A Base Decision

Few would dispute that we have the world's best military. But even our impressive resources can stretch only so far. And it clearly makes sense, as we try to win the war in Iraq, for us to make the best possible use of our limited military resources.

Which makes it all the more curious that the House of Representatives recently voted to delay the next round of military base closings by at least two years — from 2005 to 2007. Members say they want to conduct a series of studies before the next round of Base Realignment and Closure (search) (BRAC).

But no further study will change the fact that the Pentagon maintains about 25 percent more bases than it needs. Keeping our fighting forces as efficient as possible is going to require military transformation — and that means closing some bases.

Today's infrastructure was designed to fight the Cold War (search). We must change the military basing system to reflect the strategic and technological realities we face today.

Perhaps the most critical element of defense transformation is the continued effort to achieve greater cooperation among the services. We should reorganize the Defense Department's support infrastructure — sharing housing, roads, training facilities, etc. Doing so would compel the services to work together more closely.

One of the ways to advance this cause is to create a basing infrastructure that puts a premium on cooperation. BRAC will promote this.

Whether we act next year or in 2007, some bases will have to close. Residential areas are expanding and now encroach on many of America's bases. That's already resulted in fewer training opportunities for our forces — and reduced readiness.

Throughout the country, the armed forces face lawsuits claiming that noise and other nuisances associated with military activity have a detrimental effect on surrounding residential areas. Environmental regulations have begun to interfere with the military's day-to-day operations. Installations nationwide, including California's Camp Pendleton and Fort Irwin, have been forced to curtail vital training activities to stay within these regulations. As the BRAC process moves forward, it should put a high priority on bases that are only minimally affected by nearby growth and unlikely to be adversely affected in the future.

A successful BRAC shouldn't be limited to U.S. territory. America's overseas future footprint should look far different from today. We maintain an extensive basing system in Western Europe that reflects the static security environment of the Cold War rather than the unpredictable world of the 21st century.

American facilities abroad must be useful for expeditionary warfare, enabling our troops to get into the fight quickly and finish fast.

Because the United States depends so heavily on its bases abroad, we also should evaluate which bases are most likely to be closed for us — by their host nations. After all, the Pentagon will have to maintain adequate domestic infrastructure to support those troops if they are compelled to leave. Likewise, where such closure is unlikely, there is little need to maintain "back-up" infrastructure at home to support those elements.

Excess base infrastructure is draining much-needed resources. Although saving money and improving efficiency shouldn't drive the BRAC process, they should play a major role.

To maximize that efficiency on the battlefield, the Pentagon must begin by streamlining its support structures. This will help the Pentagon achieve the rapid deployment capabilities it seeks and build in the flexibility needed to respond to threats as they emerge.

However, efficiency can't supersede military value. One reason bases are important is they give the military surge capacity if the nation ever requires a large increase in military capabilities due to a rapid change in the security environment. Nevertheless, the requirement for surge capacity shouldn't be used as an indiscriminate excuse to leave a particular base open. It is simply a factor that should be considered in the BRAC process.

An important step toward building the force of the future is to create an environment that invites change. The focus should be on creating a system, support structure and bureaucracy that facilitates transformation. An intelligently executed BRAC in 2005 will help create a solid foundation on which to build the future force, and it will free scarce resources necessary to reinvest in the force of tomorrow.

Delaying the BRAC process is a bad decision, and requiring more studies to be completed before the process can commence is a waste. BRAC is a difficult process — but for the sake of security, it's a necessary one.

Jack Spencer is a senior policy analyst for defense and national security at  The Heritage Foundation.