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Military Base-Closing Effort Undermined, Study Claims : Pentagon: Facilities are being used as other federal posts at potential $15-billion cost, group says. Defense officials dispute report.

October 11, 1994|ART PINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon's crash effort to close unneeded military bases is being seriously undermined by an unexpected development--the reopening of discarded bases as reserve training facilities or Defense Department finance centers--a defense-monitoring group charged Monday.

The group, known as Business Executives for National Security, estimated that keeping these installations operating instead of shutting them as planned could cost $15 billion over the next five years--money that the Pentagon says it wants to use to offset declining budgets.

The conclusions were contained in a 74-page study which contends that of the 67 major military installations ostensibly ordered closed since 1988, 26 either never shut down or have quietly been reopened by the Pentagon with new names or purposes.

However, Pentagon officials challenged the report, charging that it is riddled with inaccuracies, both on the number of bases partly reopened for other government uses and on the budgetary implications of such actions.

Joshua Gotbaum, assistant secretary of defense for economic security, said that the report is misleading because "it gives the impression that the department is not closing bases. . . . We are still expecting the vast majority of savings that have been estimated."

The study charges that failure to close the bases as announced not only saps badly needed federal budget dollars but also erodes public faith in the federal base-closing process and could hamper future efforts to shut down unneeded facilities.

The report also asserts that the push to keep these installations open often hurts local communities, which it says usually can reap more economic benefits in the long run by using the land for business development than by maintaining remaining federal jobs.

Among those listed are Moffett Field in Northern California, which currently continues as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Ames Research Center; the Presidio in San Francisco, slated to become a national park; and Carswell Air Force Base in North Texas, now a reserve center.

The study says that keeping Moffett Field intact is costing the federal government $3.2 billion to operate, while the Presidio is siphoning off $1.4 billion a year and Carswell is taking $1.2 billion. In all, the study names 26 such installations.

It says that the push to keep the bases open is ironic, since the number of base closings so far has been relatively small, considering the enormous amount of excess bases and military depots left over after the Cold War.

The issue is considered critical. Military leaders in all four armed services have said that they must close substantially more bases than have been shuttered so far if they are to be able to continue modernizing U.S. forces in the face of declining budgets.

Although the Pentagon has significantly slashed the number of troops, planes, tanks and ships, it still has not reduced the infrastructure--such as bases and depots--that services them. As a result, it has a high overhead that saps budget funds.

The current base-closing procedures were set up partly to insulate the shutdown effort from political manipulation, which had prevented such shutdowns in earlier years. Under the new process, closures are decided by an independent Base Closure and Realignment Commission.

The study by Business Executives for National Security blames a variety of factors for the situation, from pressure by politicians and local communities to Congress' refusal to cut the strength of reserve units in line with the reductions that it has ordered in the size of active-duty forces.

It calls on authorities to tighten the definition for base closure, to slash the number of installations allocated to reserves and to make public more details on proposals to keep discarded bases open.

The Pentagon has estimated that savings from base closings eventually will amount to $4.6 billion a year, which it hopes to reallocate to help modernize weapons. But the study says that the savings never will be realized and, instead, that the reopened bases will cost $15 billion.

However, the Defense Department's Gotbaum said that the figures in the report are inaccurate and that the Pentagon still is expected to reap the bulk of the $4.6 billion in savings that authorities had estimated.

Gotbaum also took issue with the report's assertions that 26 of the 67 military bases ordered closed have been "realigned"--that is, quietly kept open for use by other military or government entities.

He said that of the 26 bases cited, seven were supposed to have been restructured from the start, another three were ordered realigned by the base-closure commission and 13 others contain small-scale Defense Department accounting centers on part of the property.

He also said that the study mistakenly confuses two other bases with nearby installations that never had been targeted for closing in the first place. "We still regard the need to close unneeded bases as critical," he said in an interview.

Gotbaum also disputed the report's contentions that using parts of closed base for other federal activities necessarily wipes out the projected savings from the shutdown. He said that often the new activity needs only a small fraction of the employees that the base had.

But Carole Lessure, an analyst for the Defense Budget Project, another defense-monitoring group, said that while the study's figures sound high, widespread continuation of such installations to house new military activities "definitely would erode" the projected savings.

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