Political game: Army wants to reduce acreage and close bases, but arguments are based on outdated data
published: May 03, 2016
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Tribune News Service) — A decade ago, the Army was screaming for Colorado acreage, claiming new tactics and new training demands meant units needed Rhode Island-sized tracts of Las Animas County to hone their skills.
Now, relying on what experts call phony numbers, the Army has told Congress it has way too much land and is calling for base closures. The service also claims a massive overage in training land even as the arguments leaders used to justify their attempted expansion of Fort Carson's Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site show a shortfall of nearly 750,000 acres in the U.S.
"It's just foolish," said retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Terrance McWilliams, who spent the later years of his career working to convince reluctant ranchers in southeastern Colorado that Piñon Canyon expansion was a good idea.
The new numbers are part of a Pentagon report released last month to the House and Senate armed services committees and obtained by The Gazette. Across the armed services, the report found that the Pentagon owns more than 20 percent more land than it needs. Cutting bases, the agency says, would help leaders deal with downsized defense budgets, which have been cut by about $100 billion from wartime highs a decade ago.
"As Department of Defense leadership has repeatedly testified, spending resources on excess infrastructure does not make sense," Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work wrote in a letter to lawmakers that accompanied the report.
But the math used to figure out how much Army land could be on the chopping block — 33 percent of the service's holdings — rankles locals who remember the battle over Piñon Canyon expansion and has raised eyebrows among congressional hawks who see it as a ploy to cut the military through convenient numbers.
"This report is a perfect example of why the majority of the members of the House Armed Services Committee do not support a new round of BRAC (base realignment and closure)," Colorado Springs Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn wrote in an email to The Gazette. "When the Pentagon shifts around goals and narratives to fit a desired outcome, it is troubling."
The Pentagon came to the conclusion that the Army has too much land by ignoring nearly three decades of studies that showed soldiers need more land for training, experts say.
"The whole report really isn't worth the paper it's printed on," said Justin Johnson, who studies the Pentagon budget for the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.
That's my prerogative
You have to travel through time to find out where the Army got the numbers — 1989, when President George H.W. Bush was in office and Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative" was climbing the pop music charts.
The Pentagon told lawmakers it derived its figures "employing a parametric analysis to compare base loading from 1989 to base loading in 2019." Despite the complex language, it proved to be a simple exercise in grade-school math. For instance, during the Cold War, the Army had 193 battalions of soldiers training on an average of 23,288 acres of land per battalion. Now the Army has 119 battalions training on an average of 40,405 acres each.
The Department of Defense used that long division to say it has 42 percent more "maneuver" land than the Army really needs.
The Army admitted the report is flawed.
"This analysis is a 'pure' capacity analysis that does not take into account changes in requirements over time," Army spokesman Dave Foster said in an email. "This is both a virtue of the method, as well as a known limitation. It is a virtue in the sense that requirements have a subjective and changing aspect to them. It is a limitation because the Department builds and shapes its infrastructure to meet projected requirements."
Others had a more blunt view of the report.
"Someone has forgotten all of the changes in doctrine and tactics that have taken place since 1989," said retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. John Kurak who took over advocating for an expansion of Fort Carson's training land after his predecessor McWilliams retired.
The Army in 1989 had no Global Positioning System navigation tools. The AH-64 Apache attack helicopter was coming, and the M-1 tank was brand-new.
The Persian Gulf War and studies that followed in the 1990s revolutionized how the Army fights. Small units became responsible for larger and larger chunks of the battlefield, and training changed to reflect the far-flung fights.
The Army, in a string of papers defending its push for a 418,577-acre expansion of Piñon Canyon, claimed that while an infantry brigade — about 4,000 soldiers — needed just 45,000 acres to train before the Gulf War, by 2004 the same unit had to have as much as 200,000 acres to train properly for combat.
The need for the acreage in training was on display at Fort Carson last month as soldiers from the post's 1st Brigade Combat Team learned how to use anti-tank missiles. The Javelin missiles can rocket nearly 3 miles to strike tank targets.
