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Fight Looms Over Base Closing Plan

State officials from the congressional to local levels intend to oppose shutdowns by Pentagon.

October 15, 2003|Richard Simon and Tony Perry | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — California's officials are gearing up to fight a fresh round of base closings that could eliminate scores of military installations across the country in 2005.

Although no list of the next bases to be closed has been put together, members of the California delegation are working to limit the impact of new base closures on the state.

"From California's perspective, God almighty, we gave at the bank more than any other state," said Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Riverside).

Officials fear that several California bases scrutinized in the last round of base closings will be vulnerable. Among them: China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, in the Mojave Desert, and Beale Air Force Base, north of Sacramento. In San Diego, the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command Headquarters, and the submarine fleet's squadron 11 at the Point Loma Naval Base were identified at risk by a consultant to the city.

But California is not the only state preparing to fight back. Others, too, are planning lobbying campaigns to save bases seen as important sources of income and employment.

The political problem facing the Bush administration and Congress, said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based public policy organization, is that "all the low-hanging fruit" has been plucked. This next round of closures, he said, will be painful and come only after a bruising battle.

Of the 97 bases closed between 1988 and 1995, more than 20 facilities were in California, making it the state hardest-hit by the Pentagon's efforts to slash the costs of military infrastructure in this country. Among those closed were the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Orange County and the Long Beach Naval Shipyard. There are now about 60 major military installations in California.

Tim Ransdell, executive director of the California Institute for Federal Policy Research, said that California lost about 100,000 civilian and military jobs in the earlier base closings but still has more than 165,000 personnel on military bases.

"The state suffered many job cuts, but there are plenty more that still could be at risk," he said. "I think Californians are rightfully wary of a new round of base closures."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the earlier rounds of base closings "pretty much decimated" the state. "I would be hopeful that any additional base closures would be confined to other states," she said.

Defense experts have said that the Pentagon could close at least 100 of the nation's 425 military bases.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wants to cut 25% of base capacity, Pentagon insiders say. Because the criteria for the closures have not been written, it remains unclear how "capacity" would be defined. It could be done by a personnel head count, economic output, square footage or -- more likely, military analysts say -- budget.

Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita emphasized that even if outside analysts have estimated the number of bases to be cut, Pentagon officials don't yet have a figure.

"Nobody's looking at numbers of bases," he told reporters Tuesday, when asked about a story published in the Times. "We're looking at capacity, and there are a lot of different ways you can achieve capacity reductions," Di Rita said, noting that many bases could be shrunk rather than closed. Nevertheless, outside analysts put that number at more than 100 of the nation's 425 bases. That number could rise to as high as 150 because smaller bases are considered less efficient and therefore more likely to be cut, said military analyst Thompson.

Under legislation passed by Congress, Rumsfeld is required by May 16, 2005, to prepare a list of bases to be closed or realigned, and the nine-member Base Realignment and Closure Commission must submit its list to the White House by Sept. 8, 2005.

Word of the plan for base closings comes as Bush prepares to meet in California with Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has expressed hope of finding more help from Washington for California's economic troubles.

The state is well positioned in Congress to help fight base closures, with Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) as chairman of the Armed Services Committee and Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) as chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on defense.

In San Diego, which has the largest number of U.S. bases and service personnel of any region in the world, officials have been preparing for months to fight any cutbacks in local bases, installations and commands.

Among other strategies, the city has hired Washington-based defense consultant William J. Cassidy Jr. Cassidy was deputy assistant secretary of defense from 1994 to 2001 and served as the Pentagon's point man in the base closure and realignment process during those years.

In a preliminary report, Cassidy told San Diego officials that the region's major bases -- including Camp Pendleton, Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, North Island Naval Air Station, and the Balboa Medical Center -- appear safe.

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