Briefing Report: The Proposed Downsizing of the U.S. Armed Forces - How Might It Affect California?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


In early January 2012, President Obama announced that the greatest military force in world history is scheduled to become considerably less great over the next few years – thanks to the winding down of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

At the core of the planned reduction of the U.S. armed forces – ostensibly for federal cost-saving purposes – is a new national security strategy in which the military will no longer possess the capability to wage two major theater wars simultaneously. Referred to in military-speak as the “2-MTW Standard,” this defense posture was adopted in 1993 under President Clinton to meet the emerging demands of the post-Cold War era, including the fraying apart of the two superpower “bipolar” order and the need to deter regional wars.

This will come on top of the existing 2012 federal budget proposal, which already calls for significant cuts in U.S. ground forces – 27,000 Soldiers from the United States Army and as many as 20,000 Marines (USMC) over the next four years.

Beyond the general national security implications, which affect all Americans, what could be the potential consequences of the downsizing for the State of California?

Historically, the effects of downsizing have included (1) military base closure and realignment and (2) increased demand for taxpayer-funded services to returning veterans.

Military Bases: Closure and Realignment

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to request two new rounds (2013 and 2015) of the Defense Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process as part of the Pentagon budget-cutting process.[1]

The federal government worked its way through four earlier iterations of the BRAC process between late 1988 and 1993. Nationally, that process led to the closing of 350 large and small military bases and 55 major realignments. Reportedly, this saved federal taxpayers more than $16 billion through 2001 and $6 billion more each subsequent year.[2]

Prior to 1988, California had, by far, the largest military presence of any state. The Golden State was home to 335,979 (14.7%) of the Department of Defense's (DoD) 2,275,264 personnel and 91 (18.3%) of the 495 major military bases then scattered around the nation.[3] Not surprisingly, the BRAC cuts fell heavily on California.

Through the first four rounds (1988, 1991, 1993, 1995), the state suffered the loss of 93,546 uniformed and civilian DoD jobs, which represented 53.8% of the net cuts nationally. California lost nearly 28 percent of its military personnel, while the rest of the nation saw a reduction of just 3.6 percent.[4]

In terms of major base closures, California lost 24 installations; Texas, seven; Pennsylvania, six; Illinois and New York, five each; and Florida, Indiana, Maryland and Virginia, four each.[5]

Unlike previous rounds, the fifth BRAC round (2005) focused more on realignment than closure. Along with saving money, a top priority was force readiness, consolidating assets onto centralized installations from which they can be deployed rapidly and flexibly in support of an evolving global situation, and joint service missions. Implementation of the 2005 BRAC recommendations was completed in 2011.

When a military installation is closed or its tenant units merely downsized, the communities in the area are adversely affected, particularly in the short-term. Military and civilian personnel face the loss or relocation of jobs. The uniformed personnel expect to be transferred regularly, but civilian workers on base usually are long-term local residents.

Local retailers who support the bases directly or indirectly suffer serious revenue decreases and may even be forced to close. Area governments lose revenues needed to maintain services and infrastructure. In addition, the negotiation and execution of land transfer, environmental cleanup, and redevelopment of the properties can be a challenging, alien process to communities.

The enabling BRAC statute typically provides a variety of mechanisms for disposing of property at closed or realigned military installations. In the past, some federal real property has been made available by public benefit conveyances for airport, education, and homeless assistance. Some have been converted to military reserve component bases. Others have been transferred to native American tribes. For some properties, economic development conveyances have been awarded to local redevelopment authorities. Some have been put up for public sale.[6]

Closing or consolidating bases requires congressional legislation creating a bipartisan BRAC Commission to study the problem and make recommendations to the president and the defense secretary. But politically, that may not be smooth sailing this time. The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, California Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA25), reportedly has said that any Administration request to Congress for BRAC authorization is “dead on arrival.”[7]

But if another round does occur, California could suffer again, at least in theory, but certainly not as severely as before, if only because there is so much less remaining to take away. And also because the new national security strategy is focused more on responding to emerging military and economic considerations in the Asia/Pacific theater and less so on the Europe/Atlantic front.

As mentioned earlier, the planned downsizing hits the Army and Marine Corps hardest. However, the state’s sole remaining major Army installation – the Fort Irwin/National Training Center complex in Inyo County – is the Army’s premier large-scale training facility. For that and other reasons, it is unlikely to close or be downsized.

Southern California also contains a number of substantially sized USMC bases and units. These include Camp Pendleton, home to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. And the Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, which houses the 7th Marine Regiment and other infantry elements.

While early, unofficial chatter suggests that the bulk of Corps cuts are expected to target East Coast units, at least one infantry battalion may be eliminated from West Coast assets.[8]

Returning Veterans: The Next Generation

California’s population already includes more than 2.5 million veterans, the largest share of any state. These veterans represent service in all U.S. military conflicts, large and small, since World War II, including the Cold War and the Global War on Terror. Some speak of their service or occasionally wear military or veterans’ insignia, but for the vast majority, their veteran status is invisible to the public – except when they seek veteran benefits.

Most benefits, particularly medical care, are federally funded and provided through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (USVA); however, many states, including California, provide additional benefits.

Through its own Department of Veterans Affairs (CDVA), the State of California currently provides a variety of support to its veterans. The best known are the state veterans residential homes and the CalVet home loan program.

