Rat infestations, hurricane damage, contaminated drinking water—these and other kinds of infrastructure problems are piling up on U.S. military installations, according to defense leaders. Despite a Pentagon budget that’s one of the largest in decades, they warn, limited funding for critical housing and base repairs is forcing lengthy delays in needed construction and maintenance, to the point where force readiness and the health of service members and their families could be at risk.
“Without investments that assure lethality, restore readiness, properly fund and train personnel, and deliver cost-effective, adaptive infrastructure, we will rapidly lose our power projection advantage,” states a budget plan that the Air Force submitted to Congress last month requesting $4.1 billion for repairing and renovating air bases.
The Air Force estimates that it has about $33 billion worth of long-overdue repairs to carry out, and it is currently postponing 61 of them while it tries to cobble together $5 billion just to repair damage that Hurricane Michael inflicted last year on Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. It’s also seeking a $4.9 billion cash infusion for water damage to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, where flash floods last month put a third of the base underwater.
Defense Construction Backlog
The Air Force isn’t alone on this issue. The Pentagon has tallied up a grand total of $116 billion in backlogged construction and maintenance needs throughout all of the Services. And it warned Congress in a report earlier this year that two-thirds of its 79 most important bases face serious flooding threats, including Navy installations in Virginia and crucial Navy forward bases in Guam.
That’s not all: Dozens more installations of all branches also face threats from wildfires and droughts, according to the Pentagon.
A congressional hearing last month spotlighted shoddy living conditions in military housing—service members and their families across the country enduring rat and termite infestations, toxic lead levels, and mold. And in findings it shared with Congress last year, the Pentagon acknowledged that drinking water at 126 sites was contaminated with substances known to cause birth defects.
Also last year, the Pentagon rated more than 30% of its infrastructure worldwide as “poor” or “failing.” Pentagon Chief Infrastructure Officer Lucian Niemeyer told Congress at the time that many buildings are so badly degraded that they are “no longer worth saving.”
Big Budget, But Not for Construction
The DoD has a core operating budget of $576 billion for this fiscal year—a big sum by any measure. But this amount goes mostly toward warfighting and weaponry. It includes, for example, the $9.6 billion that DOD is spending on cybersecurity and AI initiatives, as well as the $13 billion or more it will take to launch the new Space Force.
Money for most base construction and repairs comes from two separate—and much smaller—pots. The first is the Facilities, Restoration, Sustainment, and Modernization (FSRM) fund, which covers infrastructure-related projects. Congress approved $9.9 billion for the fund in 2018, up from $6.2 billion in 2017. Building construction is paid for through the second fund, Military Housing and Construction. The White House has requested $11.4 billion for this fund for the fiscal year, up from the $10.8 billion it got last year.
These funding increases don’t add up anywhere close to $116 billion, however.
Too Many Bases?
Part of the problem is that the military simply has more infrastructure than it really needs—a lot more. The DoD estimates that 21% of facility capacity throughout the U.S. armed forces is “excess capacity.”
The Army, for instance, reported in 2014 that it has between 12% and 28% more facility space than it needs (depending on the types of facility), and that maintaining these unused facilities costs around $500 million a year.
In past years, the military has closed down or consolidated bases and sites it no longer needs through Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) proceedings. There hasn’t been a BRAC since 2005, and Congress is responsible for that: The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2012 expressly forbade any future base closures. Congress typically says nay on BRAC, in part because base closures and consolidations mean job losses and traffic disruptions in representatives’ districts.
Pentagon officials sought authorization for more BRAC several times since then, but the House Armed Services Committee turned them turned down each and every time. As such, the military has been stuck paying billions of dollars more a year on buildings and sites that it does not even want or need—and scrambling to find enough funds to maintain the ones it does.
It’s a multifaceted problem that presents only a few hard choices: Either shell out higher and higher funds for the whole array of existing facilities, or pare down said facilities through more BRAC. At this moment, civilian elected officials have little incentive to do either.
Leaving defense leaders to make the best of it. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “You go to war with the army you have.” For better or worse, the Pentagon today must go to war with the Congress it has.