Although military bases have opened and closed regularly throughout American history, a systematic process for base closing dates only to the late 1980s. A number of closings occurred in the period following the Vietnam War and the subsequent reduction in military expenditure, but this process had come to an end after a failed effort to close Loring Air Force Base in Maine in 1976. New legislation required Environmental Impact Statements, making base closing dramatically more difficult.
A systematic process for closing bases, now known as BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) began with the passage of legislation in 1988. The "realignment" portion of this approach refers to the potential for shifting missions and staffing levels at existing bases. BRAC, therefore, although normally thought of as a base-closing process, can in fact lead to recommendations for increased activity at selected "realigned" facilities.
Legislation establishing the base-closing process was initiated by then-junior member of the Republican minority in the House of Representatives, Dick Armey, and preceded the end of the Cold War (1946–1991). It established a procedure, which continues to be followed in its general outlines, of an independent commission receiving and reviewing recommendations from the secretary of defense. This commission procedure has been used four times, in 1988, 1991, 1993, and 1995. A fifth round, in 2005, is now scheduled. The BRAC system is now the only way to close bases located within the United States. The secretary of defense retains independent authority to close overseas facilities.
In some rounds the BRAC Commission has had authorization to add bases to the list supplied by the secretary of defense, but in other rounds its discretion to change the list has been limited to removing bases. (The law establishing the 2005 round does provide authority to add, but under extremely restrictive conditions.)
After receiving the secretary of defense's recommendations, the BRAC Commission holds hearings. These hearings, together with visits to bases by commission members, are often occasions for strong demonstrations of local support for base retention. On a short time schedule, the BRAC Commission produces its own amended list of bases recommended for closure or realignment. This list is then submitted to the president, who must accept or reject, without authority to make amendments. Each of the four lists submitted to date has been accepted by the president, although with considerable controversy in the 1995 round. After acceptance by the president, the list is sent to Congress, which also has authority to accept or reject, but without amending authority. Each BRAC round has been accepted by Congress.
A variety of factors led to the adoption of this process. Increasing federal deficits, and the increasing political saliency of those deficits in the mid-1980s, played an important part. In addition, many political conservatives like Armey wanted the military to have the same options for restructuring and relocating facilities as was prevalent in American private industry. A coalition of interests, including those in favor of reduced military expenditure but by no means limited to individuals with such views, succeeded in passing the first legislation and breaking the logjam that had existed for almost ten years. In short order, the end of the Cold War and the significant decreases in military expenditure that followed considerably increased the importance of the BRAC process, and led to the three rounds that took place in the 1990s.
Although the entire process has been politically charged, particularly intense controversy followed the 1995 round, when the Clinton administration tried to keep open two major facilities, one in San Antonio, Texas, and one in Sacramento, California, that were on the BRAC list. Although these efforts at what was called "privatization in place" were not in the end successful, they made further base-closing rounds significantly more difficult politically.
From 1995 until the end of Clinton's second term, the process languished despite periodic efforts by the administration to revive it. Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense under President George W. Bush, was a strong supporter of BRAC, as a part of his broader efforts at "transforming the military." The political climate following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, significantly enhanced Rumsfeld's authority and led to the passage of legislation authorizing an additional round of base closures in 2005. Unlike earlier BRAC rounds, which required relinquishing closed bases, the legislation authorizing the 2005 permits the mothballing of facilities by the Defense Department.
The experience of communities in which military bases have been closed in earlier BRAC rounds has been extensively researched. The Defense Department's Office of Economic Adjustment has provided assistance programs to communities affected by base closures. The General Accounting Office, an arm of Congress, concluded in 2002 that most communities had recovered the job losses associated with base closing. Major remaining issues at already-closed bases are related primarily to continuing environmental problems associated with past military use.
Cragg, Dan. Guide to Military Installations, 6th edition. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2000.
Andrew D. Glassberg