Kellogg (they were transferred to Selfridge), the Navy Reserve Center in Marquette and the Parisan U.S. Army Reserve Center in Lansing.
When Panetta raised the specter of the base closing process, it was with the knowledge that it works, despite the local complaints and suffering. “I’ve been through BRAC,” Panetta said in January, referring to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. “I know its weaknesses and its failings. Obviously we will continue to work to make sure it’s done effectively and that we achieve the savings we hope to achieve from the process. But I have to tell you, there is no more effective process to make it happen than using the BRAC process.”
When it comes, Michigan won’t feel the pain of base closings as much as states in the South or the West, mostly because it doesn’t have as much to lose. The state ranks a dismal 43rd out of 50 in its per capita defense spending. Still the threat of another round or two of base closures is serious. Michigan is a prime target because its forces have shrunk so significantly that consolidating them into other states makes good sense in terms of budgeting if not politics.
Certainly, members of the delegation will argue the need to fortify our forces in a world where the threats are numerous and complex, and that Michigan’s Air National Guard has been invaluable in Iraq and Afghanistan and should be rewarded, not penalized, for its service.
Inevitably, Michigan’s congressional delegation will be asked whether a streamlined Pentagon —and a federal budget much in need of balancing— can afford for Michigan to play a larger role in the military of the 21st century; a tough question to answer for the delegation’s deficit hawks. If the answer is no and Michigan were to lose both Selfridge and Kellogg, the state’s military activities could be reduced to more limited National Guard operations at the Alpena Air National Guard Base, Camp Grayling and Fort Custer Army National Guard Base, as well as recruitment and cemetery operations. Hopefully, the state could also keep its tank research and development work and defense logistics operations at the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center in Battle Creek.
This reduced contribution is a mere shadow of the role Michigan played during World War II and the Cold War. But times inevitably change. Even with a smaller military presence, Michigan could still meaningfully support the military effort and the members of the U.S. Armed Forces.