It’s shaping up to be a rough fiscal year for military bases.
In October, Hurricane Michael devastated Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle, the home of the service’s F-22 fighter training. That storm also wreaked havoc on the Marines’ Camp Lejeune, N.C.
This month, flood waters in Nebraska inundated Offutt AFB outside Omaha. The installation hosts U.S. Strategic Command and highly specialized intelligence and command and control aircraft.
In a disturbing new norm, Washington has responded to these and other natural disasters by making a bad situation worse with toxic politics.
On the left, politicians are leveraging interest in base reconstruction to draw attention to climate change.
Tyndall “is in harm’s way now. It has been in the past and it will be in the future,” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), during a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing on readiness. “[D]oes it make any sense to rebuild at that place?” Garamendi’s colleague, Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.), urged defense officials to look at setting up shop “somewhere where the weather may be more temperate and more realistic. More days available for training.”
The military can’t put bases just anywhere. As Garamendi acknowledged in his hearing, Tyndall’s location on the Gulf Coast gives its fighters vast, protected areas over the water in which to train, away from high-density residential areas or air corridors. The Department of Defense established Strategic Command’s headquarters in Nebraska during the Cold War to serve as a “Western Pentagon,” far inland from the Soviet missile launches that would prompt SAC’s overwhelming nuclear response. The Navy, of course, has no choice but to base itself in locations vulnerable to sea rise.
Likewise, it’s ridiculous to think that global climate change leaves any military site safe or particularly pleasant year-round. Garamendi’s district includes Travis and Beale Air Force bases, which are vulnerable to wildfires and earthquakes. Tornados and floods plague the Midwest and South as much as hurricanes and floods plague the coasts.
Houlahan, an Air Force reservist, may find her Mid-Atlantic temperatures more appealing than her sweaty training days at Tyndall. Moving military operations from a state like Florida to a state like Pennsylvania, though, shaves about 10 degrees off steadily climbing average highs from May to October, while creating new problems associated with colder temperatures for much of the rest of the year. We can forgive troops faced with either the scorching summers of the Southwest or the frozen winters of the Northern Tier if they don’t consider these options much of a choice at all.
Behind earnest questions about infrastructure planning, of course, is the reality that money some Democrats covet for progressive priorities is locked into an enormous defense budget they cannot oppose without looking weak on national security, hard on troops, or opposed to the defense dollars flowing to their own districts. Forcing the military to close bases or find billions to restore them within the existing budget presents a politically viable path to a leaner military living within its means, shaped by bad luck rather than socialist meddling.
The situation on the right is no better. The kind of planning Garamendi wants, which accounts for the real effects of climate change on military readiness, amounts to an admission that other measures are warranted—like curbing carbon emissions or developing alternative energy sources. The White House's national security strategy mentions climate only by way of trumpeting the need for “countering an anti-growth energy agenda” for fossil fuels.
Faced with denial at the top, it is far better for defense officials or Republicans on the ground to declare a patriotic intent to rebuild the bases while hoping someone else can figure out how to do that without raising taxes or making unpopular spending cuts. For fiscal conservatives, there’s the added inconvenience that funds allocated toward base reconstruction could be sucked into President Trump’s border wall project.
The Republican trap is one they devised. Low taxes have inflated the deficit, and the classic countermove would be to blame Big Government. But after a systematic GOP campaign to gut spending programs at the federal and state level, there’s not much government left to blame except Congress, the administration, defense, and the personal benefits collected by aging red-state voters. Best to curse fate, demonize the Dems, and—if necessary—frame the choice as one between building hangars somewhere else or shielding ourselves from the immigrant hordes who will be rampaging down Main Street any day now.
Here, too, the short-sightedness of the logic is appalling. Money withheld from military installations in Florida, North Carolina, and Nebraska is money withheld from people who earn their livings at these bases or because of them. These are mostly white people in deep-red-to-purple districts who may direct their anger away from brown people or liberals once the brand of socialism their conservative representatives back—government jobs, government benefits, and subsidized housing, but only for the centurion class—is no longer propping them up.
Beyond this inane posturing, how should we deal with the mess that man-made climate change creates for military bases?
Under what we’ll call Option A, the government establishes an annual slush fund to deal with the impacts of natural disasters on military readiness. If no base is struck with catastrophic weather in a given year, the money rolls over into perpetually lagging military infrastructure improvements, improvements in the surrounding community, or the expenses associated with closing excess or high-risk military bases while helping local economies through the transition.
The slush fund could be taken out of DoD’s budget with monies freed through truly strategic choices about what U.S. military forces should do and what people and resources the Department of Defense actually needs to do it—including the national footprint of military installations. Investing defense budget increases into more force structure that requires even more money spent on the training and care of those forces is how you wind up with a $700 billion budget making barely a dent in readiness and lethality, much less leaving you a buffer for a literal rainy day.
In Option B, Congress produces the billions in supplemental funding needed to recover from these disasters out of nowhere and hopes nobody notices where the money came from or the fact that the underlying realities are ignored.
In Option C, elected officials give Mother Nature the authority to make decisions they somehow can’t. Inaction creates ghost bases while everyone deflects blame.
My guess is the system will eventually stumble into Option B. But given the state of nature toward which our politics is sliding, Option C might be the one best suited to the overall trend.