"I'm very excited," said Pfc. Matthew Barvels before he got to fire the $78,000 weapon.
The missiles, long-range artillery, drones and other new weapons require big training areas. And realistic training with the weapons is key.
"You don't want to be in a combat situation doing this for the first time," said Staff Sgt. Michael Miles as he showed soldiers how to launch anti-tank rockets.
To accommodate those new weapons and training, the Army appears to have a serious land shortfall — 750,000 acres or more — to train its 480,000 soldiers.
Jay Lindell, who oversees defense programs for the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, said the Army needs to look ahead rather than looking back to 1989 to figure out how much land it needs.
"You have to have current data to make real decisions," he said.
Old battle revisited
McWilliams said the use of old data could reignite old anger over the Piñon Canyon expansion proposal, which caused a political rift between El Paso County military boosters and much of the rest of the state.
In Colorado, the failed Piñon plan drew fire from Las Animas County ranchers who banded with environmentalists and war critics to fight the Army. Army officials later pared their land request to 100,000 acres, but that didn't garner more support.
They finally surrendered in 2013, with a ceremony in Pueblo that had Army leaders formally renounce their desire for more Colorado training land.
Bill Sulzman, a Colorado Springs anti-war activist who opposed the Piñon Canyon expansion, recalled Army leaders threatening drastic consequences unless the service got more land.
"They were putting that in those terms — if you oppose this soldiers will die?," Sulzman said.
Andy Merritt, who heads military affairs for the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, said the military chose its mathematical methods more for politics than accuracy. An accurate measure would point to specific bases that could face closure, sparking a bigger base-closure fight in Congress than the military gets with grade-school measures.
"This analysis is a very bad tool, but it may be the only tool they have right now," he said.
Johnson said the Pentagon proposal inflates the amount of excess land as part of a lobbying effort to answer the Obama administrations repeated call for base closures.
"It's clearly intended to move the needle in Congress," he said.
Why the Army included training land in its analysis is hard to gauge. Foster said the Army has been reluctant to part with training lands and will likely remain so in the future. He also said the Army's failure to gain acres for Piñon Canyon showed the service how valuable land can be.
"It validated the U.S. Army's long-standing practice of weighting maneuver land the most heavily of all military value analysis attributes," he wrote.
BRAC will be back
Closing bases and shedding acres is clearly atop the Pentagon's political agenda. Military leaders say closing bases could save the Pentagon as much as $2 billion a year that can be spent on equipment and training.
"Leading U.S. corporations retain their vitality and market position by being able to adapt to changed circumstances, and the U.S. military is no different," the Pentagon wrote in its report to Congress.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has been traveling the nation claiming a desperate need to downsize.
"That's not exactly winning the popularity contest around here, either," Carter told the Association of the U.S. Army's annual convention last fall. "But I would be a liar if I didn't stick up for it. It's the right thing to do."
McWilliams wonders, though, if the Pentagon's numbers games detract from the real problems the military faces.
"This whole thing is so political," he said.
Colorado lawmakers say the Army's numbers did little to change their opposition to a base-closure round.
"In a dangerous world with many evolving threats it is irresponsible to cut back on military facilities and capacities that may very well be necessary to combat the threats of the years ahead," Lamborn said.
Colorado's Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said no decisions can be made until the military uses real math.
"The existing acreage is essential to the training and readiness of our warfighters at Fort Carson," Bennet wrote in an email.
"Any future BRAC proposal must consider the requirements of our modern fighting force."
On Thursday, the House Armed Services Committee rejected the Pentagon's base-closure proposal, effectively killing it for the year. But military experts say the Pentagon will keep pushing for base closures.
Retired Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, who planned America's invasion of Iraq, said the Pentagon needs to close inefficient bases so troops get the best training and latest weapons.
"We still have the strongest, most respected military in the world," Renuart said. "But we are very quickly approaching a point where we ask more of the great young men and women who serve the nation today than they can carry and they will vote with their feet, weakening the very core of our all-volunteer force."
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