In addition, CDVA’s Veterans Services Division and locally-funded county veterans service offices (CVSOs) assist individuals seeking federal veterans disability compensation and pensions (C&P) for which they may be qualified.

Because California’s veterans participate in federal C&P benefits at rates that are significantly lower than those in other states with large veteran populations, CDVA has made increasing veterans’ participation in these benefits a departmental primary goal.

In addition, state employment service specialists help veterans obtain training and employment and, if necessary, unemployment insurance. Other state benefits are listed on the Department’s Web site.[9]

In early 2010, CDVA conducted a survey to better assess veterans’ needs and to identify more effective ways to provide veteran services and benefit information. According to the survey[10]:

  • 61% of veteran respondents said their knowledge of veterans’ benefits was average to nonexistent.
  • 65% said that their reasons for not receiving or claiming VA benefits was they did not know how to file/where to get help, chose not to file, or did not know about benefits.
  • 53% identified their employment needs as most critical to veterans in general, followed by healthcare (44%), learning about benefits (37%), and training/education (35%).
  • Respondents aged 39 years and younger were the most likely to report needing a job, training/education, and healthcare. In fact, the need for a job, training/education, and healthcare decreased with age, with respondents aged 70 or older being the least likely to need these benefits.

As the military downsizes over the next several years, California will receive several thousands of these returning veterans. Who are they? What will they be like?

Beginning in 1970, the dominant public narrative painted the typical Vietnam War veteran as a poorly educated, reluctant draftee who returned home as a shattered, violence-prone individual struggling without success to fit back into a society that has rejected him. The truth was that America’s Vietnam vets had drug usage and suicide rates consistent with those for the rest of society. Furthermore, their post-war educational attainment and economic achievement actually exceeds the national average.

Accordingly, we need to ignore politicized narratives and instead look with clarity at our current veterans, who are even more likely to defy the dire predictions for their futures.

Most will be in their twenties and thirties. Many will have families they need to support. They will enter a California economy still struggling to recover from the current global recession. They will compete with existing residents for scarce jobs. Some will transfer into the reserve components, including the National Guard, and continue their military careers part-time.

Many will bring their federal GI bill benefits with them, looking to attend state universities and community colleges already impacted by budget cuts. They will compete for student slots with nonveterans.

A significant percentage of Iraq/Afghanistan veterans will have survived or at least witnessed horrendous events. Those veterans must deal with war-related health problems, some of which may become manifest long after departure from the combat zone. These include the post-traumatic stress disorder (shell shock/combat fatigue) associated with war service throughout history. And the unique “signature injury” of the current conflicts -- traumatic brain injury, caused most frequently by the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) employed against allied troops. Some will battle depression or other mental illness, or they may struggle with drug or alcohol dependency.

Statistically, some of the more challenged individuals will end up entangled in the criminal justice system.

California has been experimenting with veterans courts to help those challenged individuals, whose court cases are affected by issues such as addiction, mental illness, and/or co-occurring disorders. These unique courts “promote sobriety, recovery, and stability” through a coordinated response involving cooperation and collaboration with prosecutors, defense lawyers, probation departments, CVSOs, CDVA, health-care networks, employment and housing agencies and groups, volunteer mentors who are usually also veterans, and family support organizations.[11] Veterans courts currently operate in the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, San Diego County, Santa Clara, Tulare, and Ventura.

Finally, the Legislature has recognized the changing nature of the California home market as the state becomes increasingly urbanized and less rural. New forms of home residence are proliferating. Lawmakers enacted Assembly Bill 1084 (Davis, 2011), which expands the definition of CalVet loan-eligible "cooperative housing corporation" to include shared equity cooperatives. This will help low-income veterans and their families enter into homeownership.


During the post-Cold War military demobilization of the 1990s, California’s economy was rocked by the loss of huge numbers of military jobs – not to mention the loss of jobs and revenue associated with the state’s once-enormous defense contractor industry, which also shrank.

The upcoming downsizing will not degrade California’s economy as severely or broadly, and will affect only a few local communities. However, waves of returning veterans, many with unique needs, over the next several years will challenge state policymakers, service providers, and educational institutions.

For more information on this report or other Veterans Affairs issues, contact Wade Teasdale, Senate Republican Office of Policy at 916/651-1501.

[1] K. Brannen and M. Weisberger, “Pentagon to Request 2 New Rounds of BRAC,” Military Times, January 25, 2012.
[2]Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC). (Retrieved 02/01/2012).
[3] Michael Freedman and Tim Ransdell, California’s Past Base Closure Experiences and the 2005 BRAC Round, California Institute for Federal Policy Research, April 2005.
[4] Freedman & Ransdell.
[5] U.S. Army Base Alignment and Closure Division FAQ (Retrieved 02/03/2012).
[6] Ibid.
[7] K. Brannen. “McKeon on potential BRAC request: ‘Kill it.” Military Times. February 1, 2012.
[8] D. Lamothe. “Budget Cuts May Slash Additional Marine Units,” Marine Corps Times, January 31, 2012.
[9]Veterans Benefits Web page, California Department of Veterans Affairs. (Retrieved 2/28/2012)
[10]California Veterans Needs Assessment, September 2011, California Department of Veterans Affairs.
[11]“Fact Sheet: Veterans Courts,” June 2011, Administrative Office of the Courts, State of California