Experts say base closures unlikely

An air crew, consisting of members from the 14th and 16th Airlift Squadrons and the 437th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, stands in front of a C-17 Globemaster III, on April 1 at Joint Base Charleston.

WASHINGTON — The confluence of political infighting, a looming presidential election and disagreement over the size of U.S. troop strength makes it unlikely Congress will agree this year to another round of military base closures.

That’s good news for Joint Base Charleston — for now.

South Carolina stakeholders who monitor congressional chatter related to Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, will remain vigilant, especially throughout the spring season. The House and Senate Armed Services committees, which could authorize a BRAC, are starting to move on their respective bills to renew Department of Defense programs for the upcoming fiscal year.

The House panel will consider its fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act on Wednesday.

“You don’t wait until there’s a BRAC authorized to worry about your base and whether it will close or not,” said Mary Graham, chief advancement officer at the Charleston Chamber of Commerce who handles military affairs. “You work on it every day, make sure the mission of Joint Base Charleston can remain viable and support that however you can.”

Bill Bethea, chairman of the S.C. Military Base Task Force, agreed. “Any time budgetary issues are being talked about, we’re concerned. But the real key right now is we haven’t seen any signs we should be concerned.”

For years now the Pentagon has been asking Congress to give it permission to pursue a BRAC, the last of which occurred in 2002. This year, however, defense officials are touting a new study as a justification for downsizing. The March report shows that 22 percent of all Army, Navy, Air Force and Defense Logistics Agency infrastructure is “unnecessary.”

“We must right-size our infrastructure, capture the savings, and devote these savings to readiness, modernization, and other more pressing national security requirements,” the report reads.

Lawmakers are talking about whether it’s the right time for a BRAC after a 14-year reprieve. The House Armed Services’ defense bill currently contains language banning a BRAC from taking place, but members, such as top Democrat U.S. Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, could try to revisit that in committee or later on the House floor. Those efforts aren’t likely to be successful. Republicans don’t want to help President Barack Obama’s administration in its waning months.

There are sharp divisions over whether military forces need to grow or shrink. And ultimately, while BRAC closures might be necessary to spare waste of taxpayer dollars, nobody wants their military bases targeted. “This doesn’t make for good constituent relationships at home to be supporting a round of base closures,” said Todd Harrison, a BRAC expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “People should rest easy for now.”

But Harrison said a BRAC will come sooner rather than later. “The budget situation coming to the point where you just can’t afford the excess facilities any longer,” he said.

At that point, Charleston would have to go on the defensive to justify its installations’ existence. Some 22,000 active-duty personnel, reservists, civilians and contractors are employed locally, with roughly an $11 billion annual economic impact, Graham said.

“The Air Force in Charleston is a major logistics and transportation hub,” she added. “We have a fleet of top 45 C-17s (cargo jets), the largest base of any base here in the United States, so we would hope that mission would be protected.”

U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., is confident the Charleston base wouldn’t have reason to worry — though as a fiscal conservative, he supports the concept of a BRAC.

“We have to be willing to look at that possibility given the mathematic disaster that is coming this country’s way, and by extension, our military’s way,” said Sanford. “We can’t in essence exempt any piece of government from the idea of looking at better ways of spending the money we have and being responsible for the taxpayer.”

In 1993, then-Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., told constituents he was confident the Charleston Naval Base would be protected against that year’s BRAC. It wasn’t.

“It was a big brouhaha,” Sanford recalled.

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who held Sanford’s seat before being appointed to the Senate, doesn’t support a new round of BRAC “at a time when America and our allies face numerous global threats,” according to spokesman Sean Conner.

“The bases in the Beaufort, Charleston, Columbia and Sumter areas can continue to play an important role in keeping our country safe,” Conner added.