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AUSA WINTER, HUNTSVILLE, ALA.: Fear is in the air.

“The commercial base will disappear,” Boeing executive James Moran believes. It’s not just sequestration, the retired brigadier general said this morning at the Association of the US Army’s winter conference. There is real anxiety among defense contractors that as budgets tighten, the Army will starve private sector companies of work to keep feeding its in-house government facilities, the depots and arsenals whose employees are so popular with Congress.

But maybe it’s Congress that should be worried. Yes, the Hill has consistently blocked a new Base Realignment And Closure round, the process that has governed cutbacks in military facilities throughout the post-Cold War era. But largely forgotten laws actually give the Defense Department authority to close facilities without a BRAC — without, in fact, even getting permission from Congress. If the Pentagon and the White House were willing to take the political risk, they could shut down facilities unilaterally and dare a gridlocked Congress to undo it.

Buried in Title 10, the chapter of the US Code that governs the Defense Department, is Section 2687. “It does give the services authority to do closures, and it only requires notification to Congress,” said House Armed Services staffer Vickie Plunkett this morning at the AUSA conference.

“It’s notification with time for Congress to act” before the closure is carried out, Plunkett noted. But, the veteran staffer went on — emphasizing that her opinions were her own, not committee policy — “Congress is basically dysfunctional right now.”

“The authorities only require notification. Take your chances,” she said to an eruption of laughter, “because it’s going to require us to get our act together to stop it.”

The Pentagon is in an even stronger position when it comes to the Army’s arsenals, the government-owned manufacturing facilities for military equipment. Section 4532 of Title 10 — portions of which predate the Civil War — is the Arsenal Act. The statute’s usually seen as protecting the arsenals, because it requires the Army to produce all its supplies “made in factories or arsenals owned by the United States”  — unless the private sector can do it cheaper, which is of course an enormous loophole. But there’s another line in the Arsenal Act, Plunkett pointed out:

“The Secretary may abolish any United States arsenal that he considers unnecessary.”

Period. No caveats. No qualifications. And that’s not even the Secretary of Defense, because the Act was written before that job existed: It’s the Secretary of the Army.

“The Secretary of the Army,” Plunkett emphasized “has unilateral authority — standing, statutory, Title 10 authority — to close arsenals. Unilateral.”

“Now the issue is, will the services…take advantage of those statutes?” she asked.

No one is suggesting that the Pentagon should try to slip something past Capitol Hill. As a matter of constitutional law, at a very minimum, any such actions need to be included in the annual budget, which has to be passed by Congress. As a matter of practical politics, the military informs Congress when it lets go even a handful of arsenal or depot employees, even people fired for misconduct, because it just takes one angry person to call their congressman to bring all sorts of hell down on the Army’s head. As one Army official told me, “You never know whether it’s going to be a a blip or a bomb.”

All politics aside, there are also national security reasons to keep certain “organic” industrial capabilities in government hands.

“There is a requirement to preserve a certain level of skill-set within the organic industrial base,” said Gen. Dennis Via, who heads the Huntsville-based Army Materiel Command. “We have to preserve some of those unique skill sets, to preserve the ability to surge in the future.”

For example, the military ran dangerously low on ammo early in the post-9/11 wars, said James Shields, the Army’s deputy program executive officer for ammunition. (The Army buys bullets for the other services as well). Commercial munitions firms were and are vital partners, Shields told the audience at Huntsville. But, he said, certain niche capabilities like ammunition propellant have to be government-owned: “I don’t think there’s enough business out there in the propellant world for a commercial business to stay in business and to keep that capacity we need open and ready for any contingency.”

There are other areas where the private sector did carry the lion’s share of a rapid ramp-up, notably the production of Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) trucks to replace the all-too-vulnerable Humvee. “We cannot argue with the fact that the industrial base has surged two-fold, sometimes three-fold in these two wars,” said James Rogers, a retired two-star general who runs Army programs for mega-contractor Lockheed Martin. But precisely because both the private sector and government-owned facilities grew so much, it’s equally undeniable “that we are way over capacity in our depots and our industrial base,” he said. “We have to partner.”

The crowd-pleasing solution is so-called public-private partnering, especially the kind where private companies pay the government to use its already-paid-for infrastructure instead of paying to build their own. “All of our facilities are open for business,” enthused James Dwyer, a senior AMC civilian. “Why should you depreciate it, write it off, and make your stockholders buy it, when we’ve already got it and they’re there for partnering?

But partnering only divides the pie: It doesn’t make it stop shrinking.

“We won’t be able to sustain the level of workload that we’ve had when we’re supporting two wars,” Gen. Via said flatly. “There has to be balance” between private-sector and government-owned facilities, he said, but it’s awfully hard to plan it out when the budget is not only shrinking but uncertain. December’s budget deal pushed off sequestration (mostly) for two years. But, he said,  “after ’15 we don’t know exactly where we’ll be.”

Comments

  • Don Bacon

    Nobody has made the case of why the US needs a million-man Army (active, reserves & guard). Nobody.

    • bayonetbrant

      Nobody has made the case why we don’t.

      • JPWREL .

        Actually, the Army has made the case itself that they don’t require such numbers just the other day when they announced their floor of 450,000 active personnel.

        • bayonetbrant

          Well, a “floor” of anything is the *lowest* they would go, not the max, so there’s the first hole in your argument.
          Second, the OP included reserves / ARNG in his “million-man” count, which you explicitly did not. The states will always have a larger force than a federal-only planner would expect, given that the states have legitimate local missions for the ARNG in time of crisis. Having MP and transportation and aviation units in every state may seem inefficient, but it’s not like you can park one aviation unit in Kentucky, belonging to that state, and just let Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and Tennessee all borrow it whenever they think they need the help. it violates the very principle of the sovereignty of the states.

