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THE NATION

At Least 100 Bases Said to Be in Line for Closure

October 14, 2003|John Hendren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is planning to close at least 100 of the nation's 425 military bases -- more than in the four previous rounds of base closures combined -- beginning in 2005, Pentagon insiders said Monday.

Rumsfeld is expected to submit to the congressional Base Closure and Realignment Commission a plan to shutter as many as one-third of Army bases, one-quarter of Air Force bases and a smaller fraction of Marine Corps and Navy bases, a senior defense official said on condition of anonymity.

Such a proposal would guarantee a political firestorm on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers jealously protect the bases in their home states or districts.

Military analyst Loren Thompson reported Rumsfeld's plans in an analysis prepared late last week for defense officials and reporters. Thompson, of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based public policy organization, said the savings are expected to exceed the $66 billion the Pentagon saved during the last decade from previous base closures, but would come at the politically controversial cost of shutting about 25% of the nation's bases.

Thompson's report was confirmed Monday by the senior defense official.

Under legislation passed in 2002, Rumsfeld is required by May 16, 2005, to prepare a list of bases to be closed or realigned, and the nine-member Base Closure and Realignment Commission must submit its list to the White House by Sept. 8, 2005. A vote by a simple majority of the nine is all that is needed to keep a base on the closure list. If President Bush accepts the list, the closures become law in 45 days unless Congress blocks them -- something Congress did not do in the first four rounds.

The more activities a base performs -- if more than one service is housed there, if it is a command post, or if it is home to Reserve and National Guard units, for instance -- the less likely it is to be closed. Defense insiders estimate that as many as 150 bases could be on the 2005 list because the cuts would come in overall capacity and would likely target smaller, less efficient locations.

"If there's a base that only has one particular purpose, one particular unit, one particular mission that could be accomplished somewhere else, that would be more vulnerable," the senior defense official said.

In the past, lawmakers have grudgingly accepted the lists of base closures, but this time, because the facilities to be realigned or cut would be spread over a majority of the 50 states, they might revolt, Thompson said. An effort last summer by Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) to eliminate the 2005 round of base closures received more than 40 votes, even before any bases to be cut were named.

"I think this could backfire on them," Thompson said of Rumsfeld's Pentagon managers. "This would be so big in one round that it might affect enough senators or congressmen that they might have enough critical mass that they could vote the whole thing down."

A Pentagon spokesman declined to confirm the specifics of the cuts but said Rumsfeld has been clear about his plans.

"What the secretary has said ... is that experts estimate that somewhere between 20 [%] and 25% of bases are in excess," Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita said. "We're at the very beginning of a process that's going to take years."

Rumsfeld came into office with, as President Bush put it before his election, "a broad mandate to challenge the status quo and envision a new architecture of American defense."

But Bush was viewed as pro-military and unlikely to oversee sweeping change. Yet Rumsfeld has challenged the status quo from many angles, including nuclear deterrence and the U.S. relationship with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

He has outlined a plan to use savings from base closings to modernize such military programs as missile defense and unmanned planes and to streamline procurement systems. The plan has rankled uniformed officers, particularly in the Army, because the threat to reduce the size of their force comes when the United States leads a force in the Persian Gulf of about 180,000 soldiers, most of them American.

In December, Raymond DuBois, the deputy undersecretary of Defense for installations and environment, estimated that the 2005 base closures would cost the Pentagon $10 billion to $20 billion over four to six years. But by 2011, annual savings should reach $6.5 billion, he said.

In the previous four rounds of base closures -- 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995 -- the Pentagon picked 97 major domestic bases for closure and 55 major bases for realignment, which means cuts short of closure. In addition, 235 smaller facilities were closed or realigned.

The elaborate base-closure program was created because shutting down military facilities has stirred such controversy in Congress.

In Pittston Township, Pa., near Wilkes-Barre, Tobyhanna Army Depot supporters are already planing to raise $350,000 in private money to fend off any attempts to shut down the region's largest employer. That base averted cuts in 1995.

In Olympia, Wash., Gov. Gary Locke and state and federal legislators are quietly crafting a plan to shield that state's bases from the closure list.

In Rhode Island, Gov. Donald L. Carcieri and local lawmakers and business leaders have held a series of meetings to form a base-protecting strategy.

And in Florida, an advisory panel appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush agreed to contract the law firm Holland & Knight to hire lobbyists and military experts to defend the state's bases.

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