WASHINGTON — The United States, driven by budgetary realities and nature's explosive whims, reached a new bases agreement with the Philippines on Wednesday under which it will abandon Clark Air Base in 1992 but keep the sprawling Subic Bay Naval Base for 10 more years.
Clark, one of the largest and oldest U.S. military outposts overseas, was buried under thousands of tons of ash when Mt. Pinatubo exploded into life in mid-June after more than 600 years of inactivity. U.S. officials estimate that it would cost more than $500 million to make the facility usable.
The 4,975-foot volcano, 10 miles west of the air base, erupted again Wednesday as spokesmen for the U.S. and Philippine negotiators announced the new agreement.
Under its terms, the Navy will occupy Subic Bay for the next 10 years at an annual rent of at least $203 million. At the end of the lease, the United States is expected to withdraw all of its remaining forces, ending a century of sometimes-strained military relations with its former Pacific colony.
Four smaller facilities will be returned to the Philippines by Sept. 16, when the current lease expires.
The United States is now paying $481 million a year for the six facilities.
Subic Bay, a critical staging area and repair depot for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, suffered much less volcano damage than did Clark, although it will need extensive cleanup to return it to full operation.
"We have made a decision . . . that we simply do not want to go back in and try to reuse Clark Air Force Base," Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said Tuesday in Washington. "The cost of doing so would be several hundred million dollars. It's in an area that is still threatened by continuing eruptions by the volcano."
Cheney said that there is the potential for massive mudslides in the area and that the talc-like volcanic dust wreaks havoc on jet engines.
U.S. officials evacuated nearly 15,000 Air Force personnel and their dependents immediately after Mt. Pinatubo's first eruption. About 2,500 servicemen and women stayed on to provide security and try to maintain basic services.
"It simply doesn't make sense for us to go back in there, so we have made a decision that we are not interested in going back. . . ," Cheney said.
But, while Mt. Pinatubo provided a visible excuse to abandon the air base, U.S. officials were increasingly coming to view the facility as too expensive, as well as unnecessary in a time of tight budgets and easing post-Cold War tensions. Philippine political hostility to the continuing U.S. military presence and acrimonious negotiations with Philippine officials also made retention of the facility less attractive.
Air Force officials said Wednesday that virtually all operations at Clark already had been moved to other U.S. facilities in the United States or elsewhere in the Pacific.
The transfers were made to save money and to eliminate the risk to U.S. personnel from the Philippine Communist insurgency. There have been scores of attacks on U.S. military personnel by suspected rebels over the last several years.
The last combat aircraft based at Clark, a squadron of F-4 fighter-bombers, were transferred to Alaska last year. The base has continued to function as a major logistics center and a stopover for trans-pacific military flights.
Air Force officials said that the future of the 44,000-acre Crow Valley training range adjacent to the base is still uncertain. The range, which uses sophisticated ground equipment to help pilots train for bombing missions, is the Air Force's largest such facility outside the United States and has been a valuable tool for training U.S. and allied pilots.
Pentagon officials estimated that U.S. military facilities in the Philippines contributed $1 billion a year to the local economy, directly employing 42,300 Filipinos and indirectly generating more than 400,000 local jobs.
Residents of Angeles, a city of 300,000 outside Clark, expressed concern for their economic future after the Americans leave.
"The withdrawal of the Americans from Clark is a bigger explosion than Mt. Pinatubo," businessman Max Sangil told the Associated Press. "With Pinatubo, we can pick up the debris, but we cannot immediately supplant the economic vacuum caused by a withdrawal."
Despite the economic benefits of U.S. bases, they have become a political liability to the fragile government of President Corazon Aquino, who gained office after the "people's power" revolution that ousted dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos in 1986. Planes from Clark helped Marcos flee the island in that revolution and flew in support of Aquino when her government was threatened by plotters in December, 1989.
Many Filipinos denounced the bases as an affront to Philippine sovereignty, remnants of American paternalism and colonialism.