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More Than Piers and Parking

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Jason Bowns
August 4, 2017

Our world has changed since America began in 1776. We’ve debated about our foreign policy role over time, and presidential policies set different tones. Security threats have evolved, too.

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The Constitution mandates the militia’s role is “to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.” In this highly complex world, what is a military to do?

Threats come to us in the form of terror cells, lone wolves and cyberattacks. The enemy is increasingly hidden and unseen, making the military’s mission more difficult than ever.

Given this changed state of national security, some have argued for military base closures. These calls have only increased in recent years. Do these efforts serve a useful purpose?

John Glaser argues in Time that military installations abroad don’t protect America. He also finds inherent danger with being dragged into foreign conflicts, if military installations are there.

Glaser further asserts with drone technology and computerization of warfare, military bases offer limited strategic value. Then there’s the steep price of maintaining a foreign presence which may demand dubious diplomatic compromises, in addition to causing foreign resentment.

As the American Revolution was brewing back in 1775, Patrick Henry proclaimed, “The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.”

How do we remain vigilant, active and brave today?

According to the 2015 Fiscal Year Base Structure Report, America maintains 587 overseas military installations. Do we need hundreds of military bases stretching across 42 countries?

The U.S. Department of Defense maintains another 4,154 military installations of varying sizes within the United States itself. That brings the grand worldwide total to 4,855. In terms of states, California reportedly has the most military sites at 367.

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In March 2016, the Pentagon responded, issuing another report requesting congressional authorization for Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) in the United States and abroad.

That Department of Defense report noted the last BRAC authorization happened back in 2005. It began, “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 determined by the year 2022, American military installations will be at 22 percent excess of what’s actually needed, asserting that we should take steps to save money.

This is especially true given that defense spending comprised 14.3 percent of total federal spending in the 2016 fiscal year. That translates into $585 billion.

Compare that to 2001, when $315 billion was appropriated for defense spending. This amount has nearly doubled in the past 16 years following the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

Yet closing bases and reassigning personnel has political ramifications at the ballot box as well. Military contracts also affect local economies as do military installations themselves.

The U.S. Naval Base in Groton, Connecticut faced closure during the 2005 BRAC, despite its prestigious place as the first submarine base in America. It operated since 1916 after functioning as a naval base for 44 years before that. The nation’s first nuclear-powered submarine, U.S.S. Nautilus, remains moored there for visitor tours as part of the Submarine Force Museum.

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One 2005 news report emphasized how the regional economy there largely derives from base activity, with 8,500 soldiers stationed and one in three public school students from a military family.

If the base was closed, the local impact would be catastrophic resulting in thousands of job losses in surrounding areas as well. The base is also host to a renowned submarine school where new recruits train before being receiving a long term assignment.

Despite the Pentagon recommendation, the BRAC Commission voted against closing the Groton sub base in a seven to one decision. Commission chairman Anthony Principi announced, “The New London submarine base is more than piers and parking spaces for nuclear-powered submarines…It is truly the center of excellence in submarine warfare.” In addition to strategic concerns New England would be left vulnerable should the base close, there was more.

Some more intangible assets aren’t so quantifiable. What impact would closing West Point Academy have, if it was deemed to be more cost effective to send cadets elsewhere for training?

Closing the first submarine base in American history, home of the U.S.S. Nautilus, could impact overall morale. Military installations are more than a sum of their parts; there is a spirit beneath them. Behind every reality is an idea, a symbol which meets the mind more than the eye.

Mark Twain knew this difference: “The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease, and death.”

To provide for the common defense, we must shield our core ideals as much as the land itself.


Author: Reared in rural Connecticut, Jason Bowns earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from New York University, majoring in Classical Civilization and Hellenic Studies while minoring in Politics and Social Studies Education. He earned his Master of Public Administration degree at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, honing essential skills to detect organizational fraud, waste, and abuse. He’s reachable at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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