The weather damage to Tyndall and Offutt AFBs adds to a multibillion-dollar backlog of deferred maintenance that’s taking a strategic toll.
What happens when the Pentagon takes a holiday from taking care of military infrastructure? Since 2012, the Budget Control Act has strangled military infrastructure funding. Adjusted for inflation, combined spending on military construction and family housing dropped from $14.6 billion in 2012 to $10.5 billion in each of the next two years before plummeting to an annual average of $8.2 billion from 2015 to 2018.
Yet tallying the decline of new construction money tells only half the story, since the Pentagon funds most infrastructure maintenance separately through an account called Facilities Sustainment, Restoration, and Modernization, or FSRM. In 2018 testimony to Congress, Pentagon chief infrastructure officer Lucian Niemeyer warned that the department is running a tab of $116 billion in deferred FSRM funding. With admirable candor, he also admitted that many facilities have deteriorated so badly that they are no longer worth saving.
As of last year, the Pentagon rated the condition of 23 percent of its infrastructure as “poor” and another 9 percent as “failing.” More recently, an emotional February Senate Armed Services Committee hearing detailed the pitiful state of military family housing and featured universal bipartisan agreement that the scale of the problem is worse than previously known. Lack of adequate family housing causes massive unseen costs by lowering recruitment and retention of talented servicemembers.
And even as the Pentagon cannot take care of the facilities it actually needs, it remains saddled with thousands of unnecessary facilities that siphon away scarce FSRM funding. Perceived failure of the 2005 base closure round left such a bad taste in lawmakers’ mouths that Congress remains unlikely to allow further closures any time soon. On top of its growing construction and maintenance funding deficit, the Department of Defense may also face a massive increase in retroactive cleanup costs, given recent momentum behind the effort to account for contaminated drinking water at bases.
That’s not all. The military’s accumulated infrastructure spending shortfall reached its peak just as the Pentagon should be investing in new basing to better prepare itself for generational great-power competition with Russia and China. While the military succeeded in maximizing efficiency through two decades of aggregating forces into peacetime superbases in Germany, Japan, and South Korea, those superbases now serve as juicy, fat targets for advanced adversary missiles and aircraft. China practices first-day-of-war knockout strikes against the colossal collection of U.S. naval forces in Yokosuka, Japan, and Russian missiles threaten every American base in mainland Europe.
The 2018 National Defense Strategy recognizes that existing peacetime basing strategy is no longer appropriate, prompting the Pentagon to prioritize “transitioning from large, centralized, unhardened infrastructure to smaller, dispersed, resilient, adaptive basing that includes active and passive defenses.” Based on the cost of initial investments at U.S. bases in Europe and East Asia, this overdue transition will carry a multi-billion dollar price tag over the next five to 10 years. Additionally, the armed forces have yet to fully budget for significant investments in new and expanded training and testing ranges to accommodate weapons of the future like hypersonic missiles and fifth-generation aircraft that have outgrown dated Cold War infrastructure.
But wait, there’s more! Recent natural disasters highlight the threat posed to military infrastructure by climate change and severe weather events. The Air Force needs almost $5 billion to rebuild Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida from Hurricane Michael, and it’s currently pausing 61 repair projects in other states to pay those bills. The Marine Corps requires at least $3.5 billion to rebuild Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and it’s about to start canceling military exercises to pay for cleanup costs. Repairing flooding damage at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska will cost tens of millions of dollars, with the tab likely to rise when future flood prevention measures are added.
In a 2019 report to Congress, the Pentagon warned that two-thirds of its 79 most important bases face serious flooding threats, including the heart of the Navy in Hampton Roads and crucial forward bases in Guam. Dozens of other installations face threats from more frequent wildfires and droughts. Yet the report fell short of congressional intent by omitting most overseas bases, and it did not include any attempt at an infrastructure risk mitigation plan or calculating associated funding for such a plan. It should not be a partisan issue to recognize the threat posed to military bases by severe weather events and the necessity of billions of dollars of additional defense spending to mitigate that threat.
Uniformed and civilian defense officials alike have begun to appreciate the necessity of making up for lost time and money in adequately supporting military infrastructure. After years of neglect, the Pentagon finally asked Congress for a sizable facilities maintenance funding increase. The Air Force even released a long-term infrastructure modernization strategy that will “allow the Air Force to cut down on its backlog considerably by 2047.”
Yet the scale of the military infrastructure crisis remains unappreciated, both at the Pentagon and in Congress. Whether or not one supports the White House’s laundering of $7.2 billion of border wall funding through the military construction budget, this gambit hits the Pentagon at a particularly bad moment. The Trump administration’s own long-term defense spending projections show a flat budget with no growth in buying power, which does not provide the Pentagon with enough funding to make up for the $550 billion in buying power lost under the Budget Control Act. The fact that the cost of addressing the military construction crisis isn’t even accounted for in the Pentagon’s budget should serve as a sober reminder that a flat defense spending trajectory simply punts more of the military’s problems into the future.