  • CharlesHouston

    We need to primarily close government plants since they are inefficient.

    • RangerJoe12

      Someone making such a sweeping statement is obviously using a knee-jerk politically based response rather than an informed opinion.

    • PolicyWonk

      The navy yard program was extremely efficient – as were many of the arsenals. They were built because it was far less expensive for the Navy and/or other service branches to build their own than to go commercial.

      Contrast that to the poor performance on the part of Lockheed and Austal, who’ve done a fine job increasing the costs for LCS, while providing minimal value to the navy for the taxpayer dollar spent (other nations are able to build more capable ships in the same size class, with mission packages, for 1/3 less).

      How about the F-35 program? There’s a great example of waste, fraud, and lousy performance at maximum cost to the taxpayers.

  • Ted Strickland

    Surprise!

  • Cambridge101

    You don’t even have to be a magician to read the tea leaves of where this garbage came from. Industry is in a panic that Sequestration is threatening its rice bowl, so it is throwing wet pasta to any wall hoping something sticks. Yea, let’s just start closing things by order of the Secretary of the Army. Hey, why not reach down further? Corporal Hicks says we need to nuke the site from orbit, it’s the only way to be sure.

    What a bunch of BS. Yeah, it’s all that infrastructure we need to close. Feed that to the staffers and the narcissists at OSD. That’s the ticket. It will preserve our contractor jobs, selling stuff to the DoD so we can retire soon and move into that lake cottege we always wanted.

    Why don’t we just rule the World By Super Duper Executive Order? Or, better yet, we could set the Reichstag on fire, and use that excuse to do whatever we want. Laws be damned.

  • rappini pasta

    It appears that the administration is looking for ways to keep Congress out of the loop.

    • PolicyWonk

      It appears more likely that the congress created the laws that enable the military to keep THEM out of the loop.

      Besides – I wouldn’t blame the administration if they did: this is the lousiest performing, least competently managed, and unreasonable HoR in US history, who’s popularity rating is below that of EBOLA.

      • rappini pasta

        Aren’t we touchy. No sense in reponding your a liberal and I’m a conservative and nothing is going to change that. And besides did you know that the Pyramids were a mistake.

        • PolicyWonk

          I’m a liberal? Sure: to a fascist perhaps. However, I happen to agree with many conservative pundits who consider the current crop of so-called republicans incompetent – and neither a friend to business or the military.
          But what passes for conservatives today (which explains the exodus of members from the GOP) don’t seem to like facts getting in the way of their otherwise baseless opinions.
          The current crop of clowns, for example – don’t seem to want to follow the advice of the Congressional Budget Office to restore the economic basis of the nation, opting instead to continue tax breaks for the super wealthy, while paying welfare to super profitable corporations – at the expense of our national security.
          Cheers.

          • rappini pasta

            That’s easy for you to say.

  • Soandso
  • HMan570

    Congress can’t make a decision on much of anything without closeing down the Government so what is the big deal. It’s about time that someone to the lead in leading. Our Congress is only concerned about is overseas and their ecomenys and to hell with America and its people.

    • Cambridge101

      Let’s have a Supreme Ultra Executive Order to close any Federal facility we want, and call it “The Nuremberg Law Decree By Divine Will Of The Führer.”

      We can close the courts down next – I am sure there is some obscure Civil War law still on the books somewhere.

      • HMan570

        That sounds good to me! It would be more then we get our our politicians of today.

  • SS BdM Fuhress ‘Savannah

    Most of the military bases need to be on the borders helping in security. A few scattered throughout the states for fast response if trouble as ‘we the people’ demand someone in Washington care about us. In this age of Greed though I think you are going to be lucky the military in the end can get a notepad to write down the Salvation plans for an imaginary force. As long as a few B-2’s around armed with Nukes I think the politicians can keep control of ‘ we the people’ grumbling. That way they fulfill their duty to themselves which it has always been about.

  • mcvcsg2

    Sydney, you need to tell the rest of the story. The Standing BRAC law as it’s referred to, does allow the SECDEF or Secretary of any military Dept to BRAC but only under certain conditions, the least of which is notifying Congress. See: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/10/2687. You should have explained these conditions as well as the history of its attempted use, but then you probably wouldn’t have written the article. These conditions make it impossible to for the DOD to execute a BRAC, which is why the standing BRAC law has never resulted in one base closure. The US Air Force has attempted to use the law twice that I’m aware of. They failed both times, which is why DOD needs and requests specific authorization every year to achieve any BRAC. Even if they tried to do what you suggest, it would take much longer than a year, which gives an alerted Congress time to pass or threaten to pass specific legislation that would prevent that specific BRAC action. The fact is that the DOD’s ability to get a BRAC authorized can only occur during a narrow window in time when the economy is just heating up or just cooling off. If the economy is bad, like it is now, there is no political will to lay off people, which is the net result of an efficient BRAC. Conversely, when the economy is good and budgets are positive, there is no incentive to BRAC. The bottom line for BRAC is that you they rarely save money unless they eliminate footprint, which include the people and real estate. In most past BRACs, the people are moved to another base where new buildings are constructed to house them. If you want to do it right, which means putting the right military capability in the right location, you start with a plan the reduces force structure (planes, troops, ships, etc…), then decide where and how to best BRAC to reduce the footprint. You don’t just start with an idea to shut down bases because it will save money. It won’t.

  • kjm

    I’d take a staffer’s word for something like this any day of the week.

    not.

    Can you say trial balloon?